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Unsettling Domesticity: Native Women and 20th-Century U.S. Indian Policy in the San Francisco Bay Area


My dissertation centers the experiences of Native women who negotiated the oppressive conditions of outing programs designed to assimilate them through gendered labor. Established by the U.S. federal government as an extension of boarding school policy, the Bay Area Outing Program contracted Native women and girls to work as domestic laborers in private homes as part of the U.S. government’s “civilizing mission.” Scholars have largely focused on boarding school labor. My study examines the Bay Area Outing Program, an off-campus labor program that proliferated from these institutions. It asks: Within the confines of domestic labor, how did Native women comply, resist and negotiate their circumstances? What was the Bay Area Outing Program’s impact on Native families in community contexts? To answer these questions, I closely analyze Bureau of Indian Affairs records at NARA San Bruno, NARA Washington D.C. and special collections at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, including letters from concerned parents of outing girls and women advocating for commensurate wages. I analyze these alongside primary sources including California Indian indenture policy, boarding school curricula, and early 20th-century Bay Area newspaper articles. Theoretically, I situate the program within California’s long colonial history of Indian labor exploitation, and I center Native women’s resistance within a framework of settler colonialism.

At the heart of my study are Native women’s voices uncovered from the archive. I use qualitative data analysis software to examine more than 4,000 outing-related documents. My sources reveal that Native women challenged their liminal standing and resisted outing in various ways including fighting for wages, running away and fighting to keep their children. The chapters of my dissertation chronicle a history of gendered, racialized labor and its effects on Native women and their families; I show how Native women navigated a system of oppression and reworked into these systems, potential and possibility. Chapter 1 traces national and California-based Indian labor and education policies from the 19th and 20th-centuries analyzing how and why Native bodies were used for settlement. I illuminate the connections between these eras and argue that the “domestication” of Native peoples was integral to the settler colonial project. Chapter 2 brings the reader into the world of the Outing Program capturing the daily experiences of Native women, tracing the good and the bad—subpar working conditions, surveillance, low wages, grueling schedules as well as women’s vibrant social lives in the diverse Bay Area and the growing Indian community. Chapter 3 uncovers Native women’s discontent and criminalization by tracing runaways and those incarcerated in detention homes. In these instances, I show that Native women refused to perform and reproduce social and sexual norms mandated by Matrons, their employers and the Outing Program as a whole. Chapter 4 expands the focus to the Indian family to analyze how outing mothers and their relatives fought the program’s practice of Indian child removal and adoption. Through close analysis of powerful and painful case files I argue that diverted mothering was a prevailing feature of the Bay Area Outing Program and pre-dated midcentury Indian adoptions programs.

This research expands the scholarship on labor in U.S. colonization, and documents the essential and understudied intersection of gender and labor in the assimilationist project. My research departs from existing outing scholarship, which has focused on the 1930s era and white women Outing Matrons. Instead, I situate the program within a longer history of Indian servitude in California and center Native women’s experiences, thus enriching this labor history with voices that challenge the notion of Native women as passive subjects. Moreover, my analysis of Indian child labor mandates and the state’s creation of an artificial labor market reconceptualizes the California story and establishes a significant connection between 19th-century Indian labor practices and 20th-century outing programs. Also, in contrast to scholarship that argues such labor programs dissolve after the 1934 Indian “New Deal,” I demonstrate a prolific outing regime that existed into the 1940s, well beyond the ostensible end of the assimilation era. Finally, outing in the Bay Area provides insight into the creation of the intertribal Bay Area Indian Community. In this way, my project contributes to emerging scholarship on the history of Native California and the ways it broadly challenges our understanding of Native American history. “Unsettling Domesticity” deepens the outing story.

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