Meet the Socialite Who Helped Preserve — and Destroy — Native American Culture - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Meet the Socialite Who Helped Preserve — and Destroy — Native American Culture

Meet the Socialite Who Helped Preserve — and Destroy — Native American Culture

By Kristina Gaddy


Anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher helped destroy American tribes she admired and studied.

By Kristina Gaddy

The first time Alice Cunningham Fletcher heard Native American music — a cacophony of drumming and screaming — was on an autumn camping trip among the Sioux in 1881. Yet all around her, people were dancing and enjoying the complex rhythms and ululations. Fletcher’s training as an anthropologist told her to ignore her own preconceptions about what music should be and instead try to understand what it expressed out on the plains. Only one other scholar had studied Native American music, and Fletcher’s experience of roughing it in the Dakota Territory inspired her to go further — she wanted to record and transcribe the music before it was lost forever.

Over the next 15 years, Fletcher worked with Francis La Flesche, the son of an Omaha chief, to make more than 400 wax cylinder recordings of Native American music. The partners also documented dances and other ceremonies that Fletcher described in two books and numerous scholarly articles. And while Fletcher and La Flesche were preserving a culture for posterity, the U.S. government was systemically destroying the way of life that had created that art with policies Fletcher herself championed.

[Fletcher] genuinely believed allotment would empower reservation natives, but she was gravely mistaken.

Denny Smith, associate professor of history, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Fletcher was born in Cuba in 1838. Her father was a New York lawyer who had taken his family to the Caribbean in hopes the climate would cure his unspecified ill health; her mother was from a prominent Boston family. When her father died the following year, Fletcher and her mother returned north, to Brooklyn, where Fletcher was educated in exclusive private schools. She eventually became a governess.

In 1870, she was invited to join a newly formed club called Sorosis, a professional organization for women. There, she met pioneers of the suffrage movement and became connected to some of the most prominent women of her time — women “who believed that they were at the top of the social ladder because they deserved to be there,” writes Joan Mark in A Stranger in Her Native Land: Alice Fletcher and the American Indians.


Unlike most women she knew, however, Fletcher was single and needed to earn a living. Using her society and professional contacts, she dropped the governess gig and started a career as a public lecturer, traveling throughout the Northeast to give talks on anthropology, archaeology and the education of Native Americans. As she learned more about American prehistory, her fascination with indigenous peoples soared, and she received permission from F.W. Putnam, curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, to audit classes.

Antiseptic academic studies in Boston were far removed from learning directly from actual Native Americans, and Fletcher longed to explore the West. She got her chance on that camping trip in 1881, arranged by Susette La Flesche, daughter of the chief of the Omaha tribe, and La Flesche’s husband, Thomas Henry Tibbles. During the expedition, Fletcher learned firsthand of the threats Sioux, Omaha and other tribes faced as the U.S. government broke treaties and relentlessly seized their land. Even La Flesche’s father, Chief Joseph, worried whether the Omaha’s deal with the government locked in ownership of the tribe’s ancestral land.

Fletcher began to believe that assimilation — in the form of a 160-acre homestead, citizenship and access to public education and other governmental resources — was far better than removal, which had been decimating Native Americans since the arrival of English settlers in the 17th century. The La Flesche family also supported integration into white society, says Denny Smith, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an Assiniboine from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. “[Fletcher] genuinely believed allotment would empower reservation natives,” Smith notes, “but she was gravely mistaken.” 

Fletcher was appointed special agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tasked with divvying up the Omaha tribal land into private, individual plots, a policy that became the model for the Dawes Act of 1887, which she helped draft and pass. Allotment was devastating. “[It was] a legal land fraud perpetrated by the federal government to steal tribal lands from within existing reservations,” says Smith. He and many other historians believe the damage of this policy, which destroyed a culture built around communal land, is still evident today.

And even as these massive disruptions were rocking the West, Fletcher connected with Susette’s brother Francis La Flesche and began an odyssey to document and record dances, ceremonies and music of the Sioux, Omaha and Nez Percé. Together and separately, they lugged the wooden box and large cone of the wax cylinder recorder across the West to capture songs, creating one of the most significant early collections of Native American music. More than 100 of those recordings now reside in the Library of Congress. 

While Fletcher credits La Flesche as an assistant in her books, A Study of Omaha Indian Music and The Omaha Tribe, he probably had a larger role than that. “It is [our organization’s] firm belief that Francis La Flesche, and not Alice Fletcher, is the principal author of The Omaha Tribe,” says Margery Coffey, assistant director of the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project. Smith agrees: “Almost everything Fletcher knew about Omahas came from La Flesche, and he alone is the source of priceless cultural heritage, traditions and stories in this book.”

And that once again poses a paradox. Even though the fancy lady from back East didn’t give credit where credit was due, her help and connections enabled La Flesche to become the first Native American anthropologist.

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