Nebraska Authors

Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Born 1838-03-15 Havana (Cuba)

Died 1923-04-06
Washington, D.C. (USA)

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was a well published, influential anthropologist and ethnologist who studied the culture and history of a number of Native American tribes. She did much of her early field work in Nebraska, and established long-continuing relationships with a number of tribal members and others from Nebraska. She is remembered as one of the first women in her field, for the scientific rigor and quality of her field work, for the breadth of her interests, and as having initiated the serious study of Native American music by ethnologists. Much more controversially, she was also a policy maker. She supported and wrote about Indian education, and she helped plan, write, and administrate the 1887 Dawes Act, which broke up communal ownership of land by tribes with a system of allotments to individuals. The cultural and economic damage that allotment wrought is well documented. If the policy was advocated by well-meaning friends of the Indians like Fletcher, who believed it would help Indians defend their land ownership and gain economic independence, it was bitterly opposed by Indians who better understood both the nature of their land--much of which was too arid for conventional farms--and the imperatives of their communal cultures.

As Fletcher is a well known figure, the focus here is on her Nebraska connections. After an earlier career as an educator and public speaker, sometime around 1880 Fletcher was informally introduced to anthropology by Frederic Ward Putnam, Director of Harvard University's Peabody Museum. She traveled through Nebraska in 1881 on her way to begin her first independent field work, accompanied by Susette "Bright Eyes" La Flesche and Thomas Tibbles. She traveled West to live with and study the Oglala Sioux on their reservation. At that time she also visited the Omaha, and began a 40 year long association with Susette La Flesche's half-brother ethnologist Frances La Flesche. Eventually she would adopt Francis as a son, and the two shared a house in Washington, D.C. after 1890 (along with Jane Gay, Fletcher's likely romantic partner). In 1886, Fletcher helped Susan La Flesche Picotte obtain the loan from the Connecticut Indian Association that allowed her to attend the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and become the nation's first Native American physician.

In 1898 Alice Fletcher attended the musician's congress that preceded the opening of the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition and Indian Congress in Omaha to present papers on her studies of Native American music that she would develop further in two later books, Indian Story and Song from North America, 1900 and The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony, 1904. She recorded the music of a number of tribes using the the earliest recording technology. In 1911, in collaboration with Frances LaFlesche, she published the comprehensive two volume study The Omaha Tribe, now on the Center for Great Plains Studies "Great Books about the Great Plains" list and cited there as "one of the most valuable studies ever prepared by the Bureau of American Ethnology."

She published a number of other more circumscribed studies of Omaha and Pawnee tribal culture, and other works on tribes further West. She had a longstanding association with the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. She grew in understanding as the years passed, and after 1900 abandoned her policy work to concentrate on scholarship. She was not in any formal sense a Nebraska writer, she never lived in the state, though she visited often and had many long-standing connections to the state and its tribes. She is included in the database for those connections.

References:

The Smithsonian Institution has done an on-line display titled "Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher" (now archived) making her early field diaries available on-line with a longer introduction. The Wikipedia page is good. PBS's "New Perspectives on the West" has a useful online page. Finally, the editors' introduction to the 2013 Life Among the Indians: First Fieldwork among the Sioux and the Omaha, Joanna C. Scherer and Raymond J. DeMallie, ed., brings up all the important issues in greater detail. A Stranger in Her Native Land: Alice Fletcher and the American Indians,, 1988, is a meticulously researched, readable and well received biography by Harvard anthropologist and Peabody Museum associate Joan Mark.

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Author Of

  • Nonfiction

Keywords

Anthropology; Ethnology; Native Americans; Omaha Tribe, Pawnee Tribe, Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Tribal Group; Santee Sioux Tribal Group; Native American Music

Bibliography

Alice Cunningham Fletcher: Listing incomplete.

Historical Sketch of the Omaha Tribe of Indians in Nebraska. 1885. In HR.
Indian story and song from North America. 1900, 1995. In HR
The Omaha Tribe. With Francis La Flesche. 2 Volumes. 1911, 1972. In HR
Life among the Indians : first fieldwork among the Sioux and Omahas. (edited by Joanna C. Scherer and Raymond J. DeMallie) 2013. In HR

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