Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Ethnologist, Anthropologist and Social Scientist

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was a pioneer in the science of ethnology, living among American Indians while studying and documenting their culture. Fletcher was a leader in the movement to bring Native Americans into the mainstream of white society, but some of her ideas proved to be detrimental to the Indians.

Early Years
Alice Cunningham Fletcher was born in Havana, Cuba March 15, 1838 after her family traveled there in an effort to improve her father’s health. Both of her parents were from wealthy New England families – her father was a New York lawyer and her mother came from a prominent Boston business family. Little documentation of her early life remains. After her father died in 1839, the family moved to Brooklyn Heights, her mother enrolled Alice in the Brooklyn Female Academy, an exclusive school for daughters of the elite.

In early adulthood, Fletcher taught school for several years and lectured occasionally. By the 1870s she had become very active in upper class feminist and suffrage groups in New York City. She was a member of the women’s club Sorosis, and a founder and secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873.

Career in Science
As her interests grew, Fletcher read extensively in archaeology and ethnology. She began working with anthropologist Frederic Ward Putnam, Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaelogy and Ethnology at Harvard University, where she became interested in American Indian culture. By 1878 she was working in the field with Indian remains in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, and she became a member of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1879. She was appointed assistant in ethnology at the Peabody Museum in 1882.

Life Among the Omaha
As per the Treaty of 1854, Omaha Indians ceded most of their land to the United States. In 1882 Congress allotted land to the tribe for a reservation in Nebraska, which saved them from removal to Oklahoma like so many other tribes; they were later given U.S. citizenship. Like many Plains Indians, the Omaha economy ran on corn (maize) agriculture along with hunting and gathering. In spring and autumn they lived in permanent villages with earthen lodges; during the hunting season they lived in tepees that could be easily moved.

In 1881 Fletcher traveled to Nebraska to live among the Omaha, investigating their customs and traditions under the auspices of the Peabody Museum. Accompanying Fletcher on this trip were Omaha writer-activist Susette La Flesche and her half brother Francis La Flesche, with whom Fletcher began a 40-year mother-son relationship.

Francis La Flesche
Fletcher and Francis La Flesche began working together in Washington DC in 1881. After a trip giving speeches about Indian issues, La Flesche returned to Washington DC, where the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hired him as an interpreter. Fletcher, who was twenty years his senior, encouraged La Flesche to study and become a professional anthropologist.

Fletcher collaborated with the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution on her research, and La Flesche also worked there for a time. At first, he helped classify Omaha and Osage artifacts, then acted as a translator and interpreter, and eventually performed professional-level research with Fletcher. La Flesche also attended the National University Law School, where he graduated in 1892 and earned a master’s degree in 1893.

Fletcher with Chief Joseph, chief of the Ponca tribe

Image: Fletcher and Chief Joseph
Nez Perce Lapwai Reservation, Idaho
Credit: Idaho State Historical Society
Photographed by Jane Gay, 1889

During her trip to Nebraska to live with the Omaha in 1881, Fletcher and her entourage met Ponca chief Standing Bear and his traveling companions. She described them in her Fieldwork Diary October 1, 1881:

We were just stepping into the boat to go to Standing Bear’s when Wajapa called out, “Here come the Poncas!” So they did, in wagons, ox-carts and horseback, galloping along the bank, Standing Bear in good black clothes, but gay moccasins, got out of his wagon, came forward to greet us. His wife, a comely woman, in cloth skirt and saque sat with handkerchief about her head. She wore rings and bracelets, was very courteous and returned our greeting. The women had the seam of the hair painted red. Red cloth dress with ribbon embroidery on the front of skirt, beads by the hundreds about their necks.

Alice Fletcher was the first woman scientist to live with American Indians, and she quickly became a proponent of the push for allotment – breaking up Omaha tribal lands into individual plots. Fletcher and other champions of allotment believed that as long as the tribe owned the land, individuals had no incentive to work and make economic advances. They feared that as long as Indians held their lands collectively, neighboring whites would not respect their ownership of the land.

Whites did not understand that Indians did not value land as a possession, but as a gift to be used for their survival. Indians saw allotment as another way for the government to steal their land, and they knew better than anyone that a large portion of their lands were simply too dry or barren for agriculture. They challenged these reformers who were pushing for allotment by lobbying and petitioning Congress and refusing to attend meetings where allotments were to be assigned.

In 1882, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired Alice Fletcher to survey all Omaha lands and assess their suitability for allotment. At one point, she feared that the Omaha were about to lose their lands. She traveled to Washington, where she helped draft a bill to apportion Omaha tribal lands into smaller plots, or allotments, and lobbied in Congress until the law was passed.

In 1883 she was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur to supervise the apportioning of Omaha lands. With the assistance of Francis La Flesche, Fletcher completed granting the parcels in 1884. They collaborated professionally and had an informal mother-son relationship. La Flesche lived with her as her adopted son (although not legally) and collaborated with her professionally during her studies of native peoples and cultures.

Working through the Women’s National Indian Association, Fletcher introduced a system by which small sums of money were loaned to Indians who wanted to buy tracts of land and build houses. She also helped secure a loan for Susan La Flesche, Susette’s sister, to finance her studies at medical school. Graduating at the top of her class, Susan La Flesche became the first Native American woman doctor in the United States.

At the request of the Indian Bureau, Alice Fletcher prepared an exhibit for the World Cotton Centennial held at New Orleans, Louisiana in 1884, illustrating the progress of Indian civilization in North America during the previous twenty-five years. In 1886 she visited the native peoples of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to study their educational needs for the commissioner of education.

Dawes Act
Alice Cunningham Fletcher helped write and pass the Dawes Act of 1887, which imposed a system of private land ownership on Indian tribes for whom communal land ownership had always been their way of life. Individual Indians became eligible to receive land allotments of up to 160 acres. At the time, Fletcher thought this would allow American Indians to assimilate to European-American ways, which she believed was their best means of survival:

Now, how can Indians do better, hemmed in as they are at the agency, deprived of their native life, poor enough but having its compensation and not fully introduced to our ways, they are stranded between two modes of life.

Sponsors of the Dawes Act did not anticipate the manner in which Indian life deteriorated. The social structure of the tribe weakened; many nomadic Indians could not adjust to farm life; others were cheated out of their property. The subsequent sale of allotted lands themselves shrunk the Indian share even more. Over the ensuing years, Indians living on their individual plots suffered with disease, poverty, and depression.

The Dawes Act was responsible for the eventual breakup of all Indian reservations and also provided that any surplus land be made available for sale to white Americans. By 1932 acquired approximately 92,000,000 (two-thirds) of the 138,000,000 acres Indians had owned in 1887.

Despite the best intentions of reformers like Fletcher, allotment was a dismal failure. Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and its repeal in 1934, allotment continually deprived Indians of many of their remaining lands. By the time of its repeal, according to one study, two-thirds of the Indian population was “either completely landless or did not own enough land to make a subsistence living.”

From 1899 to 1916, Fletcher was on the editorial board of the American Anthropologist, to which she was also a frequent contributor, and in 1908 she led in founding the School of American Archaeology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Jane Gay
Fletcher was appointed United States Special Agent to allot lands of the Winnebago and Nez Perce Indians. She arrived at the Nez Perce reservation at Lapwai, Idaho in 1889 with her friend Jane Gay, with whom she had attended boarding school as children. The women had resumed their friendship when they happened to meet at a lecture in New York sometime in the 1880s. Many believe their relationship was romantic as well. At any rate, for the next several decades, Gay cooked and kept house while Fletcher worked among the Indians.

Fletcher met with opposition at Lapwai, including a confrontation with the great Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph, who refused to participate in allotment. But she returned to the reservation every spring for several years to survey and divide tribal lands. Gay learned photography in order to help Fletcher record characteristics of Nez Perce culture.

Fletcher enjoyed her role in apportioning Indian lands, but it was so time-consuming that it left little time for writing and scientific work. In 1890 a wealthy benefactor endowed a chair at the Peabody Museum for her, which meant she no longer had to work for the government to earn her living.

Image: Francis and Susette La Flesche
Alice Cunningham Fletcher informally adopted Francis La Flesche in 1891; he was 34 years old.

Literary And Scientific Endeavors
After the completion of the Nez Perce allotment, Fletcher used her new free time to produce several publications. Some were co-written with Francis La Flesche, who had become an anthropologist in his own right. Among their works were studies of Omaha culture and a Pawnee ceremony, and numerous collections of Indian songs and music, which Fletcher particularly loved.

Fletcher was a pioneer in the study of American Indian music, which she began to study in-depth after giving a paper before the Chicago Anthropological Conference in 1893. Fascinated by their music and dancing, she transcribed hundreds of their songs. In 1898 at the Congress of Musicians in Omaha, she presented several essays about songs of North American Indians. Out of this grew her book Indian Story and Song from North America (1900) and The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony (1904).

Fletcher achieved enormous professional prominence. She was also active in professional organizations, serving as president of the Anthropological Society of Washington and in 1905 as first woman president of American Folklore Society. She was vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a longtime member of the Literary Society of Washington.

In 1911, she published her major work, The Omaha Tribe, an exhaustive study written with Francis La Flesche; it is still considered the definitive work on the subject. Altogether she wrote 46 detailed studies about ethnology.

An excerpt from an article about Alice Fletcher at PBS’s New Perspectives on the West sheds some light on her work:

From an anthropological perspective, the chief importance of Fletcher’s work lies in her application of the scientific rigor of archaeology to the field work of ethnology. She attempted in her observations of living Indians to move beyond the purely descriptive and impressionistic toward categorizing specific aspects of Indian culture and economic practices. Like almost all anthropologists of her day, she assumed that cultures could be placed on a continuum of savagery and civilization, and that the more closely Indians mimicked white culture the more civilized they had become.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher died April 6, 1923 in Washington DC.

Wikipedia: Alice Cunningham Fletcher
New Perspectives on the West: Alice Fletcher
Encyclopedia Britannica: Alice Cunningham Fletcher
Smithsonian: The Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

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