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Published in ONE STEP OVER THE LINE: TOWARD A HISTORY OF WOMEN IN THE NORTH AMERICAN WESTS, edited by Elizabeth Jameson & Sheila McManus (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008). Copyright 2008 Margaret Jacobs. Used by permission.


A rich historiography has accumulated regarding American Indian boarding schools and the experience of Indian children within them. Western women's historians have also studied many white women who were involved in efforts to advocate for American Indians. Yet, in general, these two historiographical tracks have developed along parallel lines without intersecting. This essay argues, however, that white women were integrally involved in the removal of American Indian children to boarding schools and that their involvement implicated them in one of the most cruel, yet largely unexamined, policies of colonialism within the American West. Through a politics of maternalism, many white women reformers claimed for themselves the role of a "Great White Mother" who would save her benighted Indian "daughters.'" Ironically, however, while these reformers venerated motherhood in their political discourse, they often failed to respect the actual mothering done by many native women. Instead, many reformers portrayed American Indian women as unfit mothers whose children had to be removed from their homes and communities to be raised properly by white women within institutions. And as white women articulated a sense of difference between themselves and native women as mothers, they helped to construct racial ideologies that deemed Indian peoples to be in need of "civilization" by their white benefactors. Thus, much of white women's advocacy for Indians in the West ultimately reinforced the very racial notions that contributed to the ongoing colonization of native peoples in the region.

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