Wardship and the Welfare State: Native Americans and the Formation of First-Class Citizenship in Mid-Twentieth-Century America


ACLS Fellowship Program




Wardship and the Welfare State explores how mid-twentieth-century policymakers and legislators defined first-class citizenship against its apparent “opposite,” the much older and fraught idea of Indian wardship. Wards were dependent, first-class citizens independent. Wards received “gratuitous” aid from the government, first-class citizens were “responsible.” Critics of the mid-century expansion of the federal welfare state feared that as more Americans received government aid, they too could become dependent “wards,” victims of the same poverty on reservations. Because they mistakenly equated wardship with welfare, state officials advocated terminating Natives’ trust relationships with the federal government and prevented Native people from accessing welfare benefits. But to Native people, wardship was not welfare, and welfare was not wardship. Native nations and pan-Indian organizations claimed tribes’ government-to-government relationships with the US and maintained their rights to welfare assistance. In so doing, they rejected stereotyped portrayals of Natives’ perpetual poverty and dependency and asserted tribal sovereignty.