Meet the Historian: An Interview with Margaret Jacobs

Margaret Jacobs (Ph.D. University of California, Davis) is the Graduate Chair and Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her latest work, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Dr. Jacobs chats with Erstwhile’s Alessandra Link about a variety of topics, including the significance of a transnational approach to Indigenous history and her decision to write from a first-person perspective.

Margaret Jacob's latest work

Margaret Jacob’s latest work, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of  Indigenous Children in the Postwar World 

Erstwhile Blog: In the introduction, you stress that the history of the Indian child welfare crisis is a complicated one, full of competing narratives. “The moral of this story,” you explain, “depends on who is telling the story” (Jacobs, xxviii). Did you find it difficult to draw out a central historical argument while also being attentive to the varied perspectives on this issue? What advice would you give to scholars who wrestle with similarly complex/fraught histories?

Margaret Jacobs: In truth, I had the opposite problem. I found it difficult at first to, as you put it, to be “attentive to the varied perspectives on this issue,” while “draw[ing] out a central historical argument.” I approached this topic from a number of years of researching and writing about Indigenous histories, not the histories of child welfare and adoption. I had a strong opinion about the practice of fostering and adopting out Indigenous children when I began my research and writing. As I learned more of the varied experiences and perspectives on the issue, I wanted to find a way to do justice to those diverse positions. At the same time, however, I still wanted to make a strong argument about the big picture – the origins, ubiquity, legacy, and transnational nature of the Indigenous child removal — that is so often left out of news stories that focus on individual cases of fostering and adoption.  

EB: A Generation Removed not only adds an important postwar chapter to the longer history of Indigenous child removal, but it also asks readers to re-think the fight for Indigenous self-determination in the 1960s and 70s. It integrates the grassroots and political organizing in support of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) into existing histories of postwar Native American activism. How does this change our understanding of self-determination in the postwar period?

 MJ: When I began my research I had no idea that I would be getting into the subject of Indigenous self-determination. I learned, though, of all the amazing Indigenous people, primarily women, who were working in their communities to develop programs to strengthen and support Indigenous families and prevent the removal of children. Many of these community activists became involved in the campaign for an Indian Child Welfare Act in the U.S. I also learned how crucial the Association on American Indian Affairs (or the AAIA) was to this battle – even though the core staff members who worked on the issue were non-Native. So this became part of the story and part of the contribution this book makes to scholarship on Indian self-determination movements. I find that most of this scholarship is focused on militant male activism in the Red Power movement. My research shows a less visible but incredibly effective and influential movement of mostly women who worked tirelessly in their communities, and eventually in networks with one another, to confront the child welfare crisis. For them, reclaiming the care of Indigenous children within their own families and communities was key to true Indigenous self-determination.

EB: You insert yourself as a character in this story, often detailing the meticulous detective work involved with this project. What prompted your decision to narrate some of this story from your perspective? Is this an approach future historians should consider as they sit down to make sense of their research?

MJ: I inserted myself into the book for several reasons. First I find it difficult to write about such emotionally potent issues while maintaining an academic aloofness. Writing this history was not just an intellectual exercise but a deeply moving emotional experience that stretched me as a scholar and as a person.

Second, from a more theoretical and explicitly feminist perspective, I wanted to write a new kind of history that breaks down the barrier between the observer and the observed and implicitly critiques the notion that a scholar is an all-knowing and objective spectator. Rather than discussing the theory behind this, however, in an arcane introduction, I just wanted to write in this manner. I do not like the highly theoretical way in which many feminist scholars discuss their “subject position.” I wanted to experiment in this book (and White Mother) with revealing my subjectivity through personal narrative.

Third, I wanted to reveal to the reader some of the behind-the-scenes detective work that goes into being a historian. Readers rarely get a sense of all the labor that goes into writing a coherent narrative from the fragments of history. For me, this work is really thrilling and I wanted to convey that sense to readers. (I harbor naïve hopes that it may get people excited about becoming historians.) Plus, in researching this particular book, I had so many moments of complete serendipity that I simply had to share them. It’s that feeling a historian has in the archives when she finds something that suddenly explains everything, and she wants to jump up and down and tell perfect strangers about it.

Do I think future historians should consider this approach? Yes! It is the kind of history I want to read. It is risky of course, because it could become simply self-indulgent to include our own narratives. We don’t want our personal narratives to overshadow the history we are telling, and we don’t want our personal investment in the history to compromise our scholarly rigor. And then of course a PhD student’s dissertation supervisor might not approve.

Photo courtesy of Margaret  Jacobs

Photo courtesy of Margaret Jacobs

EB: As with your previous work, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (2009), you weave postwar adoption and foster care into a larger, transnational story. In A Generation Removed this transnational approach highlights just how far behind the United States is in acknowledging and confronting this dark chapter in the nation’s history. Do you find that more studies in Indigenous history could benefit from a transnational perspective? What are some of the difficulties (if any) associated with engaging in transnational work?

MJ: I do believe that a transnational approach can add an important dimension to many Indigenous histories. Often it shows larger global patterns that can enrich a scholar’s understanding of the local history she or he is studying.   I think writers of American Indian history (and western American history) can get snared in narratives of American history that limit our analysis. Leapfrogging over the national framework to global, comparative, and transnational approaches can open up new lines of inquiry and interpretation. This was true for me with White Mother. Operating within a purely American historical framework – that focused on Indian boarding schools within the narrative of Indian education – I would never have conceived of the schools within the Australian narrative of Stolen Generations, of Indigenous child removal. My encounter with Australian scholarship on institutions for Aboriginal children jolted me into asking new questions about Indian boarding schools. For me it was very inspiring.

That being said, there are several dangers associated with transnational work:

First, a focus on big patterns can eclipse the unique histories of small groups of Indigenous people. We don’t want transnational and comparative histories to contribute to the longstanding trend of erasing Indigenous histories.

Second, it takes a great deal of time and commitment to develop fluency in the secondary literature and familiarity with archival and other sources outside one’s primary field. Thus I rarely recommend a comparative or transnational topic as a first project or as a dissertation. It is a practice and approach that is more suitable once a scholar is already steeped within one body of scholarship in one particular context.

EB: A Generation Removed is a moving piece of writing. Do you have any writing tips you might be willing to share with graduate students/aspiring writers? 

MJ: I love to think about and talk about writing. Ironically, it’s hard to convey writing tips through writing. I find that it’s more rewarding to work with graduate students and other aspiring writers in small workshops where we read and discuss one another’s work.

One thought on “Meet the Historian: An Interview with Margaret Jacobs

  1. Pingback: Indigenous History with Erstwhile | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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