"You Think It Strange That I Can Love an Indian"; Native Men, White Women, and Marriage in the Indian Service

By Cahill, Cathleen D. | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June-September 2008 | Go to article overview

"You Think It Strange That I Can Love an Indian"; Native Men, White Women, and Marriage in the Indian Service


Cahill, Cathleen D., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


The history of intermarriage between whites and American Indians is a half-told tale. Scholars have produced an impressive body of work on the political and economic benefits that accrued from pairings between white men and Native women, but the literature on relationships between Native men and white women remains sparse. (2) Studies focusing on unions between white men and Native women are often situated on frontiers where whites accepted the relationships (if sometimes grudgingly), particularly when the couples remained outside of white society. Relationships between white women and Indian men, by contrast, were more deeply interwoven into the fabric of white society because of white women's symbolic importance as the moral centers of American civilization. Through their marriages, Native husbands became "Indians in unexpected places," in the homes of white women and therefore in the bosom of white society. Such relationships also stand in striking contrast to the contemporaneous violence perpetrated against black men in the American South over the smallest threat that they might cross the sexual color line. (3)

The few historians who have considered intermarriage between Native men and white women have noted that late-nineteenth-century theories of assimilation contributed to these relationships. Margaret Jacobs has used a comparison of two interracial marriages to establish an important framework for understanding the shifts in America's racial ideologies at the turn of the century. Although Jacobs' evidence is limited to two relationships--she relies on one couple to stand for each phase in racial thinking--she urges scholars to look for more. More recently, Katherine Ellinghaus has uncovered evidence of other such couples. Focusing primarily on male students who attended the eastern off-reservation boarding schools of Hampton, Virginia, and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she recognizes that the schools' curricula encouraged the marriages. (4)

This article demonstrates that there were more of these relationships than historians have suspected, and that the federal government played a significant role--both bureaucratically and ideologically--in orchestrating them. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the federal government's strategies for changing Indian societies tacitly encouraged interracial marriage. To implement its assimilation policies the Federal Indian Service, the workforce of the Office of Indian Affairs, hired large numbers of whites and Indians who came to know each other as a result of their employment. Moreover, the rhetoric administrators used to describe the government's assimilation policy offered both white women and Native men compelling reasons to believe that their personal relationships had wider social and political implications. In particular, policymakers emphasized that the household model and family relationships were engines of social change that would bring Indians into the citizenry. This rhetoric led some white women to see marriage to Indian men as a logical extension of assimilation policy. This article also addresses some of Ellinghaus's conclusions. Her comparative study of the United States and Australia suggests that the experience of American interracial couples compared favorably with those in Australia. In particular, she emphasizes the American couples' ability to attain middle-class status. While some American Indian men at the turn of the century were able to achieve middle-class status, my findings indicate that this status was hard won, incomplete, and often contested by whites. (5)

These ideas also speak to broader theoretical issues in the study of colonialism. Anthropologist Ann Stoler has examined familial and sexual relationships as key aspects of larger imperial projects. In particular, she has emphasized "intimate colonialism," which she defines as "the production and harnessing of sentiment as a technology of the state." (6) Stoler has urged historians to explore "intimate sites of implementation"--that is, relationships between colonial agents and the colonized--in order to see this technology at work. …

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