A New Look at "Save the Babies!" Reproduction, Nation, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Pro-Natal Agenda, 1912–18

Sunday, January 6, 2013: 11:20 AM
Roosevelt Ballroom III (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Brianna Theobald, Arizona State University
During Cato Sells’ tenure as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the United States government promoted a pro-natalist policy in its interactions with the nation’s indigenous populations.  By situating Sells’ campaign alongside similar campaigns directed toward other minority groups, as well as in the context of the broader pro-natalist efforts Laura Lovett and others have identified in early twentieth-century American settler society, this paper interrogates the sometimes complicated relationship between pro-natalism, nation-building, and medical authorities.  Though a variety of factors influenced such policies, primary among them was Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials’ hope that strengthening the health of American Indian mothers and babies would further the agency’s broader assimilation agenda, namely the education of Indian children in boarding schools and the education of American Indian mothers in appropriate domesticity.  Thus, field matrons, long in the business of implementing Americanization efforts on Indian reservations, took on a large part of this pro-natalist agenda.  Yet, government representatives associated with the BIA regularly insisted that the battle against Indian infant mortality required dedication on the part of all BIA employees, from the field matrons to the superintendents to the reservation physicians.       

This paper focuses specifically on the Save the Babies campaign Sells implemented in 1912.  Building on Lisa Emmerich’s important work on field matrons’ role in this maternalist campaign, this paper explores the role of physicians (both outside experts and those living and working on reservations) in the implementation of this federal pro-natalist agenda, both in theory and in practice.  In doing so, this paper adds a new dimension to our understanding of the relationship between American Indian health and assimilation from a gendered perspective.  Additionally, it enlarges our understanding of interactions between BIA doctors and federal officials, thereby illuminating physicians’ influence on healthcare policy.