Research on the Literate Practices of Field Matrons on the Hopi Reservation
Author(s): Mary Le Rouge
Mary Le Rouge is Director of Writing at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She has a PhD in English Rhetoric and Composition from Kent State University, where she taught composition, argumentative prose and professional writing classes. With a masters in publishing from George Washington University, she previously worked as a freelance editor of award-winning encyclopedias in the social sciences published primarily by Sage. Le Rouge currently volunteers as associate publisher for Monographs, Collections, and Conference Proceedings at the WAC Clearinghouse. She is coeditor of the forthcoming edited collection Embodied Environmental Risk: Problems and Solutions Toward Social Sustainability, published by Routledge. Her research focuses on the archival-historical recovery of women’s history, environmental communication, and contemporary rhetorical practices using technology and the human-computer interface.
Abstract: In this article, family history leads to new archival-historical research on the Field Matron Program instituted by the Bureau of the Interior on Native American reservations in the American West during the early 1900s. Reflection on this history can provide clues as to how such culturally intrusive, destructive government programs can be dismantled and avoided in the future. Field matrons were employed by the U.S. government to conduct the cultural assimilation of Indigenous women by teaching Indigenous women how to cook, clean, sew, and act like white settler farm women. Field matrons were also involved in the forced removal of Native children from their families and placement in boarding schools, although some resisted this practice. The official correspondence of field matrons collected in the National Archives and Idella Hahn’s personal writings shows their concerns about assimilationist practices and reflects the rise and decline of the profession (and acceptance of its rhetoric) in the United States until the program’s dissolution.Tags: Assimilation, ethics, Feminist Methodology, Field Matrons, Hopi, Indigenous Women, recoveries and reconsiderations, women’s work
This is a research story about my great-great grandmother, who was a field matron on the Hopi reservation in the early 1900s. The field matron program was part of the colonial project that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples. Other such programs included native children’s forced attendance at boarding schools, the reservation system itself that supported landholding and property concepts, and farming/employment programs that disrupted traditional activities and lifeways. Although government intentions were framed as benevolent in public discourse, and some employees who implemented these programs might have believed that their actions were coming from the best intentions, the effect that they had was to destroy native culture. This colonial project served to support the dominance of white culture in the United States, which benefits white people such as myself to this day. I am a white female scholar, writing about my white female ancestor and her relationship with the Hopi people she worked with on the reservation. I feel obligated to tell this story because I feel that such destructive governmental programs should not be allowed to exist – that if the history of the field matron program is forgotten, it could be repeated, and that if there is any chance for restitution and reconciliation with Indigenous people, it is important to have this conversation.
I grew up hearing fantastic stories about my great-great grandmother Idella Senour Hahn (1869-1969), who worked as a field matron on the Hopi reservation in Arizona in the early 1900s. She left her midwestern home in Bourbon, Indiana, after the untimely death of her husband Daniel Hahn from tuberculosis on May 9, 1909, and the death of her mother Sophia Baylor one year later. Idella had two young sons, 13-year-old Harold and 10-year-old Donald. They moved west to Dickinson, North Dakota, where Idella’s brother George A. Senour lived. Idella supposedly inherited land there, but her sons were too young to work the farm. She also was trained to give music lessons and thought of opening a music store, but there was not much interest in music in the rural town.
So, her brother recommended that she seek work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as the Sioux and Mandan Indians had settlements nearby. She passed the Civil Service Field Matron Examination on September 10, 1913, which included home economics subjects such as “keeping accounts,” “elementary sewing,” “cooking and general household management,” “sanitation, hygiene, care of the sick, care and feeding of children,” “home gardening and poultry raising,” and “methods of social work” (U.S. Civil Service Commission). She hoped to be assigned work nearby in North Dakota, but she was instead given a post at the Moqui Agency at Stearns Canyon, Arizona, and she was notified that “This Agency is remote from the Railroad and there are no school facilities for your sons,” despite the fact that there was a school on the reservation for the Hopis, which was not considered suitable for her children (U.S. Dept. of the Interior, “Education – Appointments”). Idella would be paid $660 a year (which was equivalent to about $18,000 in 2021 purchasing power), but she was responsible for paying her own way to the reservation, which would include travel by train, car, and then buckboard or stagecoach (U.S. Dept. of the Interior, “Education – Employees”).
When my family would tell her story, they would bring out an old photo album, newspaper clippings, and other documents that gave evidence and context to Idella’s life. They had a box of Indian artifacts that Idella had collected, either given to her as gifts (as I was told) or purchased, including moccasins, a braided rug, and woven baskets. Idella donated many pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History after it was founded in 1920. My family sold some of the pieces when I was a child, but some are still in boxes in my possession or stored by other family members. I considered donating the items that I had to the natural history museum, some arrowheads and a rug, but then learned about the Hopi reclamation efforts, especially of kachina dolls, from museums around the country and world when I visited the Hopi reservation. The repatriation of such artifacts is important to the Hopi people, and so returning them to the ancestors of the people who made them is a step toward restoration of Indigenous sovereignty.
My family also had essays that Idella had written about the Hopi snake dance, the naming of a Hopi baby, and her “Plea for the Indian” that sought the right for the Hopi to continue their dances and cultural practices (Hahn, “Description,” “The Naming,” and “Plea”). My family characterized her work by claiming that “she was a teacher” on the reservation, or that “she taught at a school” there. They also said that she wrote one of the first Hopi-English dictionaries, and that it was kept in the Library of Congress or records of the Bureau of the Interior. These artifacts and stories made me curious about Idella’s life and work.
When I decided to write a biography of Idella Hahn in 2015 and started researching the field matrons and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I found a very different view of their work in the history books. Field matrons were employed by the U.S. government to conduct the cultural assimilation of Native American women (Emmerich “Right in the Midst,” “Marguerite Laflesche Diddock”; Simonsen “‘Object Lessons,’” “Making Home Work”). They were supposed to help improve sanitary conditions and aid in medical matters, but most were not nurses. They taught Native American women how to cook, clean, sew, and act like American farm women (Bryson & Hansen). Field matrons were not formally trained, but instead brought their own understanding of their role to the job and received guidance from “circulars” and letters sent from their supervisors. The program, although ostensibly acting as a form of social work to aid Indigenous peoples, resulted in the further destruction of native culture (after their land was taken and they were moved onto reservations) and created a rift between native women and their communities. For almost 50 years, mostly white field matrons were sent to Indian reservations around the country in the hopes that by assimilating native women in the home through normative domestic practices, native children and the community would also be more easily assimilated.
Field matrons were the embodiment of the program created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help solve the Indian “problem,” having direct contact with the targeted population, and so their writings provide a window into the moral struggle that they must have felt when they became the instrument of forced assimilation. They joined the service with a Christian missionary spirit to help and “civilize” tribal women, but when they realized the results of their work, and saw the hardships and reality of life on the reservation for Native women, many quickly left their job (Hancock, Trennert, Wunder). This was considered “women’s work,” with field matrons primarily focused on Native women’s housekeeping, childbirth, and health care practices. Not all the work that field matrons did was bad for Indigenous people – they helped take care of sick family members, assisted in childbirth, and showed Native women ways that their handiwork could improve their homes and provide extra income for their families. Some features of this education would have been useful to women who wanted to assimilate to dominant white settler ways of life. However, the forced nature of this education on Indigenous women was unethical. How field matrons’ writings changed over time, during their tenure on the reservation, shows an evolving understanding of their purpose and the role set out by the government. The changing focus of correspondence between field matrons and their supervisors over time also shows the development of the program’s goals and ultimately its discontinuation in favor of providing general nursing assistance.
Representing Indigenous versus Assimilating Rhetoric
U.S. government policy, as enacted by field matrons, forced Native women against their will to accept the dominant culture and ways of acting. However, as Scott Lyons asks, “What do Indians want from writing?” He says, rhetorical sovereignty: “the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse (449–450). He shows this by relating the history of Native American use of rhetorical sovereignty to create laws and treaties to govern their lands and claims that one “pillar of sovereignty” is self-government (457). This is important because “Indigenous people … may constitute the world’s most adamant refusal of current expansions of global capitalism and imperialism that plagues many and benefit so few” (462). He calls for prioritization of the study of American Indian rhetoric (and that of other minorities) in curriculum, including their treaties and laws, both historical and contemporary, with an eye toward social change.
Malea Powell asks how Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins and Charles Alexander Eastman, two Native Americans, used language to survive and resist colonialization. The problem, she sees, is the “Western Eurocentric focus of the American academy” (“Rhetorics of Survivance” 398). She calls for an “imaginative liberation of indigenous peoples from the stories being told about them that insist on nobility or ignobility, that cannot afford to see Indian peoples as humans” (399). She answers her question by giving some historical background and “critically engaging with Native texts,” two memoirs written respectively by Hopkins and Eastman: Life Among the Piutes (1883) and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916). Powell states that “I pay close attention to the language of survivance (survival + resistance) that they, consciously or unconsciously, use in order to reimagine and, literally, reconfigure “the Indian” (400). She says that “my hope is that we can begin to reimagine ourselves, our pedagogies, our scholarship, our discipline in relation to a long and sordid history of American imperialism (428). Powell seeks a critical reimagining of the field of rhetoric and composition to right the colonial wrongs that have been done to many peoples.
Alanna Frost asks how Dakelh (British Columbia, Canada, Native Americans) literacy practices can inform the field of rhetoric and composition. She studies the lifework of two prominent Dakelh “literacy stewards,” Mary John and Doreen Patrick, includes a brief history, and comments on their practices in their communities. Frost states, “This term, literacy steward, can be applied to any individual who demonstrates persistent dedication to the practice or promotion of a literacy considered traditionally important to his or her community (56). She uses the term steward instead of Brandt’s sponsorship because with sponsorship, a “dependence on funding sources has implications for how and when cultural composing happens” (56) and is limited by the sponsor’s agenda and is market-based. She finds that the “Dakelh use of memory-in-place offers an example of alternative ontologies that directly relate to literacy practices with which community members engage during public and private affairs” (61) in a traditional survivance practice. Literacy stewards are interested in the grassroots development of noncommodified resources.
Malea Powell also writes about Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha), asking how Native Americans have used language to navigate relationships with European Americans. She answers this question by recounting history and evaluating La Flesche’s writing, stating that “La Flesche’s way of dealing with European Americans … is, for me, powerfully persuasive evidence of the alliance and adaptation tactics some Native people engaged in … (“Down by the River, 49). Powell takes up the term primacy, or status given to “official” (dominant) viewpoints in relation to the devalued “practices of the everyday, and the knowledge of those who function in this context” (Royster & Williams qtd. in Powell 42). She believes that learning about La Flesche’s literary tactics can help rhetoric and composition scholars form an alliance against the “prime” narrative of Western Eurocentric ideology.
These scholars study the rhetoric of Indigenous authors to define their methods of resisting colonization by European Americans. They make these Native people’s lives visible and reproduce the meanings of their texts to both preserve the history of their culture and add to the field of rhetoric and composition’s knowledge base. In the discipline of literacy, rhetoric, and composition and academia in general, minorities have not been well represented, and their cultural practices have not been as valued in research and pedagogy. In the struggle to address Western ethnocentrism, gender bias, and ableism, there have been recent moves to recover minority and non-Western writings from the archives that were not previously noted or recorded (Wu, Takayoshi). In a feminist methodological response to erasure of women’s experience from the archives, I am recovering the experiences of these field matrons and bringing them to light. I hope that study of the writings of field matrons will lead to greater understanding of assimilation processes in society so that they can be dismantled and avoided.
Feminism in the Archives
Feminist methodology is central to this type of research, and there are certain aspects of this broad methodology to unpack (Enoch and Bessette; Bizzell). First, is the epistemological stance of studying women’s history. The researcher wants to bring greater historical context and coverage to the history of women; therefore, the choice of the subject of study reflects this focus. This is the systematic recovery of historical information that would otherwise go untold or become lost in the archives. This research also helps tell the story of field matrons’ relations with Indigenous peoples and the Hopi tribe, a group that has experienced systematic discrimination from the U.S. government. Therefore, the site of research is also reflective of a focus on a marginalized population living on the fringes of U.S. society.
Taking this feminist methodology also means acknowledging the role that participants play in developing the knowledge that is obtained from the research and including them in the interpretation of the data (Powell and Takayoshi). Anything that is learned should be reciprocally shared with participants and the researcher should do whatever is possible to return the favor of their time and effort on the project. It is also imperative to be self-reflexive—keenly aware of personal biases and background in the understanding of events from the past and how the researcher’s status as influenced by their identity plays into their research design, data collection, and evaluation of results. This can be done by reflectively analyzing interpretations critically for faults in logic because of misconceptions or assumptions (Kirsch and Rohan).
This methodology is also generative, where one piece of information will lead to another important piece of the puzzle, because rebuilding historical information is a constructivist process. The meaning of events from the past can only be understood through the contextualization of social situations from history, but these are also negotiated by present-day ideologies in the representation of knowledge (Cushman, Gaillet, Gold). This methodology takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining rhetoric and composition, archival historical research, sociology, and ethnography.
I started out collecting information about Idella Hahn from my family, and then I looked to external sources. First, I traveled to Bourbon, Indiana, and Chicago in February 2016 to see where Idella grew up and went to school. Then, I traveled to the Hopi reservation that March, where I spent 5 days tracing the steps of my great-great grandmother and visited the places she had likely been, locating scenery in photographs that she had taken and speaking with residents. I wanted to get a sense of what it must have been like for her to move all the way from Indiana to Arizona, leave her children behind, and work with Native people. I had contacted the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation to ask the tribe for their permission to use my great-great grandmothers’ writings and photos about life on the reservation in the biography. I was invited to meet with legal researcher at the Office of Cultural Preservation Terry Morgart, on the reservation in Arizona, where I also met the Hopi archivist and ethnohistorian Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa, who agreed that the project should proceed, and that they would be willing to work with me on it.
I had many questions about ethics to consider because they did not want my research to impinge on their cultural privacy. The Hopis do not allow photography on their reservation, and they informed me that some of the ceremonies described in Idella’s essays were not usually open to outsiders. Some of the ceremonies described in her writings were not appropriate for Hopi children to read about until they were adults. In addition, I could not speak reliably about their culture while in the process of writing the biography of a field matron because I am not a Hopi. So, I asked Mr. Koyiyumptewa to work collaboratively with me on the project on sensitive cultural issues. He asked in return if I would share my photographs with him, and so I gave him a USB drive with digital copies of all the photographs that Idella had taken and the notes that she had written on them about location and date. I also offered to give 10% of any proceeds if the biography was published to the Hopi Education Endowment Fund, which Mr. Koyiyumptewa found to my surprise is still housed in a building that existed near where Idella lived on the reservation.
In my search for archival records, I was told that most of the historical documents about the Hopi reservation that would have been kept at the local Keams Canyon office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been moved to the National Archives at Riverside, California. There were some documents available at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, so I traveled there to read correspondence between the superintendent dated around 1906–09 (Moqui Indian Agency [Ariz.]). These documents show how schoolteacher Elizabeth Stanley and field matron Miltona Keith acted as intermediaries to try and defuse the “trouble” at Oraibi, when the government forced parents to send children in the village to a boarding school and caused a split between parents who agreed to send their children (called “friendlies”), and those who refused (“unfriendlies” or “hostiles”). There was an armed uprising, during which many Hopis were captured and imprisoned on Alcatraz Island. The event caused a split in the community, with the unfriendlies moving to the nearby town of Hotevilla in the canyon, and the friendlies staying in Oraibi. Stanley says in her report to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis E. Leupp, “My school is nearly all over in the Hostile camp. I am thinking of turning hostile myself, and then maybe you will put me with them. It is hard to give them all up but I hope to stay at Oraibi.” History books that describe these events (of which there are not many) do not usually discuss the role that these women played. This split in the community still existed when Idella arrived in Oraibi in 1914.
In 2019, I traveled to the National Archives in Riverside, California, after receiving funding through a Graduate Student Research Award from Kent State University. I digitized the correspondence of several field matrons and documents pertaining to their service in the early 1900s (U.S. National Archives “75.4 General Records,” “75.19.46 Records”). The documents that I collected at the National Archives are the official records of their field reports and the journals and correspondence with their supervisors. These are called “Circulars” because some of the messages were circulated throughout the reservations toward the management of operations by the Superintendent in charge. They show a progressive professionalization of the field matron job through imposition of a uniform (that each field matron had to sew out of bolts of fabric provided by the BIA), an increasing number of circulars describing how they should do their jobs, and training programs provided at weeklong conferences across the west. On the reservation, there was no running water and “traditional” white settler ways of farming and crops were forced on a land that could not sustain it. This greatly reduced the community’s food sovereignty, which put stress on the reservation’s ability to feed its people independently, and resulted in further dependence on government assistance through supplemental food rationing (Wilbur, “Food Sovereignty”). There is mention of how the field matrons should keep track of Hopi births and deaths, a pamphlet called “Indian Babies – How to Keep Them Well” (1916), and correspondence about a “baby contest” meant to showcase their work with Hopi mothers that had to be canceled last minute because of an outbreak of disease on the reservation. The difficulties of various epidemics and World War I are evident from circulars that describe food shortages, prescribe quarantine procedures, and institute a ban on the government employment of U.S. citizens with German heritage in 1917.
Although Idella did not have a German background, her husband’s family did, so because of her husband’s last name that she still carried (Hahn) she was forced to resign her duties in 1918. This was particularly ironic because both of her sons served in World War I, and her job as a cultural assimilator ended because her personal cultural heritage was invalidated by the very government that had hired her. As recorded on her “Efficiency Report” dated April 25, 1918:
Mrs. Hahn apparently is loosing [sic] interest, evidently largely due to the fact that she expects to leave the service on or before the coming July 1st. She has two sons in the America [sic] army, now in France. She is American, regrets the handicap, as she expresses it, her German name, her deceased husband having been a German. (Nat. Archives at St. Louis)
It is now 2021, and I feel that having just lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have even greater empathy for my great-grandmother’s loss of her husband to tuberculosis, the difficulties dealing with epidemics on the reservations, and how she patented a design for burial clothes in 1940. Before this year, I thought the last fact strange, but now I can see how there would be a need for this, especially living through the last great influenza pandemic and between the two world wars. I hope that over time, I will develop an even greater understanding of what her life was like and what it means.
In contemporary society, there are a multitude of social service programs that intrude on the home life and privacy of citizens, especially for those who receive government assistance. These types of intrusions, especially regarding medical health tracking, have become increasingly common through modern technological advancements for people at all socioeconomic levels of society. While there are no more field matrons sent out to assimilate people in the United States, many Native people who live on reservations still receive government assistance and social services, and experience high poverty rates. Understanding how intrusive government policies become normalized in historical women’s discourse will help reveal the process of policy formation and social norm formation so that such invasive and damaging programs can be dismantled and avoided in the future.
How did American women who worked as field matrons for the Bureau of Indian Affairs react to the colonizing forces of their job assignments? What did the field matrons experience on the job, and how did they justify their work to themselves and their superiors? How did they reconcile the underlying ideology of ethnocentricity with the purported aims of improving living conditions of Hopis on the reservation?
What are the ethics of working with archives of groups that the researcher is not a part of? What are the ethical practices for working with culturally sensitive materials? How do we approach working with rhetorical materials that may represent oppressive/colonialist views, especially when the author might be perceived as sharing the same cultural/racial identity as the colonizers?
In what ways does the recovery of women’s writing from the archives change the cultural memory of historical events and social processes? Aside from increasing the perceived value of women’s writings and traditionally feminine topics, does a contemporary change in ideology that increasingly values women’s work also call for an adjustment in the historical record? Or does it simply fill in the gaps where knowledge was missing, to reinforce history as it is already understood?
How can family stories and histories, passed down from generation to generation, add to our shared cultural heritage and understanding of history writ large? The genre is usually viewed as subjective and potentially inaccurate, but when women’s stories are so often erased from the written record, family lore is an important way to transmit historical information about women. How can accuracy be ensured, or at least attempted, in the changing oral stories of family members?
The word Moqui was originally used by the Spanish to denote the Hopi people, but the word came to be pronounced in a way that means “dead” in the Hopi language, and is therefore seen as derogatory by the Hopi, although it was used by the U.S. Department of the Interior to refer to the Hopi until 1930.
 I have been unable to find a copy of, or official reference to, this dictionary. It is possible that it was redacted from government records because of the use of the Navajo language (which is similar in etymology to Hopi) as a secret code during World War II.
 Special thanks to Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa for reviewing this article for accuracy and cultural sensitivity before publication.
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