Rose Stremlau: History’s Definition of an American Family

We welcome a guest post from Rose Stremlau, author of Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the federal government sought to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into American society through systematized land allotment. Stremlau illuminates the impact of this policy on the Cherokee Nation, particularly within individual families and communities in modern-day northeastern Oklahoma. In this post she demonstrates that the nuclear family based on a monogamous heterosexual couple was not the only model for family kinship among America’s earliest families.–ellen

This piece is crossposted at


“The family is God’s unit of society.”–Merrill E. Gates, philanthropist and educator, in an 1878 report for the Office of Indian Affairs

As the US gears up for the 2012 election, the composition of an appropriate family according to the law will remain a hot topic. While the New York legislature debated whether to recognize same-sex marriages, a spectrum of opposition emerged that attempted to universalize definitions of marriage and family. In a blog post entitled “Marriage: The Core of Every Civilization,” Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, asserted that the “most basic, accepted, revealed truth [is] that marriage simply means one man + one woman + (hopefully) children.” Dolan maintains that “History, Natural Law, the Bible (if you’re so inclined), the religions of the world, human experience, and just plain gumption tell us this is so. The definition of marriage is hardwired into our human reason.”

Despite Dolan’s assertions, the majority of human civilizations across time and place have not organized themselves into nuclear family units based on monogamous, heterosexual coupling. Native North American societies provide hundreds of alternative examples. For example, for the Cherokee Nation in what is today northeastern Oklahoma, matrilineal, extended families remained customary even as Cherokees adopted some elements of Anglo-American culture into their own. Cherokee people lived in large, extended family groups comprised of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins whose presence was valued equally with that of spouses, siblings, and children. Women, especially elders, made decisions regarding the use of resources and property for the group and were primary care-givers for their grandchildren. Over time, white Americans found this lack of male authority increasingly troubling.

In fact, by the late nineteenth century, many well-meaning, educated, and powerful Anglo-Americans saw the perpetuation of extended tribal groupings and women’s authority in the face of assimilationist policies as a national crisis. They believed the federal government must act to reform Indian families because, as philanthropist and educator Merrill E. Gates commented in an 1878 report for the Office of Indian Affairs, “The family is God’s unit of society. On the integrity of the family depends that of the state.” Because most Indian families were not organized around one heterosexual married couple but around extended kin groups, Gates and his fellow reformers considered them to be sources of social instability that threatened American society. Such “reformers” concluded that Indian people would only survive in modern society by assimilating and assuming the gender roles idealized by middle-class, white Americans.

These advocates of assimilation theorized that common title to land and resources discouraged Indian people from living in nuclear families. Reformers proposed a policy called allotment, which entailed the subdivision and privatization of tribal resources among nuclear families headed by adult males. Although access to Indian land was an issue for many interested parties, the allotment laws passed were not just vehicles for a land grab: they were tools for state intervention in the private lives of a marginalized group by imposing the “order” of nuclear families onto the perceived “chaos” of Cherokee family structure.

Assimilationists did not intend for allotment to undermine the ability of Indian people to survive in their communities, but it did just that. According to Chad Smith, Cherokee political leader and scholar, between the 1880s and 1930s, Cherokee families lost over 90% of their land. The legalized theft of Indian resources was facilitated by reformers’ stigmatization of traditional Cherokee ways of living in the name of family values and civilization.

Heterosexual marriage is one way that human beings have formed their families. Other families exist based on different kinds of ties among human beings who love and care for each other. The state has an interest in enabling people to provide for their dependents with stability and in dignity. Does it have a right to mandate who those people are? Is a grandmother less of a loving, fit parent than a biological mother? A hundred years ago, white reformers thought so in their dealings with Cherokee people, and authoritative voices in our society still articulate this view, against history and in opposition to people they supposedly want to incorporate into their standard of civilization.

When we define what it means to be a family and fix our definitions to particular views about morality that are relatively recent and hardly universal, we need to be specific that we speak for ourselves in our own time. History has a much more diverse definition of what it means to be an American family.

Rose Stremlau is assistant professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and author of Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation.