A Generation Removed: The Fostering & Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World by Margaret D. Jacobs (University of Nebraska Press), 360 pages

Margaret D. Jacobs, author of the award-winning White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940, has now focused her scholarship on the Indian Adoption Project and the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in A Generation Removed: The Fostering & Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World.

Between the Civil War and World War II, generations of Indian children were forced into boarding schools run by the U.S. government and Christian missionaries. The schools were established expressly to assimilate Indian children into Anglo culture while attempting to eradicate Indian culture. Students were indoctrinated to embrace personal-property ownership, material wealth, Christian spirituality, and small families. Children grew up lonely and confused — and often abused — in the schools, torn from their parents at young ages and made to live without the comfort and solace of family as well as forbidden from speaking their Native languages or wearing their own clothes. They were given new “white” names, and the boys’ long hair was hacked off. But the children did not abandon their cultures.

By the 1940s, this intense disruption of normal childhood and community life had taken a toll on many families, often because people became parents without having been raised by parents; they had no examples to follow. And traumatized children often become traumatized adults. Because Indian children are traditionally raised by many family members, in the absence of a birth parent, children living on a reservation could be cared for by grandparents or aunts and uncles. But the government and Christian missionaries set the official standards for what constituted acceptable child care, and the village model didn’t fit their ideal. Nor did poverty or single motherhood, neither of which carried any stigma among Indians. 

The boarding schools had become a financial strain on government resources, and it was clear that sending children to such places only perpetuated problems on the reservations. The government, therefore, set its sights on total assimilation through the termination of Indian tribal recognition and by getting white families to foster and adopt Indian children. Adoption, it was thought, solved all the problems boarding schools could not and transferred costs to adoptive families.

In the 1950s, social workers pressured unmarried Indian women — and unmarried women of all races in America — to give up their babies. Indian women were characterized as unwilling or unable to raise their own children. White families — many of whom were acting on well-intentioned but misguided “color-blind” liberalism, adopting Native children as an act of reconciliation — bought into various negative ideas perpetuated by the book’s villain, Arnold Lyslo, director of the Indian Adoption Project, or IAP. 

To promote its agenda, the IAP claimed a lack of hope, joy, and intellectual and creative stimulation on the reservations. As time went on, “lack of stimulation” was an amorphous reason used by social workers for removing even older children from Indian families and giving them to white parents. Christian missionaries sometimes simply took children they felt weren’t being raised right and claimed the children had been abandoned. In an effort to convince more white families that Native children needed rescue, Indians were portrayed as incurable alcoholics, a stereotype that has endured. To refute this, Jacobs cites the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which shows that Native Americans drink comparatively less than white Americans and are more likely to abstain altogether. 

In the 1970s, Indian children were 22 percent more likely to be in foster care and 19 percent more likely to be adopted out of their families of origin than white children, according to Jacobs’ research. Factoring in boarding-school enrollments, approximately 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were living apart from their families. At the instigation of many activists, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, transferring jurisdiction over fostering and adoption to tribal governments. It’s the law that recently received so much attention in the Baby Veronica custody case, in which a Cherokee father contested a white family’s adoption of his daughter, whose birth mother was Hispanic.

Though the book is densely academic, it is written with enough clarity and vigor to be interesting to more casual readers. For those familiar with the issues surrounding the adoption of Indian children by white families, the book is a fine compendium of case studies illuminating the practice of removal, the people who promoted it, the supposed moral authority they used to justify taking thousands of children from their families, and the courage of individuals who fought back. For readers unaware of the massive campaign for assimilation, A Generation Removed will likely be a searing eye-opener, and many of the damaging narratives and stereotypes about Indians rampant in popular culture will gain context. There are also chapters on indigenous fostering and adoption in Canada and Australia, which gives a broader international picture of the goal and price of assimilation.