White Mother to a Dark Race

Jacobs, Margaret D. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and we should honor and acknowledge the resilience of Native peoples in the United States and Canada, as well as Indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, and other places around the world. In Blacksburg, we sit on the homelands of the Tutelo and Monacan peoples; while their story may seem obscured through Virginia Tech’s presence, they are still with us. We are on Native land.

Native resilience and persistence through the on-going structure of settler colonialism demonstrates how groups of people survive and reject erasure by consistent straining efforts by a settler state—be it the U.S., Australia, Canada, etc. I bring this up because Margaret D. Jacobs’s book, White Mother to a Dark Race is a central work which delves into the issues and realities of settler colonialism.

When we think of settler colonialism, or the process by which white Euro-Americans expand their reaches onto stolen Native lands (or lands not upheld by federal treaties), we generally think of federal initiatives (as a top-down thing) set forth by law, policy, and conflict with Indigenous peoples. However, in Jacobs’s book, we see that the pressures to assimilate come from a gendered lens of focus. Also, it shows the “on the ground” efforts to participate in the dispossessing. White women held power as settler states moved west or onto Indigenous lands (in the U.S. or Australia). These women utilized the materialism and motherhood as a tool to construct movements to take Indigenous children from their families as a process of Christianization, assimilation, and also to “erase”—a key idea within the framework of settler colonialism—Native peoples as a means of progress and change.

This comparative study of the United States and Australia demonstrates that this process was happening globally, and is much more than a North American phenomenon. Though she covers the differences between American Indians and Australia’s Aboriginal populations, the main point of the book is clear. Indigenous peoples suffered from the process of colonization, and continue to suffer the on-going—and never-ending—structure of settler colonialism.

One of the key works surrounding settler colonialism is an article produced by Patrick Wolfe in 2006. This article, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” demonstrates how land dispossession is a process which “destroys to replace.” [1] Wolfe’s work draws a distinction between “colonialism” and “settler colonialism” in saying that the latter is about dispossessing people from their land. Settler societies invade a land to remove a native population to rebuild, restructure, and benefit from this “new found” place. One critique of Wolfe’s work is the process by which settler colonialism is more than simply removing Native peoples from their land; it also includes both land dispossession and a benefit from the extraction of resource. Though where Wolfe is correct in all of this is the process by which settler societies construct communities who believe they are racially superior than anyone non-white. This is where Margaret Jacobs’s book comes in handy. One major point to delineate is that the process of land dispossession and assimilation/control over an Indigenous society is much more than a racial phenomenon, but also a gendered one. This book is important in that regard, as she says on page 9, that gender “provide[s] fundamental mechanisms for the reproduction of the group and assertions of identity,” things that were ultimately ignored in previous decades that “marginalized all women and neglected questions of gender” (9).

[1] Patrick Wolfe,” Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2006): 388.