Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Alice Cunningham Fletcher as a young woman. Photograph by Ormsbee's First National Gallery, New York.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susette La Flesche Tibbles or "Bright Eyes." Photograph by Price and Campbell, New York. Papers of Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Henry Tibbles. Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society.

 

 

 

 

 

Wajapa (Wa-Je-Pa or Ezra Freemont), n.d. Photo Lot 24, BAE 1-5 00683200 (detail).

 

 

 

Foreword

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, Fletcher’s 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 women’s 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 Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the nation’s leading anthropologist, discovered Alice Fletcher’s 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 Putnam’s urging, she soon changed her mind and became a fixture at the museum.

A Life of Science and Public Service

Fletcher’s 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 the 1880s.

Education was high upon Fletcher’s 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.

Fletcher’s 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.

Fletcher’s 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."

Fieldwork 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, Fletcher’s 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 man’s mental and physical capacities. In contrast, Native American societies were considered to be primitive relics of man’s 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 day.

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 guilty."

Navigating 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 16, 1881.