In 1879, the US government launched an expansive effort to restructure Indigenous lives by enrolling Native American children in off-reservation boarding schools. By the early 1900s, a network of federally managed boarding schools emerged across the country to “civilize” Native children. The architects of this system believed they had a mission to uplift and assimilate these children into white society by teaching them English, forbidding the use of Indigenous languages, baptizing them as Christians, and forcing them to adopt white, middle-class values. These schools also functioned as military academies; children were forced to march, participate in drills, and were subjected to violent punishments when they disobeyed their superiors.
Vocational training was also an important part of boarding school life. Students spent half their day in basic academic instruction, and the other half training for menial jobs designed to encourage assimilation and settlement outside of reservations. Vocational training was also based on white supremacist assumptions: federal officials argued that Native children had no aptitude for advanced academic instruction, and should therefore develop practical skills to ensure their economic self-sufficiency.1 For boys, this meant instruction in house painting, carpentry, farming, or blacksmithing, while girls’ training focused on domestic skills: cooking, housekeeping, childcare, and sewing.
Federal officials were especially focused on the girls’ vocational training. As future wives and mothers, graduates were expected to spread the knowledge they acquired at boarding school throughout their communities. Native women were therefore tasked with maintaining idealized nuclear families and encouraging their husbands to work while they kept house and raised children. They were also charged with enforcing domestic practices taught at schools, which meant monitoring family members’ appearances and personal hygiene, requiring the use of English, rather than Native languages, at home, and ensuring the family practiced Christianity. In short, federal officials wanted Indigenous women to force their families and those around them to adopt and maintain white, middle-class standards and to shun their cultures, languages, and values. This training influenced generations of Indigenous people, and impacted almost every aspect of Native women’s lives, including how they experienced pregnancy and childbirth.
“Almost all of Them Will Become Mothers”
Officials at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada, worked diligently to establish successful vocational programs at the school. Stewart opened in December 1890, enrolling citizens from the Washoe, Western Shoshone, and Northern Paiute nations. And as the school’s vocational programs grew, Stewart officials enthusiastically shared their efforts with federal administrators. This was particularly true regarding the instruction of female students.
In December 1916, Stewart Superintendent James B. Royce sent a selection of nursing program exams to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells as proof of Stewart’s success in training female students to care for infants. Royce informed Sells of the school’s intention to provide such training to all older female students because, while not all students would go into the nursing field, “almost all of them will become mothers.”2
Royce submitted five student exams, three of which responded to one set of exam questions, and two answered a second set of questions. The first three students were asked to describe a baby’s first bath, explain how to protect a baby’s eyes from disease, give advice about the ventilation of a baby’s room, and explain what a baby’s first bowel movement and urine might look like.
The language used by the students was remarkably similar in each exam. All three students wrote that new babies must be wrapped in a warm blanket and set by a stove, and that olive oil or Vaseline be used to remove vernix, uniformly referred to as the “cheesy substances.” The students also warned about germs that could blind babies, recommended well ventilated rooms for them to sleep in, described their first bowel movements as resembling tar, and cautioned new mothers to look for “brick dust” in babies’ urine, an indication of dehydration.3
The second set of exam questions addressed pregnant women’s bodies, stages of labor, how a laboring woman’s room should be organized, and the sterilization and preparation of required items during a delivery. Superintendent Royce sent two responses to the Indian Office. As with the other exam papers, they were remarkably similar in their wording. Both students wrote about pregnant women’s darkened areolas and enlarged veins, and identified three stages of labor, ending with the delivery of the afterbirth. They indicated the need for clean, well-ventilated rooms and suggested that dirty walls, as well as the delivery bed, be covered by newspapers. The students also asserted, verbatim, that a pregnant woman should “dress simple” and that her clothing “hang from the shoulder down” and be worn with “low heel shoes.” Both also wrote that one dozen sterilized sheets and one half-dozen sterilized pillow cases were required for a birth.4
“A Great Amount of Good … Among the Indian Women of Today”
In his letter to the Indian Affairs Commissioner, Royce wrote that the ideas expressed in the girls’ exam papers “are their own” and demonstrated all they learned about caring for pregnant women and babies. However, the fact that the students repeatedly used the same words and phrases in their answers suggests that emphasis was placed on memorization rather than independent thinking. Further, students did not learn how to anticipate the needs of laboring women or the doctors assisting them, or how to use their personal judgment or experiences to respond in various situations. Rather, their instruction focused solely on the physical observations they could make about pregnant women, babies, and the environments in which they worked. Based on federal views of Native students’ competence, the training offered these students seems to reflect school officials’ attitudes about the limited intellectual capabilities of Native Americans. Students could thus be trusted to report what they saw, but little else, and could not handle more complicated tasks related to labor or childbirth.
The assimilationist objectives of the school also influenced the scope of Stewart’s nursing program. As Superintendent Royce noted, nursing training presented an opportunity to teach young women non-Native practices related to childbirth and motherhood. The nursing program was thus used to inculcate western ideals of cleanliness, medical practice, and femininity. It therefore makes sense that female students’ instruction focused on dressing appropriately while pregnant, ensuring a clean environment before and after giving birth, and how to clean and care for newborns. As these exams demonstrate, school officials presented a vision of pregnancy and motherhood that concentrated on where women should give birth and how to present themselves, rather than investing in Native women’s potential careers or incorporating aspects of Indigenous cultural practices connected with childbirth. And if female students absorbed, employed, and shared these lessons within their Native communities, US officials believed they could succeed in permanently reshaping Indigenous families, down to their pregnancy and birthing practices.
As far as the Indian Office was concerned, Stewart officials were successfully implementing its policies. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Sells wrote that he read the student papers with “much satisfaction,” and added that the school’s program ensured “a great amount of good will be indirectly accomplished among the Indian women of today.” He added that the young women currently enrolled in nursing courses would “profit” from them in later years, presumably when they had children of their own and could apply their training.5
Whether these nursing students “profited” from their training is largely unknowable. It is evident, however, that such programs still influence Native motherhood and childcare practices, often in negative ways. Native women in the US are routinely forced to give birth in Indian Health Service hospitals, even if they are located far from their homes and families. These facilities are chronically underfunded and understaffed, and the women who use them frequently unhappy with their quality of care. Statistics regarding maternal and infant mortality underscore their concerns: Indigenous women in the US are more than four times as likely to die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth-related complications than white women, and their infants almost twice as likely to die in their first year of life as white infants.6
Aware of these issues, growing numbers of Native women are training as midwives, while others are opening birthing centers on tribal lands or forming organizations, such as the Changing Women Initiative, to reclaim tribal birthing practices and empower pregnant women.7 Such programs demonstrate that, despite their best efforts, boarding school officials did not succeed in erasing Indigenous practices related to pregnancy and motherhood. Instead, these Native women are determined to make this knowledge accessible to Indigenous mothers across the US.
- Office of Indian Affairs, “Rules for the Indian School Service, 1904; Extracts from Official Circulars,” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904), Box 1, General Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, RG 75; National Archives and Records Building, Washington, DC. Return to text.
- Stewart Indian School, Pre-Vocational Nursing Papers. Central Classified Files – Carson, 1916. Box 100, Folder 13. General Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, RG 75; National Archives and Records Building, Washington, DC. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Urban Indian Health Institute, “National Aggregate of Urban Indian Health Program Service Areas,” (October 2016); and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Infant Mortality Rates by Ethnicity, 2016.” Return to text.
- Sarah Van Gelder, “For Native Mothers, a Way to Give Birth That Overcomes Trauma,” Yes!, May 24, 2017 (Accessed February 13, 2020); and Mary Annette Pember, “The Midwives’ Resistance: How Native Women Are Reclaiming Birth on Their Terms,” Rewire News (Accessed February 13, 2020). Return to text.