Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Field matrons worked for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) between 1890 and 1938 in a campaign designed to introduce Native American women to Victorian, middle-class culture. Like the destruction of the collective land base by allotment, the disruption of families by the removal of children to Indian schools, and the steady diminution of sovereignty by federal encroachments, the domestic education of Native American women became, in the hands of the field matrons, yet another tool to destroy tribalism. Convinced that it was possible to "kill the Indian and save the woman [sic]," the bia looked to the field matrons to promote assimilation in reservation communities across the American West.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, Canadian and American policymakers and reform advocates active in Indian affairs agreed that wholesale "civilization" was the only way to ensure the survival of those remaining Native populations located in the western provinces and states. Only in the United States, though, did a woman-specific assimilation strategy develop. To teach Indian women "to respect and love and seek the ways of White women," the BIA worked with members of Congress, reformers, and missionary activists to create the field matron program.

Sent into the field in 1890, the field matrons eventually worked in nearly every tribal community in the Great Plains, as well as across the West. Those women first employed by the bia in the late nineteenth century exemplified the era's "certified civilizers." Caucasian, middle class, and single, they were imbued with Christian missionary spirit. As field matrons they spread among the Indians the American gospel of cleanliness, godliness, corsets, femininity, homebound domesticity, and woman's proper sphere. In the early twentieth century, however, the composition of the group changed. The American women becoming field matrons after 1900 coupled their reformist ambition to "do good" with their personal desire to "do well" financially as BIA employees. From the end of World War I until 1938, women motivated by economic gain rather than rescue dominated the field matron corps.

While the bia heartily encouraged Native women to become advocates for assimilation in their homes and communities, it only reluctantly included them as full partners in the field matron program. The same ethnocentrism that skewed American and Canadian perspectives on Indian traditionalism resulted in restrictions on the employment of "civilized" tribal women. The BIA rarely accepted Native adoptions of the "American way" as trustworthy because, at base, it was deeply suspicious of the very process of cultural change it hoped to promote. The agency restricted tribal women to the position of assistant field matron and only appointed them between 1895 and 1905. Most of these women served in tribal communities located in the Great Plains.

The decision to phase out the field matron program in the 1930s reflected both the waning significance of Victorian domesticity and the desperate need in reservation communities for medical expertise. Appalling public health conditions plagued Native Americans in both the United States and Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, tuberculosis and trachoma ran rampant; infant and child morbidity and mortality robbed tribal communities of their future generations; and destitution revealed itself in malnutrition and hopelessness. Field matrons struggled to adapt their positions by teaching seminars on epidemic diseases and prenatal care instead of homemaking. Their efforts saved lives but also led the BIA to conclude that trained nurses were more valuable than assimilation advocates. After 1938 field nurses replaced field matrons as "civilization" took a backseat to Indian public health education and care in the United States.

See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Assimilation Policy.

Lisa E. Emmerich California State University, Chico

Bannan, Helen M. "'True Womanhood on the Reservation': Field Matrons in the United States Indian Service." SIROW Working Paper No. 19. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1984.

Emmerich, Lisa E. "'Right in the Midst of My Own People': Native American Women and the Field Matron Program." American Indian Quarterly 15 (1990): 201- 16.

Emmerich, Lisa E. "'To Respect and Love and Seek the Ways of White Women': Field Matrons, the Office of Indian Affairs, and Civilization Policy, 1890-1938," Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1987.

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