Alice Cunningham Fletcher was an anthropologist who conducted early fieldwork among Native Americans. She was also a political actor who shaped the U.S. government’s policies toward them at every level. Her involvement in Indian affairs didn’t begin until her forties, however.
Fletcher’s father, a New York lawyer, died when she was a baby, and she may have been sexually abused by her stepfather. She was rescued by a neighbor who hired her as a governess and continued to pay her after her services were no longer needed. As a result, Fletcher did not need to work or marry in order to support herself. She became involved in women’s clubs and served as co-secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Women, an organization modeled on the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among the prominent women with whom she organized was the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who may have been an inspiration.
When her benefactor died, Fletcher was almost forty. She began to earn her living as a public lecturer on literary and historical topics, and soon on ancient America. She wrote letters to the prominent archaeologists of the time. Frederic Ward Putnam of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University wrote back, inviting her to come and study with him.
Fletcher began studying archaeology and then anthropology in 1880, when she was 42. The next year, the journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles and the Omaha Indian Susette La Flesche took her west to Nebraska. She became one of the first anthropologists to conduct residential fieldwork, first among the Sioux and then among the Omaha.
Fletcher at first sought to understand the lives of Indian women and the nature of gender segregation “among barbarous people.” Like Margaret Mead later, she saw her fieldwork as women’s work because her female subjects were accessible only to a female researcher. She soon turned away from this line of research, however, and focused on religious ceremonies and music. Omaha men allowed her greater access to their ceremonies than any white man, but it’s hard to know what role her gender played in this.
Fletcher became concerned with “the Indian question,” the place of Indians in a country with expanding frontiers of white settlement. Her solution was a maternalistic plan of assimilation. Although Fletcher thought that native culture was mature in a pre-Columbian America, she saw the position of Indians in an America ruled by whites as that of children, and herself as a mother raising them in the ways of civilization. Upon her return to the east, she applied this conclusion politically by advocating the allotment of a fixed plot of land to each Indian family, introducing private land ownership in order to promote farming and social and geographical stability. She also raised money for assimilationist boarding schools, and lobbied Congress to support them.
In 1882 Putnam made Fletcher a Special Assistant in Ethnology at the Peabody Museum, an appointment that came with no salary. Putnam also prevented her from raising funds for her expenses herself, leaving her without any income. The next year, though, Fletcher was appointed a special agent of the Office of Indian Affairs and charged with overseeing the allotment of Omaha land. She was paid five dollars a day, the same wage as men. Fletcher was uniquely dedicated to allotment, working hard to survey land and adjudicate disputes. Her gender played a role in this. As her biographer Joan Mark writes, “Fletcher was shrewd enough to use people”s initial assumption that she was naive or malleable, and she did not discourage their tendency to think that as a woman she was above politics and had greater moral purity and goodness than men.’
Fletcher favored allotting all of the land for a family to the male head of the household because she thought paternal responsibility strengthened family ties. While working among the Winnebagos, though, she found so much resistance to this idea that she was forced to give the same amount of land to each person, man, woman, or child. It’s striking that a woman who avoided marriage and challenged male privilege in her own life advocated both when shaping the property rights of others.
Fletcher eventually changed her mind about allotment and assimilation in 1898, concluding that people need to be connected to their past and that cultures cannot be abruptly changed from outside. She never publicly recanted her earlier positions, however. Mark concludes that for her to have done so might have damaged the right of Indians to hold property at all, whether individually or tribally. It would almost certainly have hurt her reputation, and might also have affected the role of women in science generally.
Fletcher’s role as a scientific woman was often visible. After she became an anthropologist and government agent, she continued lecturing, often to female audiences. Although the policymakers she sought to influence were men, Fletcher often communicated with them through their female relatives. Sometimes she corresponded with legislators through their wives. She also found her female audiences helpful in fundraising, particularly for the preservation of the Serpent Mound of Ohio, the first legally protected archaeological site in the country.
As an agent of the Office of Indian Affairs, Fletcher was provided with an interpreter, Francis La Flesche. Fletcher and La Flesche had met when she first traveled to Nebraska with his sister. He was an Omaha who had been educated in a mission school and worked as a clerk for the Indian Bureau in Washington. Fletcher continued to write anthropologically as she worked for the government, and she and La Flesche became an anthropological team for the rest of their lives. La Flesche was 19 years younger, and in 1884 Fletcher adopted him as her son. Nonetheless, their relationship remained a frequent subject of rumors in their social circles.
In 1888 a third person joined their team and family for an allotment mission among the Nez Perce. E. Jane Gay was a former teacher, nurse, writer, and mail clerk eight years older than Fletcher who served as her housekeeper and photographer. Upon returning to Washington, Fletcher, La Flesche, and Gay moved into a house together. Both La Flesche and Gay were there to be with Fletcher, and they didn’t always get along with each other. La Flesche married briefly in 1906, but even then remained at Fletcher’s house, where his wife joined him. The house became a destination in the Washington social scene, particularly for fellow scientists.
While Fletcher was in Idaho, a wealthy widow endowed a fellowship for her at the Peabody Museum. The trustees resisted administering a fellowship to a woman, but settled for asserting their right to rescind it in the future. They never did, and for the rest of her life she was able to pursue her scholarly interests in Indian music and ritual. Nonetheless, Fletcher’s income was not great, and she was able to afford her mortgage only because her housemates paid her rent. She lived with La Flesche and Gay out of love, but it also would not have been possible to have a house in which to socialize without some such arrangement.
By 1891 Fletcher was writing, at least to Putnam, that her role in anthropology was not gendered. She was working on an exhibit for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and didn’t want it placed in the Woman’s Building. “I don’t believe in trying to disentangle work according to sex,” she wrote. Fletcher became the presiding officer of the anthropological section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, the first woman to hold such a rank in the society. She was also appointed president of the Anthropological Society of Washington after separate men’s and women’s societies merged, and president of the American Folklore Society. Fletcher was the only woman among the founding members of the American Anthropological Association. In time, and with great effort, she became an honorary man. Before one dinner held in her honor it was made clear that no other women were welcome. Although Fletcher must have worn a dress, as she always did, when the wife of one anthropologist asked how she had dressed for the event, he told her “same as the men, black with something white in front.”
- Joan Mark, A Stranger in Her Native Land: Alice Fletcher and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).
- Joy Elizabeth Rohde, “It Was No ‘Pink Tea’: Gender and American Anthropology: 1885–1903,’ in Significant Others: Interpersonal and Professional Commitments in Anthropology, edited by Richard Handler (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 261–290.
- Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).