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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche in the Transcription Center

Earlier this month, the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) posted the first of many newly digitized materials from the Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche Papers (NAA MS 4558) to the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Primarily comprised of Fletcher’s professional and personal correspondence, allotment field books, and notes, this digitized content makes up only a portion of the large, and extremely significant, joint papers of Fletcher and La Flesche.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher at her writing desk, undated, BAE GN 4510,
 National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Born in 1838, Alice Cunningham Fletcher was one of the first women ethnologists in the United States. She was a lifelong student and intellectual, receiving her education from a number of different prestigious institutions. Fletcher’s career in anthropology, however, did not begin until the 1870’s when she became an informal student of Frederic Ward Putnam, Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Eager to make her mark in the field, she embarked on her first ethnographic trip in 1881, travelling to Nebraska to live among and study the Omaha people. It was uncommon at this time, for female ethnologists to conduct field research alongside their subjects, and Fletcher’s decision to live and study among the Omaha people, solidified her professional, and tenacious, role in a male-dominated field. Fletcher was accompanied on this trip by Omaha writer-activist Susette La Flesche (1865-1915) and her half-brother, Francis La Flesche (1857-1932). This trip marked the beginning of Fletcher and Francis La Flesche’s life-long personal and professional relationship. The two forged an informal mother-son relationship, often working and living closely with each other. Because of this, their professional papers are merged within the collections of the National Anthropological Archives.

Portrait of Francis La Flesche and Sister, Susette,
undated, Photo Lot 24 SPC Plains Omaha
BAE 4558 La Flesche & Family 00689800,
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Fletcher’s research with Native American communities--including the Omaha, Nez Perce, Winnebago, and Sioux--focused primarily on culture and music. A pioneer in the ethnographic field of American Indian music, she studied and wrote out native songs and was among the first anthropologists to use a Graphophone to record music (Scherer and DeMallie 2013).  She published over forty monographs and reports relating to native culture.  Her contributions to the Bureau of American Ethnology’s Handbook of North American Indians, under the editorship of Frederick W. Hodge (1907 and 1910) included not only a section on music and musical instruments but more than ninety-six other articles as well. Fletcher also took on a number of leadership roles and appointed positions within the field of anthropology.

Working as a consultant for the Bureau of American Ethnology, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Peabody Museum, she worked on land allotment claims with Native tribes, continued in her own ethnographic research, and presented at a number of professional associations. Fletcher worked closely with the Women’s National Indian Association, was elected president of the Anthropological Society of Washington, became the first female president of the American Folklore Society in 1905, and served as Vice-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Alice Fletcher, Meepe, and Martha, ca. 1887-1889, BAE GN 4439,
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 
Fletcher’s professional career and research paved inroads not only for female ethnologists, but in the field of ethnomusicology, anthropology, and Native American studies more generally. Yet it’s also important to note that her work, along with many other ethnologists in the nineteenth century, emphasized cultural assimilation for Native peoples and resulted in many negative consequences for these communities. Reflecting the common paternalistic view of many white Americans at the time, Fletcher believed that education was of primary importance for Native Americans, as it would ease assimilation into “civilized” culture. This belief undergirded her interest in ethnography and her work among American Indians. She was involved in the early 1880s with the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania, the most well-known Indian school devoted to the purpose of educating and “civilizing” Native children (famously known for its founder, U.S. military officer Richard Henry Pratt’s slogan, “kill the Indian, save the man”). She also prepared an exhibit to the World Cotton Centennial in 1884 showing the progress of civilization among the Indians of North America, and conducted research in 1886 among Native tribes in Alaska for the Commissioner of Education.

In 1887, Fletcher was appointed United States special agent in the allotment of lands among the Winnebago, Omaha, and the Nez Perce under the Dawes Act, which she helped write and pass that same year. This act, created by Senator Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts, authorized the President of the US to survey American Indian land and divide it into allotments for individual Native Americans. Those who accepted were granted U.S. citizenship. Fletcher advocated for the Dawes Act as a way to better assist American Indians in obtaining land and homes and thus ensure survival. In reality, the act had detrimental consequences for Native culture. It led to the eventual breakup of numerous Indigenous reservations and imposed a system of private land ownership on many Indigenous tribes. This practice of land allotment was not ended until the passage of the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Additionally, Native boarding schools, and cultural education and assimilation of Native Americans resulted in the loss of traditional language and culture for generations of Indigenous communities, separated families, and often included physical, verbal, and emotional practices directed at Native children by white educators and officials. Fletcher herself may have eventually realized the error of these policies, as she abandoned her political work at the end of the nineteenth century, and began focusing more directly on her ethnographic research.

Transcription of Fletcher’s correspondence and notes will help make this material--and significant history--more accessible by creating readable, searchable content, available through the Smithsonian Collections Search Center and other major online search engines. This work will bring further awareness to the history of nineteenth-century ethnological work, the developing role of women in a male-dominated research field, and the evolution and consequences of United States Indian Policy. Those studying these topics, including historians, anthropologists, and Native scholars from the communities Fletcher worked with, will benefit from increased access and readability.

Access to this newly digitized and transcribed content is especially crucial for Native communities, who are now the NAA’s second largest user group. Native community researchers often use NAA materials like these to research their language, culture, and family history. Native researchers will be able to more easily locate this information within Fletcher’s writings once it is transcribed and keyword searchable, making genealogical research and cultural and language revitalization projects easier.

Dedicated digital volunteers (or volunpeers as we call them in the Transcription Center) have already completed projects from Fletcher’s archival collections, but there is still much work left to be done. More projects will launch online each week! Many of our volunpeers have even noted the interesting discoveries they’ve found, or provided additional background information while working through these rich materials.

These discoveries, and notes left on transcription pages, not only increase our excitement about and interest in this material, but also help to enhance the records and improve their use even further.

Want to join the effort to make the Alice Cunningham Fletcher materials more accessible? Visit the project pages on the Transcription Center’s website, sign up for a free account, and dive in! Have questions? Reach out to the NAA ( or the Transcription Center ( anytime.

Caitlin Haynes, Coordinator
Smithsonian Transcription Center 


Katherine Crowe, Reference Archivist
National Anthropological Archives 

The finding aid to the Papers of Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, which contains more information, can be found here. Fletcher’s Sioux journals are currently being prepared for publication by Joanna C. Scherer, Emeritus Anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, and David Posthumus.

Works Cited:

Scherer, Joanna C. and Raymond J. DeMallie, eds., 2013
Life among the Indians: First Fieldwork among the Sioux and Omahas by Alice C. Fletcher. Introduction by Scherer and DeMallie.  University of Nebraska Press.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, ed., 1907-1910.
Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, 2 Pts./ vols. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30. Washington: Smithsonian Institution: U.S. Government Printing Office. (Reprinted: Rowman and Littlefield, New York, 1979).

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