Margaret D. Jacobs, Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is the author of the Bancroft Prize–winning White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940 (Nebraska, 2009) and Engendered Encounters: Feminism and Pueblo Cultures, 1879–1934 (Nebraska, 1999). Below she discusses writing her new book, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World (Nebraska, 2014).
I first became interested in the widespread historical practice of Indigenous child removal when I carried out research in Australia in 1998, just a year after the Human Rights Commission issued its Bringing Them Home report. The Commission had gathered deeply disturbing testimony from hundreds of Indigenous people – known as the Stolen Generations — who had been forcibly removed from their families to be raised in institutions or non-Indigenous homes. By day, I was sifting through old records of Australian white women reformers in the archives, finding that they were integrally involved in forcibly removing Aboriginal children in the early twentieth century. By night, I was captivated by the ongoing public debates on the Stolen Generations.
Immersing myself in this topic in Australia led me to reflect on American Indian history. I knew that thousands of American Indian children had attended boarding schools far from their homes, primarily from 1880 up to 1940, and I knew that Congress had passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 to stop the adoptive placement of so many American Indian children in non-Indian families. Yet historians had written very little about how American Indian children ended up in boarding schools or non-Indian families.
I wondered if the United States had its own Stolen Generations. Had authorities forcibly removed American Indian children just as they had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia? This led me to a ten-year two-continent research project that resulted first in the publication of White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940.
Now, after five more years of research, A Generation Removed takes up the story after World War II. In this era, authorities continued to remove Indigenous children in North America and Australia, but now they preferred to place children in non-Indigenous families rather than institutions.
In this new book, I wanted to expand my focus into Canada as well, where generations of Indigenous children also experienced involuntary separation from their families. Like Australia, Canada has also initiated official inquiries into its past policies. In 2006 the Canadian government negotiated the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in response to myriad class action lawsuits by residential school survivors who charged physical and sexual abuse in the schools. The Agreement compensated survivors of the schools and set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. New court cases on the removal of First Nations children through the child welfare system and their mistreatment in foster care may lead to further government settlements and inquiries. In the last part of A Generation Removed, I ponder why Australia and Canada have had searching national debates about the forced removal of Indigenous children but the United States has not.
Up until I wrote A Generation Removed, I had been a historian of the turn of the twentieth century. So most of the people I studied were no longer alive. For A Generation Removed many of my historical subjects are very much alive, and it has been gratifying to actually meet many of them. I interviewed social worker Evelyn Blanchard, a Laguna Pueblo and Pascua Yaqui woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico by telephone during two long sessions in September 2012. Later I was lucky to meet Evelyn in person. We agreed to meet in Taos, two hours north of her home and two hours south of where my mother lives in Colorado. One of the restaurant staff where we met snapped this picture for us:
After that we spent about four hours talking about her work for Indian child welfare.
The subject of Indigenous child removal is often painful, but meeting people like Evelyn in the course of researching this book was inspiring and uplifting. I hope A Generation Removed captures both the profoundly troubling nature of Indigenous child removal and the resilient spirits of those like Evelyn who have worked steadfastly for the wellbeing of Indigenous children for decades.
-Margaret D. Jacobs