Fletcher, Alice Cunningham

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Fletcher, Alice Cunningham



Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923), American ethnologist, was born in Cuba during a temporary residence of her American parents on the island. She traveled widely in her early years and eventually settled in the Boston area, where she studied American archeology and ethnology at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. It was out of intense concern for the welfare and rights of the American Indian that she began her scientific studies of them. Although she was eventually to gain great and well-merited recognition as a scholar, the recommendations in behalf of American Indians that she made in the name of anthropological authority suffered from an uncritical commitment to benevolent philosophies of the nineteenth century. The policy she advocated was based on the assumption that it was both inevitable and desirable for the Indians to be assimilated into white society and for their tribal culture to be rapidly destroyed.

In 1870 she held a post with the Women’s National Indian Association as administrator of funds from which small loans were made to Indians so that they might buy their own lands and build homes. Then, in 1879, she met Thomas Henry Tibbles—frontiersman, minister, journalist, and ardent worker in the cause of Indian rights—and asked that she be allowed to take part in his work on the frontier. Tibbles found it difficult to take seriously the plans of the small, seemingly delicate woman, already 40 years old and a product of city life, but Alice Fletcher prevailed. On September 1, 1881, she arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, to begin work on field studies that were to become standard references in North American ethnology. But many anthropologists familiar with Fletcher’s work are not aware of the fact that this field work permitted her to initiate the large-scale implementation of her well-intentioned but misguided notions and thus to affect the course of Indian affairs throughout the country up to the present day.

In Omaha, she was met by Tibbles and Bright Eyes La Flesche, an educated Omaha Indian woman associated with Tibbles’ work and soon to become his wife. Tibbles’ autobiography, Buckskin and Blanket Days (1957), reflects both his admiration for Alice Fletcher’s determination and exasperation at her cheerful obliviousness to what wiser minds had here to fore recognized as realities in dealing with Indians and Indian agents. He never identified her by name but referred to her only as “High Flyer,” the name bestowed on her by his Omaha helper, Wajapa. After introductions to members of the Omaha tribe, the two women, Tibbles, and Wajapa set off on a journey to the Winnebago reservation—the Ponca settlement north of the Niobrara River which was made up of removed and demoralized remnants of the tribe whose members had returned to their old haunts—and finally to the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Tibbles had not underestimated the hardships, bad weather, and inconveniences that could be expected on the trip, but Alice Fletcher withstood them all equably.

She was impressed by Tibbles, Wajapa, and Bright Eyes and was grateful to them. Although they could converse in the several languages encountered on this first journey and could communicate with equal ease with her, a lady newly arrived from Boston, it apparently never occurred to her that the two Indians were highly atypical and that for all of Tibbles’ vast knowledge of Indian life, his Indian policy derived entirely from the white Christian values he shared with her.

Alice Fletcher had long since decided that what was best for the Indians was a Congressional act whereby every adult Omaha would be allotted 80 acres, to remain tax-free and to be held in trust by the government for a period of 25 years. After that time those who were judged competent would be granted fee patents and control over their holdings. Reservation lands left over after the distribution of allotments were to be sold for the benefit of the tribe to finance development of their farms. It is doubtful that the Omaha understood the nature of Fletcher’s solution for their problems; they only feared dispossession, as their neighbors the Ponca had experienced, and were in no position to question her narrow interpretation of their plea, “Make my home secure” (La Flesche 1923).

Alice Fletcher had influential friends in Washington, and the act was quickly pushed through legislative procedures and passed August 7, 1882. She was appointed special agent to oversee the surveying and allotment. In subsequent years she performed similar work among the Winnebago and Nez Perce, who, along with many other tribes, were allotted land under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, patterned after the Omaha Act.

In 1910, after an absence of many years, she returned to the Omaha for a brief visit. She observed, “. . . the act has not been altogether evil nor has it been wholly good for the people” (Fletcher & La Flesche 1911, p. 640). The Omaha were certainly far better off materially and were more cheerful than they had been when she first knew them, and it is small wonder that she viewed their future with optimism. She saw the tendency to lease rather than work the land as nothing more than an unfortunate phase of adjustment to land ownership, although it was really an indication of a major trend. The few well-run farms that she thought would be models proved to be short-lived exceptions. Finally, those items which she noted as “quaint survivals of old customs under a new guise” were really instances of adaptations, of cultural persistence, and of a desperate clinging to tribal identity that characterize Omaha life to the present day.

Margaret Mead spent the summer of 1930 with the Omaha (Mead 1932, passim). In keeping with her desire to conceal the identity of the group, which she called the “Antlers,” Mead did not mention Fletcher by name but paid respectful tribute in her statement that the traditional life and history had been so completely recorded for the Antlers that she chose to work with this group because she would be able to devote her attention entirely to modern conditions. Mead did not disclose that the same scholar who had provided such excellent ethnographic data was also the “well-intentioned lady of missionary leanings” whose benevolent efforts resulted in the social and economic chaos Mead observed. But Mead thought that philanthropic Americans of that time could not have been expected to understand that individual landownership by Indians would not solve the economic problems that the loss of the buffaloes had created. In any case, the inadequacy of the Omaha plan was demonstrated wherever allotment took place. Between the time that fee patents were issued and the beginning of the administration of John Collier as commissioner of Indian affairs in 1938, two-thirds of allotted Indian lands had passed into white ownership (Fey & McNickle 1959, p. 78). Fletcher’s “strong paper” on individual allotments was far weaker than the tribal treaty relating to undivided lands.

In matters unrelated to economics her outlook was scientifically objective. Tibbles always disapproved strongly of her interest in Indian dancing and singing and of her desire to observe and record ceremonies: to him such matters were part of Indian “savagery” to be rigorously discouraged and repressed. Alice Fletcher, however, was impressed by the artistry, poetic sophistication, and scientific significance of these customs in contrast to the Indians’ material life, and she made important pioneering studies of Indian music and ceremony. Her obviously sincere concern for Indian welfare and her untiring efforts to record ceremonial life accurately won the esteem of her informants. She collected highly secret data with relative ease and maintained generally excellent relations with both colleagues and informants by a combination of humor, patience, total unselfishness, and lack of vindictiveness when crossed. Her small stature and seeming frailness apparently disarmed people who did not appreciate her strength and determination. During one field trip she suffered a siege of “inflammatory rheumatism,” which was to leave her crippled for the rest of her life. As she lay in pain, her Indian friends gathered daily to cheer and console her with songs. As soon as she was able, and with an amazing display of musical aptitude and memory, she carefully transcribed a large number of the songs (Hough 1923, p. 255).

Fletcher’s theoretical interests were influenced by nineteenth-century evolutionary concepts but went beyond mere collection of facts or broad ascription of traits to given stages of development. Her investigations of Omaha religion carried her into comparative work among other Siouan speakers of the Plains, and as she suspected the existence of yet older layers of cosmology and ritual from other sources, she turned to the Caddo as the likely carriers of more ancient forms. She had observed the Pawnee hako ceremony in the 1880s, and as her awareness of problems of diffusion increased, she returned as an experienced field worker to the Pawnee in the 1890s and recorded the ceremony (Fletcher 1904).

Her scientific endeavors won rapid recognition in the anthropological profession. From 1883 onward, her name appears often in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in connection with papers dealing with aspects of Plains culture. In 1896 she was vice president of the AAAS. In 1884/1885 she was in charge of Indian exhibits at the New Orleans industrial exposition. It pained her that Indians were represented by crude artifacts, and she wrote a letter, which was published and circulated among Indian groups, stressing the importance of education if Indian people were to take their rightful place in creating technological wonders like those of the white man (Fletcher 1885, pp. 1-4).

The Chicago world’s fair of 1893 included a special congress of anthropology, and she took an active part in the proceedings along with the major anthropologists of her day, such as Frederic Ward Putnam, Franz Boas, and Zelia Nuttall.

After 1890, when she made her home in Washington, B.C., Alice Fletcher was a member of the Women’s Anthropological Society (WAS) and served as its president in 1895. The WAS was founded in 1885 by Matilda Stevenson, famous for her studies of Pueblo groups, and was disbanded in 1899, when the group was received as a whole into the heretofore all-male Anthropological Society of Washington. Alice Fletcher was elected president of that society in 1903 and of the American Folklore Society in 1906. She worked closely with Frederic Ward Putnam in his research on the Serpent Mound in Ohio, and in 1900 they engaged in a fund-raising campaign to buy the site as a historic landmark, turning the deed over to the Ohio Archeological and Historical Society.

By the time of her death, at the age of 85, Alice Fletcher had become sort of a living legend in anthropology, active to the end in promoting scholarly enterprises and good works.


[Other relevant material may be found inINDIANS, NORTH AMERICAN.]


1885 A Letter From the World’s Industrial Exposition at New Orleans to the Various Indian Tribes Who Are Interested in Education. Carlisle, Pa.

1904 The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Twenty-second Annual Report, 1900-1901. ⇒ The entire issue is devoted to Alice C. Fletcher’s work.

1911 FLETCHER, ALICE C.; and LA FLESCHE, FRANCIS The Omaha Tribe. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Twenty-seventh Annual Report, 1905-1906. ⇒ Much of the research on the volume as a whole antedated that done on the hako ceremony published earlier. The entire issue is devoted to Alice Fletcher’s and Francis La Flesche’s work.


Alice C. Fletcher Memorial Meeting. 1923 El palacio 15, no. 5:83-88. ⇒ Contains sentimental tributes by Alice C. Fletcher’s friends.

FEY, HAROLD E.; and McNiCKLE, D’ARCY 1959 Indians and Other Americans: Two Ways of Life Meet. New York: Harper. ⇒ Although Alice Fletcher’s role is not noted, this account reviews the devastating effects of the Dawes Act of 1887 and the amount of land loss up to 1933.

HOUGH, WALTER 1923 Alice Cunningham Fletcher. American Anthropologist New Series 25:254—258. ⇒ An obituary containing the most extensive biographical data in the form of a chronology of events and achievements and a bibliography of Alice C. Fletcher’s writings.

LA FLESCHE, FRANCIS 1923 Alice C. Fletcher. Science New Series 58:115 only. ⇒ An obituary stressing the nature of Alice C. Fletcher’s personality.

LAMB, DANIEL S. 1906 The Story of the Anthropological Society of Washington. American Anthropologist New Series 8:564-579.

LUMMIS, CHARLES F. 1923 In Memoriam: Alice C. Fletcher. Art and Archeology 16:75-76.

MEAD, MARGARET 1932 The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 15. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

TIBBLES, THOMAS H. 1957 Buckskin and Blanket Days: Memoirs of a Friend of the Indians Written in 1905. Edited by Theodora B. Cogswell. New York: Double-day. ⇒ Thomas H. Tibbles’ memoirs were written in 1905 but checked and expanded, with a biographical introduction by T. Cogswell, in 1957. Tibbles takes full credit for inspiring the Dawes Act of 1887, and although he often refers to Alice Fletcher as “High Flyer” and pays her grudging respect as a remarkable woman, it is clear that he resented her overshadowing him in the role of friend and benefactor to the Indians.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher

views updated May 14 2018

Alice Cunningham Fletcher

The American anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923) was a pioneer in the scholarly development and professional organization of the discipline of anthropology in the United States.

Born in Cuba of American parents on March 15, 1838, Alice Fletcher was privately educated and traveled widely in her youth before settling near Boston. Her interest in North American archeology and ethnology began prior to 1880, when she became informally associated with the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. In 1886 she was listed among the official personnel of the museum. She specialized in the ethnology of the Omaha Indians and other Plains Indian tribes, contributed to the early study of comparative ethnomusicology, and sought to justify aspects of Federal Indian policy of the late 19th century on the basis of anthropological theory.

Fletcher's first field work was undertaken in 1881, when on a camping trip with a missionary party she visited some Native American settlements in Nebraska and South Dakota. She then took up concentrated research of the Omaha tribe, who remained her primary interest, although she studied other Plains groups and published important works on them. Her best-known work, The Omaha Tribe (1911), was written with the assistance of Francis La Flesche, an educated member of the tribe.

Scholarly and Professional Activities

Fletcher's concern for the welfare of Native Americans preceded her serious study of ethnology. She believed that private property, agrarian economic pursuits, and assimilation into white society would quickly alleviate their socioeconomic distress. These convictions were bolstered by the cultural evolutionary theories current in her day and led her to justify "scientifically" and to promote vigorously the Omaha Allotment Act of 1882 and the General Allotment Act of 1887, which divided reservations into small, subsistence family farmsteads. Ironically, the measures in which Alice Fletcher placed so much faith further complicated the problems Native Americans faced, obstructing them in efforts to make rational adaptations of their land resources to opportunities offered by an increasingly industrialized society based on corporate rather than individual enterprise.

At a time when many professions were reluctant to accept women, prominent anthropologists were convinced that women were equally necessary to their discipline to obtain complete and accurate accounts of different societies. This cordiality extended to organizational activities as well. Alice Fletcher, for example, had charge of the Native American exhibit of the New Orleans Industrial Exposition of 1884-1885. In 1893, on the occasion of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she and several other women participated on equal terms with their male colleagues in the special Anthropological Congress. Matilda Stevenson had founded the Women's Anthropological Society in 1885, and Miss Fletcher served as president in 1893. This group disbanded in 1899, when the members were admitted to the heretofore all-male Anthropological Society of Washington, and by 1903 Alice Fletcher was president of the Washington society. Even earlier, in 1896, she had been vice president of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1905 she served as president of the American Folklore Society. She died in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 1923.

Further Reading

Alice Fletcher's correspondence and other papers are deposited in the archives of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. An extensive account of Fletcher is in the chapter by Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Women in Early American Anthropology," in June Helm, ed., Pioneers of American Anthroplogy (1966), which compares her career with those of Erminnie Platt Smith, Matilda Stevenson, Zelia Nuttall, Frances Densmore, and Elsie Clews Parsons. J. O. Brew, One Hundred Years of Anthropology (1968), is recommended for general background.

Additional Sources

Mark, Joan T., A stranger in her native land: Alice Fletcher and the American Indians, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. □

Fletcher, Alice Cunningham

views updated May 18 2018

Fletcher, Alice Cunningham

Fletcher, Alice Cunningham, American ethnologist; b. Cuba (of American parents), March 16, 1838;d. Washington, D.C., April 6, 1923. She devoted her life to the study of North American Indians, among whom she lived for a number of years, becoming president of the American Anthropological Soc. (1903) and the American Folk Lore Soc. (1905). She was the author of Indian Story and Song from North America (1900), A Study of Omaha Indian Music (1903), and Indian Games and Dances (1915), as well as numerous articles in the Journal of American Folk Lore; etc.

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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