A pioneer ethnologist and leader in the movement to bring Native Americans into the mainstream of white society, Alice Fletcher was nearly unique among her peers for putting her ideas into practice as an administrator of Indian policy in the field. Fletcher was born in Cuba in 1838 when her American family had journeyed there in a vain effort to restore her father's declining health. Both of her parents were well-to-do New Englanders, her father a New York lawyer and her mother a member of a prominent Boston business family.
Fletcher's father died when she was only twenty months old. After moving to Brooklyn, her mother enrolled her in the Brooklyn Female Academy, an early effort to provide first-class education to the daughters of elite families. Little documentation of her early life remains. Fletcher herself was terse about the first forty years of her life, remarking only that she attended "the best schools" and was a school teacher for some time. She also appears to have experienced enormous family problems; a friend's diary notes that "Pursued by a stepfather's fiendish malice... she had a tough fight for life." In any case, by the 1870s she had become very active in upper class feminist and suffrage groups in New York City.
Fletcher came to anthropology and Indian affairs relatively late in life, in the late 1870's. By 1880 she began studying archaeology under the informal mentorship of Frederick Putnam, the Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (Sex discrimination probably prevented her from holding a regular position at the Peabody.) Her interest in archaeology drew her toward living Indians, and in 1881 she arranged to live with and study the Omaha Indians of Nebraska.
Her time with the Omaha launched Fletcher simultaneously into her Indian policy and anthropology careers. She was fascinated by their culture -- especially their music and dances -- and became very close to several members of the tribe, ultimately adopting Francis La Flesche as her son. She also quickly became an influential proponent in the increasing push for allotment, the breakup of tribal landholdings into individual holdings. In 1882, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired her to make a survey of all Indian lands for their suitability for allotment. The same year she was hired to manage the allotment of the Omahas' lands. After the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which provided for the eventual breakup of all Indian reservations, she managed the allotment of the Nez PercÚ's remaining lands.
For Fletcher, as for its other champions, allotment was a virtual panacea for the ills afflicting Indians. They felt that tribal landholding blocked natural and healthy economic advances for whites and Indians alike by sapping individual incentive to work and keeping fertile lands in unproductive uses. As long as Indians held their lands collectively, these reformers feared, neighboring whites would never respect their rights to the land. The sad story of dispossession which had begun in the Atlantic colonies and swept westward would continue to repeat itself, ending only with the extinction of the Indians themselves.
The predominantly eastern reformers who steered allotment through Congress did not go unchallenged. Most Indian peoples saw allotment as the forceful imposition of yet another alien cultural practice, another way of stealing more of their land, and understood far better than distant philanthropists ever could that many of their lands were simply too arid for traditional row-crop agriculture. They showed their opposition by lobbying and petitioning Congress, refusing to attend meetings where allotments were to be assigned, and choosing adjacent allotments in order to reconstitute their commons (albeit on a smaller scale) after allotment. A handful of reformers, mainly in the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), joined Indians in their ultimately unsuccessful struggle against the Dawes Act. NIDA, whose white leadership feared that the enormous concentrations of wealth that had been brought about by industrialization undermined political equality in the United States, believed that individualizing Indian landownership would simply further impoverish them.
The dire predictions of allotment's opponents came true. In contradiction to the public statements and best intentions of the reformers like Fletcher who had proposed it, allotment was an unmitigated disaster. Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and its repeal under the New Deal in 1934, allotment continually deprived Indians of many of their remaining lands. The outright sale of "surplus" lands -- parts of reservations left over after allotments had been assigned -- and the subsequent sale of allotted lands themselves shrunk the Indian estate from about 150 million acres before the Dawes Act to 104 million acres by 1890, to 77 million by 1900, and to 48 million by 1934. By the time of its repeal, according to one study, two-thirds of the Indian population was "either completely landless or did not own enough land to make a subsistence living."
It was allotment which brought Fletcher to the Nez PercÚ reservation at Lapwai, Idaho, where she arrived in 1889 with her friend, Jane Gay. Gay and Fletcher had attended the same boarding school as children, and resumed contact when they met at a lecture in New York sometime in the 1880s. They revived their friendship, which soon blossomed into what was almost certainly a romantic partnership as well. For the next several decades, Gay cooked and kept house for Fletcher, nursing her when sick, journeying with her to the Nez PercÚ reservation, and moving with her into a Washington, D.C. apartment after their time in the northwest. Gay also became the chronicler of Fletcher's time among the Nez PercÚ, and learned photography to help Fletcher record characteristics of Nez PercÚ culture.
Fletcher met considerable resistance at Lapwai, including an encounter with the celebrated Nez PercÚ leader, Chief Joseph, who refused any part in her allotment schemes. Nonetheless, she persevered, returning to the reservation in springtime over several years to complete her survey and division of tribal lands.
Fletcher was of two minds about such government service. On the one hand, she relished her role in restructuring Indian life; on the other, the work was so time-consuming as to leave little room for her own intellectual work. In 1890 a wealthy benefactor endowed a chair at the Peabody for her, thereby eliminating the financial need to work for the government any longer. Her time with Nez PercÚ was to be the culmination of her government career.
After the completion of the Nez PercÚ project, Fletcher used the freedom provided by her Peabody position to produce an impressive stream of publications. Many were written in collaboration with her adopted son Francis La Flesche, who was by this time an anthropologist in his own right. Their work included a broad study of Omaha culture, a close study of a Pawnee ceremony, and numerous collections of Indian songs and music.
From an anthropological perspective, the chief importance of Fletcher's work lies in her application of the scientific rigor of archaeology to the field work of ethnology. She attempted in her observations of living Indians to move beyond the purely descriptive and impressionistic toward categorizing specific aspects of Indian culture and economic practices. Like almost all anthropologists of her day, she assumed that cultures could be placed on a continuum of savagery and civilization, and that the more closely Indians mimicked white culture the more "civilized" they had become.
Fletcher achieved enormous professional prominence. By the time of her death in 1923, she had served as Vice-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a founding member of the American Anthropological Association, and President of the American Folklore Association and several other scientific organizations.
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