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Household employment for young Indian women differed from that of other domestic servants in several key ways. First, they had not journeyed across the Atlantic or Pacific or trudged across a national border in search of wage labor; nor had they been freed from human bondage only to be enlisted into the lowest rungs of the American economy. Instead it was the colonization of their land and the subsequent federal Indian policy of assimilation that drove young Indian women into domestic service.
Second, employment of young Indian women by white families became more than a private labor transaction between employer and employee; the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) envisioned such employment as a central component of its assimilation policy. From 1880 up to the 1930s, as part of this policy, the BIA had removed thousands of Indian children to boarding schools. Many of the schools developed what came to be called “outing” programs, ostensibly to aid in the children’s assimilation, which placed the children for part of each day and usually for entire summers with local families. Boys were usually set to work doing farm labor, while girls were to be employed in domestic service within the home. Even while in school, much of the education Indian children received revolved around training them for such menial positions, a process officials often characterized as making them “useful.” Enlisting white women employers in the project of “uplifting” and “civilizing” young Indian women made white women’s households more than private homes or workplaces; they became domestic frontiers where colonial relationships continued to play themselves out. As in other colonies around the world, this intimate setting became a significant site for the reproduction and performance of colonial relationships.
Third, the figure of the outing matron—an agent of the BIA—complicated the simple bilateral relationship between white woman employer and Indian servant. By employing outing matrons to oversee the employment of Indian girls and young women within urban households, the BIA attempted to maintain strict control over the young Indian women and to ensure that the white households in which they were employed provided the uplifting environment necessary to the servants’ assimilation. Outing matrons in the San Francisco Bay Area compiled copious files from the 1920s through the 1940s on each young Indian woman that they placed in service, a record of documentation that suggests the intense surveillance and scrutiny under which the Indian servants lived and labored.
Interestingly, however, the records also reveal the ways in which these Indian servants partially evaded the BIA’s tight control over them. Young Indian women often refused to be wedged into their assigned roles of obliging servants and rejected attempts to “uplift” them. In hundreds of small acts on a daily basis, young Indian women like Opal asserted their own independence and agendas, chipping away at the façade of colonial hierarchy and order. Most of the young Indian women servants also cast aside or simply ignored the strict Victorian-era sexual codes and gender norms that the BIA promoted in its boarding schools. Instead they appear to have maintained their own indigenous communities’ norms regarding gender and sexuality while embracing the modern gender sensibilities of the city as well.
Ultimately, the state failed in its mission to assimilate young Indian women— that is, less euphemistically, to separate them from their indigenous communities and make them useful, as domestic servants, in the colonizers’ economy. Ironically, many young Indian women used the state’s agent—the outing matron—as a mediator in conflicts with their employers. Moreover most young Indian women apparently engaged in domestic service for just a short period of their lives—as part of a patchwork of economic strategies and perhaps as a youthful adventure—before returning to their reservations and rancherias. Nevertheless, if the state fell short of its goal to assimilate the young women, it still maintained some of its authority over the young women, particularly through asserting control over the children that many young Indian women bore while in service. Thus, as in the more visible conflicts over land and labor between colonizers and indigenous Californians, the domestic frontier also proved to be a site of ongoing tension, instability, and constant negotiation.