Margaret Jacobs grew up in the American West but, like many others, never considered the history of the place she grew up in as particularly interesting or worthy of study. "There was, and still is, so much mythology around" the West, she said. "I had not been interested in this kind of 'boots and spurs' or 'wagon wheels and sunbonnets' type of history."
But a pivotal history course in college changed her trajectory. She realized there was much important work being done in the field, and she accepted with curiosity the sense of responsibility and inquiry that came with her self-identification as a descendant of White settlers of Indigenous lands. Jacobs is now an award-winning author, professor of history, and Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies the history of the American West in a transnational and comparative context with a focus on women and gender as well as children and family.
Jacobs has published over 35 articles and 3 books, including White Mother to a Dark Race (2009), which won the esteemed 2010 Bancroft Prize. The book concerns government-enforced separation of Indigenous children from their families through the use of distant boarding schools and other institutions, and the role of White as well as Indigenous women with respect to those policies. Her more recent scholarship examines how government authorities in the U.S., Australia, and Canada continued to remove Indigenous children from their families after World War II through foster care and adoptive placements in non-Indigenous families. She also highlights how Indigenous women mobilized transnationally to reclaim the care of their children.
Jacobs' most recent projects delve into truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation efforts. Her newest book, After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America's Stolen Lands, has two goals: to confront the history of American settler colonialism, and to explore possibilities for reconciliation. "I have come to see reconciliation not as a one-time effort that our nation will achieve and then move on," she says. "I see it, indeed, as a practice, as a way of life, in which all of us can engage. This practice is based on considering how the past has shaped us today and how we can work to promote healing and respectful relationships. I'm a big believer that settlers, like myself, should start where we are and use whatever strengths, skills, and resources we possess to practice reconciliation within our own communities and institutions. This must be done in close collaboration and partnership with Indigenous colleagues."
For Jacobs, reconciliation is not simply about returning land; "an ongoing sustained relationship" is needed to really achieve reconciliation. She collaborates with Rosebud Lakota journalist Kevin Abourezk on Reconciliation Rising, a multimedia project that showcases Indigenous people and settlers who are honestly confronting painful and traumatic histories, and who are creating pathways to reconciliation, including through voluntary repatriation of land by settlers to Indigenous peoples.
She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, a space for telling the stories of the American Indian children who attended Genoa, the stories of their communities, and the stories of their descendants. The Project, which was featured in The New York Times, aims to repatriate government records of Nebraska's Indian boarding school back to their families and tribal nations, to "bring history home."
Jacobs received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2018 for her project, "Does the United States Need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?," which compares reconciliation efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. From 2015-16, she served as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University.
Join us in conversation with this "pioneering" scholar and practitioner of historical uncovering and reconciliation.