Encouraging selfishness on the reservation: An excerpt from Cahill’s Federal Fathers & Mothers

In Federal Fathers & Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869-1933, author Cathleen D. Cahill looks at policies implemented by the U.S. Indian Service in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The following excerpt reveals how the roles created by Women’s National Indian Association encouraged assimilation into American culture by pushing for a selfishness and desire for acquiring material things to achieve a more Americanized domestic life.  Note: This excerpt (from pages 47-50 in the book) includes footnotes, which you can view by clicking on the number in brackets; a popup window with the footnote text will appear.-Alex

On the Reservations

…To help wives learn their responsibilities within the household, the Indian Office established the position of field matron. “What the farmer does for the Indian men,” one commissioner stated, “the field matron accomplishes for the Indian women.” It was the matron’s job, another proclaimed, “to perform the numberless duties and services which transform a house into a home.” This program, created in 1890, was new to the assimilation period. It grew out of the maternalist insistence of the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA) that assimilation would not prevail without a program aimed at helping Native women adjust to their new domestic roles. Notably, the Office of Indian Affairs took recommendations from the WNIA for staffing the first positions.[1][ . . . ]

Field matrons were expected to offer support to returning boarding-school students by providing white maternal models on the reservations. When Merial Dorchester, special agent in the Indian School Service and wife of the superintendent of Indian schools, described the field matron program, she combined concern for the former students with a negative image of their mothers. To her, field matrons offered the kind of support that Indian women could not: “Often all that an Indian girl needs to keep her pure and true is to know that near her is a kind-hearted white woman ready with sympathy, advice, and help.”[2][ . . . ]

Reformers and policy makers fetishized commodities beyond their practical and motivational functions.[3] They believed that the mere presence of goods could inspire changes in behavior and sensibility. They argued that like a conversion process, the interaction of Native people with commodities would lead miraculously to a new way of living. Many of their examples portrayed Native women transformed by the presence of the goods in their homes. The most striking instance of this came from Mrs. Sarah Kinney, president of the Connecticut Indian Association (an auxiliary of the WNIA). She argued that it was the influence of a “decent home” with its particularly furnished domestic spaces that inspired change in one Native family.

This woman was naturally lazy, shiftless, untidy and disorderly. Her husband, somewhat more fastidious, wished her to be neat and cleanly; to live and dress more like white people, and to make “white woman’s bread.” To all these she seriously objected. She did not like white people, nor their ways, and she would have none of them. It finally occurred to this man to enlarge his house, to add on a kitchen, to buy a new stove, and then to watch for the effect. . . . For a time the woman seemed perplexed by this unusual magnificence. . . . But the right influence had reached her at last. She soon began to feel disturbed because of grease spots on the new pine floor, and a scrubbing brush was brought into requisition. Then, of course, she began to notice the difference between the clean floor and her own face, hands, and clothing. The scrubbing brush was again called for and worked wonders along those lines. By degrees she has lost many of her slovenly ways, and at last accounts she was learning to make “white woman’s bread.” Here, then, is an instance of one Indian woman who has been civilized through the medium of a pine floor and a scrubbing brush.[4]

[ . . . ]

But more important, goods had an influence beyond a practical pedagogical function: they could inspire emulation. As Indians began to work, earn money, and accumulate property, policy makers hoped their example would create feelings of envy that would encourage other Indians to work toward assimilation as well. Reformers maintained that successful examples of people with purchasing power would create discontent among those Indians who had not yet converted to ideas of production and consumption. They celebrated cases in which industrious Indians converted their “backward” neighbors to the ways of the market. [ . . . ]

Policy makers also argued that the Indians were not selfish enough, characterizing them as too generous and wholly lacking a desire to accumulate possessions. Certainly, many Native cultures were based on gift giving, and ties were cemented through those gifts; likewise, kinship obligations often required that people share among their families. Moreover, in the high-poverty communities of reservations, resources had to be shared to ensure survival.[5] But this giving away of goods and resources frustrated policy makers because it undermined Indians’ ability to accumulate capital and thus increase investments or improve land. If basic necessities such as food and clothing were always shared, reformers reasoned, how could a greater participation in production and consumption be ingrained? One Lake Mohonk Conference speaker used a basic example to make this point: “An Indian woman in the old life would never keep two shawls. If she came into possession of more than one, she would divide with her more needy neighbor.”[6][ . . . ]

One obvious answer to this dilemma was to make the Indians acquisitive. In 1886, for example, the commissioner of Indian affairs urged that “[the Indian] must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.'”[7] They strongly encouraged Native men to go forth and participate in a modern and fully competitive market economy: “We must make the Indian more intelligently selfish. . . . By acquiring property, man puts forth his personality and lays hold of matter by his own thought and will.”[8]

Even as policy makers encouraged this selfishness, however, they betrayed considerable ambivalence about it. After all, it sat in tension with their other goal of instilling Christianity in Native people. One speaker at the Lake Mohonk Conference encapsulated the problem: “The Indian is instinctively generous. . . . Of course we must develop the desire for possession, . . . [b]ut, in doing this, we must not crush out this natural instinct of generosity. It is to be directed in [the] wise and wholesome channels of civilization and Christianity.”[9]

Policy makers resolved this conundrum by returning once again to their family ideal. As Merrill Gates of the Board of Indian Commissioners asserted: “It is chiefly the affections and interests of family life that take out of this desire for gain its debasing element, its utter selfishness.”[10] A major component of “civilized” manhood was a man’s support of his dependents. Therefore, if a man was selfish for the benefit of his family, his behavior was virtuous. Of course, the success of this strategy depended on keeping people from sharing excessively with their friends and relatives. But policy makers continued to hope that even the smallest evidences of material goods could spark the desire that would lead Indians into production and consumption.[11]

From FEDERAL FATHERS AND MOTHERS: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES INDIAN SERVICE, 1869-1933 by Cathleen D. Cahill. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]47. ARBIC 1885, 126.
  2. [2]50. Pierce attended the Lake Mohonk Conference in 1886, 1887, 1888, 1892, and 1894. “Edward Lillie Pierce,” Dictionary of American Biography, 575@-76; and Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction.
  3. [3]53. Pierce also appeared. Strieby and Morgan are described as “very important to this study.” McPherson, Abolitionist Legacy, appendix A.
  4. [4]54. LMC 1886, 42.
  5. [5]62. Jackson, A Century of Dishonor (1885), 24.
  6. [6]63. ARBIC 1885, 92.
  7. [7]65. See Adams, Education for Extinction, 36@-90. On Reconstruction, see Foner, Reconstruction; Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction; and Jones, Soldiers of Light and Love.
  8. [8]66. LMC 1886, 27@-28.
  9. [9]67. Between 1848 and 1854, Dorothea Dix petitioned Congress to provide land to be sold for the relief and institutionalization of poor insane citizens. The bill passed Congress, but President Pierce vetoed it, arguing that it would be unconstitutional for government to become “the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States.” Jensen, Patriots, Settlers, 12.
  10. [10]68. LMC 1886, 47.
  11. [11]68. LMC 1886, 47.