Monday, August 3, 2020

A New Virtual Finding Aid for Ethel Cutler Freeman Collection

Portrait of Ethel Cutler Freeman. The Ethel Cutler Freeman papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Ethel Cutler Freeman (1886-1972) was a remarkable woman who defied expectations to become a celebrated anthropologist. She was born in 1886 in Morristown, New Jersey. After studying abroad in England at Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre’s Academy for Girls, Freeman returned to the United States and married New York stockbroker Leon S. Freeman in 1909. Over the course of the next 25 years, she gave birth to three children (two daughters and a son) and lived the life of a socialite and well-to-do wife and mother. However, she was determined to move beyond the expected activities for a woman of her social class, and in 1934, decided to look to education to clear a “brain full of cobwebs.”1 Freeman’s papers reveal that dedication for growth; for example, there are several notes that she wrote to herself on themes like “How to Give a Good Lecture” evidenced by a folder labeled “Analysis of my writing by myself.”

“What is wrong with my writing,” a list of critiques by Freeman about her writing. The Ethel
Cutler Freeman papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Freeman decided to venture out and grow her interests beyond ordinary daily social activities and, on the advice of her friend Marcellus Hartley Dodge, attended Columbia University, taking courses in psychology and sociology. She became interested in Native American cultures, specifically that of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, due to the proximity of her family’s home in Naples, Florida, to the Big Cypress Reservation. She met Dr. Clark Wissler, then curator of the Indian Division of the American Museum of Natural History, who was supportive of Freeman’s pursuit of anthropology but discouraged her from attempting a study of Seminole communities, as they were not typically open to outsiders. 

Ethel Cutler Freeman with councilman and medicine man Josie Billie and Frank Cypress outside of Freeman’s chiki on her arrival at the Big Cypress Reservation in 1941. The Ethel Cutler Freeman papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

Despite Dr. Wissler’s comments (and his own experience of not being able to work with Seminole communities), Freeman was able to make around thirty stays with the Seminole Tribe of Florida at the Big Cypress Reservation starting in February of 1940. She brought one of her daughters, Condict, and son, Leon Jr., with her on many of her trips. Although Freeman acted with the permission of the Seminole of Florida and developed close relationships with many members of the tribe, it is important to note that she was not acting in collaboration with or at the invitation of the community, as she would today.

Ethel Cutler Freeman demonstrating the use of her 16mm Ciné Kodak camera for children on the Big Cypress Reservation. The Ethel Cutler Freeman papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Over the course of the 1940s, Freeman added to her fieldwork in Florida with trips to Mexico and New Mexico, working with the Mascogo, Tohono Oʼodham, Kickapoo, Navajo, and Hopi peoples. The Mascogo community was of particular interest to Freeman as they are a Seminole group descended from escaped African slaves who joined with the Seminole peoples.2 During this period, she also established herself as an expert in Seminole culture and, in 1947, was appointed as the American Civil Liberties Union’s representative on the National Coordinating Committee for Indian Affairs. She additionally took on a role as a consultant for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, in 1948, was appointed to the Hoover Commission for Reorganization of Government as their representative. These accomplishments were remarkable for the time, as there were very few female anthropologists.

Scene from  Seminole Indians, ca. 1950  (HSFA# 1986.11.9) Ethel Cutler Freeman papers, Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Freeman published articles and gave talks and lectures on the Seminole at events ranging from international conferences to garden club meetings. In doing so, she used her privilege and education to advocate for awareness, recognition, and acknowledgement of the Seminole people.
 The finding aid for Freeman’s papers has recently been published on SOVA through the funding of the FY2019 Collections Information (CIS) pool.

Katherine Christensen (Contract Archivist) and Kaitlin Srader (Intern)
1Freeman to Marcellus Hartley Dodge. The Ethel Cutler Freeman papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
2For more information on the Mascogo, see Katarina Wittich, “The Mascogo,” Lest We Forget, Hampton University, accessed June 23, 2020,

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