Cathleen D. Cahill’s groundbreaking new work, Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869-1933 (UNC Press, 2011), lives up to the title: it is a social history in the best sense of the term. Paying close attention to the people who carried out federal Indian policy “on the ground,” Cahill uncovers a world of ambivalence, hubris and resistance in the usually monolithic story of Westward expansion and forced assimilation.
Cahill introduces us to fascinating characters like Minnie Braithwaite, a daughter of Virginia’s upper class, who defied her family’s wishes and headed out West and “teach the Indian.” And then there’s Esther Burnett Horne, a Shoshone woman fought colonialism even as she worked as an instructor for the Indian Service. “I wanted to provide [my students] with the same security and sense of self that my Indian teachers…had instilled in me,” she wrote. Indeed, the role of American Indian labor in the Indian Service is one of the most surprising and important chapters in Cahill’s work.
While Cahill carefully describes the details of federal policy (the “intimate colonialism” which characterized so much of the Indian Service’s work), she does not eschew bigger questions. By placing the Indian Service in the broader narrative of American political development, Cahill emphasizes the centrality of the federal assimilation campaign to the creation of the modern American welfare state. In Federal Fathers and Mothers, Cahill has balanced micro and macro and, in so doing, realized much of the promise of social history.