Cunningham Fletcher as a young woman. Photograph by Ormsbee's
First National Gallery, New York.
La Flesche Tibbles or "Bright Eyes." Photograph by
Price and Campbell, New York. Papers of Alice Fletcher and Francis
Henry Tibbles. Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society.
(Wa-Je-Pa or Ezra Freemont), n.d. Photo Lot 24, BAE 1-5 00683200
Alice Fletcher was born in Cuba in 1838. Her father, a graduate
of Dartmouth and a promising young attorney in New York, suffered
from ill health and ventured to Cuba in a failed search for
a climate more amenable to his well-being. After her father
passed away, Fletchers mother, whom she recalled as a
"highly educated lady of Boston," moved the family
back to the East Coast so that her daughter might attend the
"best schools" available.
After finishing school, Fletcher taught in private institutions
and was active in womens advancement clubs. When financial
difficulties forced her to find a means of supporting herself,
she set out on the popular lecture circuit where she pursued
her interests in the history of human life. In her lectures,
Fletcher argued that the ancient history of man was best uncovered
by archaeology and ethnography.
When Frederick Ward Putnam, the director of Harvards
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the nations
leading anthropologist, discovered Alice Fletchers ability
and interest, he invited her to study under him. Fletcher responded
with fright: "I am simply a student, and trying to interest
other[s] to go forth and make original investigation, I hardly
feel myself entitled to accept so valuable a gift." With
Putnams urging, she soon changed her mind and became a
fixture at the museum.
Life of Science and Public Service
Fletchers research inspired her to live among the
Indians for scientific purposes, but her foray into Indian territory
sparked her interest in the contemporary plight of Native Americans.
Her companions, Susette La Flesche, Thomas Henry Tibbles and
Wajapa, aroused her awareness of the difficulties and changes
that encroaching white settlers and land-grabbers brought to
Native Americans. She resolved to reform Congressional legislation
regarding Native American affairs and to help Native Americans
become Americanized. Fletcher felt, as did many Americans in
the late nineteenth century, that the only way Native Americans
could avoid extermination caused by civilization was by adapting
to the "civilized" mannerisms of white Americans.
Fletcher concluded, "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."
Soon after she returned from her visit in the Midwest,
Fletcher helped create and push through Congress a bill that
allowed the Omaha people to claim title to their own land. Fletcher
returned to the Omaha Reservation in 1883 as an employee of
the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allot private property to the
inhabitants of the reservation, and she carried out similar
work at the Winnebago and Nez Perces reservations throughout
Education was high upon Fletchers agenda for aiding
Native Americans in gaining the characteristics and accoutrements
of civilization. From 1881, Fletcher was avidly involved in
the interests of the Carlisle Indian School, an institution
in Pennsylvania developed for Native American children. At Carlisle,
the children learned English and arithmetic and developed skills
that would allow them to become productive American citizens.
Fletchers allotment and other benevolent works have
been regarded as a grievous error in the administration of Native
American lands and peoples. Even Fletcher herself may have realized
the error in her attitude and she confined her work solely to
ethnography after the turn of the century. Although her interest
in the affairs of Native Americans continued throughout much
of her life, she focused her later studies on Omaha, Winnebago
and Pawnee social organization, often collaborating with her
adopted son, ethnographer Francis La Flesche. Fletcher also
pioneered the study of Indian music, producing numerous articles
with her musically trained collaborator, John Comfort Fillmore.
In 1900, she published Indian Story and Song From North America,
a well-received volume that drew attention to the ethnographic
import of Native American music.
Fletchers career continued until her death in 1923
and in her lifetime she garnered numerous honors. In 1891, she
was awarded the Mary Copley Thaw Fellowship at Harvard, which
supplied her with funds for ethnographic and reform work. She
became the President of the Anthropological Society of Washington
in 1903 and the President of the American Folk-Lore Society
in 1905. Her colleague, Walter Hough, remembered Fletcher as
one who "mildly, peaceably, yet with great fortitude ...
did what she could to advance the cause of science."
with the Sioux
Fletcher chronicled the trials and successes of her 1881 field
trip in two journals accompanied by her drawings of the plains,
reservations, and her many campsites throughout eastern Nebraska
and southern South Dakota.
Although they contain scant ethnographic information, Fletchers
writings provide an important insight into the attitudes of
many white scientists and administrators in the late nineteenth
century with regard to what they termed "the Indian Question."
As Native Americans faced the threat of white westward movement
and land-hungry settlers, as well as brutal military aggression,
many concerned Americans felt that the only way to "save"
the Native American from extermination by civilization was to
introduce them into American society to "Americanize"
the Native American. Many late nineteenth century Americans
envisioned the movement of American civilization as the inevitable
evolution of mans mental and physical capacities. In contrast,
Native American societies were considered to be primitive relics
of mans ancient past, and therefore in danger of extinction.
Alice Fletcher subscribed to this theory, and although many
of her comments may seem nothing short of absurd to our late-20th-century
sensibilities, her writings reflect the attitudes regarding
the movement of history and social evolution prevalent in her
Additionally, the text provides a rare glimpse of the trials
early ethnographers faced. Like many of her contemporaries,
Fletcher was untrained in ethnographic methods, and her notebooks
chronicle her burgeoning understanding of the methodology of
fieldwork. She also struggled to cope with the racial confrontations
implicit in her ethnographic project. She recalled on the first
leg of her trip to the Omaha reservation, "As we sat eating
our dinner, Wajapa said, 'I believe all white men tell lies.'
I looked up as he spoke and found him looking at me with
a seriousness and concentration of gaze that I can never forget.
In it was memory, judgment based on hard fact. There was seemingly
no appeal two races confronted each other, and mine preeminently
the Online Edition
The following text is based on two journals kept by Alice Fletcher
during a six-week venture into Plains Indian territory in 1881.
For convenience, the diary has been divided into daily entries
connected by a more button at the bottom of each page.
The diary can also be navigated by clicking a date on the calendars
that appear on the exhibit home page, or by clicking the "calendar
strip" at the bottom of each diary page. To return to the beginning,
click "Camping With the Sioux" at the top of any page.
Learn how this online edition was created.
Alice Fletcher's diary begins on September