Sovereign bodies: Women, health care, and federal Indian policy, 1890--1986

Christin Lee Hancock
Dept. of American Civilization, Brown University
July, 2006


This dissertation explores the history of white and native women who interacted with one another around issues of health on American Indian reservations from the late nineteenth through the twentieth-centuries. Highlighting themes of health, religion, and activism, the dissertation illuminates the histories of women who differed from one another racially, culturally, and religiously, as they interacted within the unequal power dynamic structured by the political context of internal colonization. Shifting federal Indian policies, from the Peace Policy of 1869, to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, to the passage of termination legislation in the 1950s, provide the backdrop against which these histories are explored. A variety of sources, both from white and native perspectives, are employed including the diaries, letters, and speeches of missionary women; field notes, memoirs, and letters of field nurses; oral histories and autobiographies of native women; and newspaper accounts, interviews, and tribal records. Beginning with an exploration of the roles of missionary women and field nurses, the dissertation argues that Protestant Christianity and western medicine were intimately connected in the federal government's initial attempts at providing health care for American Indians. As both missionary women and field nurses became primary providers of western health care, native women simultaneously became the primary targets of this health education. Native women retained agency in responding to this imposition of both the dominant white religion and medicine through creativity and flexibility. By 1934, although the federal government's official emphasis shifted from assimilation to cultural pluralism with John Collier's Indian New Deal, the shift does not appear to have been a significant influence in women's remembered pasts. The dissertation closes with a case study of the effects of termination policy on the health and well-being of the Klamath, with particular emphasis on women's roles in the tribal activism that resulted in the restoration of their tribe. From missionaries, to field nurses, to tribal activists, women shaped their understandings of health and health care according to their religious, professional, and tribal identities.