Southern Ute Women: Autonomy and Assimilation on the Reservation, 1887-1934
By Katherine Osburn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, January 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-0803220386, $18.95. 184 pages.
Review by Brad Montgomery-Anderson, Northeastern State University
Between the years 1887 and 1934, the U.S. government made a concentrated effort to assimilate American Indians into the dominant society. This assimilative agenda began with the 1887 Dawes Act and centered on breaking up communally-held land and redistributing it as private property. Some of the “civilizing” programs were aimed specifically at Native women, and Indian agents saw their transformation into middle-class homemakers as a crucial component of the process to remake the Native American family. Katherine Osburn’s book is a groundbreaking study of the reaction of the women of one tribe to this assimilative effort. Southern Ute Women is a republication of a title that originally appeared in 1998 through the University of New Mexico Press. The current publication from the University of Nebraska Press includes a new introduction that places this work in the context of recent scholarship on Native American women. An especially interesting portion of this introduction is Osburn’s description of three general categories of studies regarding women’s reactions to colonialism. One category of scholars see colonialism as having little impact on the power of women, while another group of scholars, following the “declension model,” see colonialism as producing a marked decline in the power and status of indigenous women. Osburn’s work falls into the category of scholars who “argue some decline but also document creative adaptation” (vii). The book’s original introduction is also included and provides a good theoretical context for the main thesis of the book: namely, that during the assimilative years of the Dawes Act, Ute women used strategies of adaptation and selective assimilation to deal with the changes that outside forces attempted to impose on them. In the first chapter, Osburn provides the historic events that led to the confinement of the Utes on their reservation in southwestern Colorado and initial attempts at assimilation. Osburn groups these areas of attempted assimilation into the following four chapters. In chapter 2, “Women and Public Leadership,” Osburn discusses how the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) ignored women when discussing policy matters with the tribe. Ute women, however, did not accept the passive role assigned them and refused to send their children to schools they deemed unsafe. While OIA policy continually relegated women to the private sphere by only dealing with the “head of the household,” women found ways to recover their traditional participation in the public realm. In the next chapter, “Women and Economics,” Osburn shows how women resisted being relegated to dependency on their husbands’ wages and engaged in economic activities that were crucial to the tribe’s survival. The OIA expected women to be homemakers and to create nuclear households that fit a Euro-American model of “civilized” domestic life. To achieve this goal, the OIA hired three matrons to train Ute women in a variety of domestic arts. Osburn outlines the successes and failures of this program in the fifth chapter. The response to the matron program was complex. Ute women eagerly adapted many innovations concerning sanitation and health care as well as homemaking technology. As a result of this program, infant deaths on the reservation declined significantly. At the same time, this program failed in its basic goal of replacing the extended family with a single nuclear family living in its own home. Part of the OIA’s initiatives included bringing Ute attitudes towards sex and marriage in line with Euro-American attitudes. These attempts are the focus of chapter five. Osburn speculates that the increase in marriage licenses probably indicates an outward conformity to assimilationist pressure; on the other hand, the persistence of “serial monogamy” showed that OIA attempts to increase the number of lifelong marriages were not successful. This strategy of “selective assimilation” is characteristic of the attitude of Ute women in general as they struggled to retain their autonomy. Despite being treated as second-class citizens by the OIA, Ute women found creative ways to continue to make important contributions to their family and tribe. In her conclusion, Osburn argues convincingly that “while the framework of women’s lives was radically altered on the reservation, Ute women did not suffer a serious decline in status and power among their people” (117). Osburn makes a strong case for this conclusion using the existing documentation from that time period. She could strengthen this argument, however, by more thoroughly explaining the role of women in traditional pre-reservation culture. Osburn has a few pages of such discussion at the beginning of chapter 2, which she summarizes by stating that “women were equal members of families and bands” and that “they participated in councils” (23). Traditional gender roles deserve greater explanation and exemplification; moreover, Osburn should address what appear to be situations of traditional gender inequality that are depicted in the literature. For example, in the recently re-released classic history The Last War Trail (University Press of Colorado, 2000), Chief Ouray declares that the Utes do not accept the testimony of women (269). Although Osburn’s book does focus on Southern Ute women, it does nevertheless feel that something is missing without a discussion of Chipeta, wife of Chief Ouray and perhaps the most famous Ute woman. Chipeta did not live on the Southern Ute reservation, but it seems that the available documentation on her life and the part she played in the transition to the reservation (Chipeta: Queen of the Utes by Becker and Smith appeared in 2003) could provide another perspective on the role of women in Ute culture. An expanded discussion of Ute women in general would allow the reader to better understand the contexts of the strategies of resistance and adaptation. These are minor absences, however, in a work that is well-researched and thought-provoking. Osburn’s book has been and remains an important contribution to the growing literature on women’s responses to colonialism, and this book will be of interest to readers interested in Native American history and women’s history.