The American anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923) was a pioneer in the scholarly development and professional organization of the discipline of anthropology in the United States.
Born in Cuba of American parents on March 15, 1838, Alice Fletcher was privately educated and traveled widely in her youth before settling near Boston. Her interest in North American archeology and ethnology began prior to 1880, when she became informally associated with the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. In 1886 she was listed among the official personnel of the museum. She specialized in the ethnology of the Omaha Indians and other Plains Indian tribes, contributed to the early study of comparative ethnomusicology, and sought to justify aspects of Federal Indian policy of the late 19th century on the basis of anthropological theory.
Fletcher's first field work was undertaken in 1881, when on a camping trip with a missionary party she visited some Native American settlements in Nebraska and South Dakota. She then took up concentrated research of the Omaha tribe, who remained her primary interest, although she studied other Plains groups and published important works on them. Her best-known work, The Omaha Tribe (1911), was written with the assistance of Francis La Flesche, an educated member of the tribe.
Scholarly and Professional Activities
Fletcher's concern for the welfare of Native Americans preceded her serious study of ethnology. She believed that private property, agrarian economic pursuits, and assimilation into white society would quickly alleviate their socioeconomic distress. These convictions were bolstered by the cultural evolutionary theories current in her day and led her to justify "scientifically" and to promote vigorously the Omaha Allotment Act of 1882 and the General Allotment Act of 1887, which divided reservations into small, subsistence family farmsteads. Ironically, the measures in which Alice Fletcher placed so much faith further complicated the problems Native Americans faced, obstructing them in efforts to make rational adaptations of their land resources to opportunities offered by an increasingly industrialized society based on corporate rather than individual enterprise.
At a time when many professions were reluctant to accept women, prominent anthropologists were convinced that women were equally necessary to their discipline to obtain complete and accurate accounts of different societies. This cordiality extended to organizational activities as well. Alice Fletcher, for example, had charge of the Native American exhibit of the New Orleans Industrial Exposition of 1884-1885. In 1893, on the occasion of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she and several other women participated on equal terms with their male colleagues in the special Anthropological Congress. Matilda Stevenson had founded the Women's Anthropological Society in 1885, and Miss Fletcher served as president in 1893. This group disbanded in 1899, when the members were admitted to the heretofore all-male Anthropological Society of Washington, and by 1903 Alice Fletcher was president of the Washington society. Even earlier, in 1896, she had been vice president of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1905 she served as president of the American Folklore Society. She died in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 1923.
Further Reading on Alice Cunningham Fletcher
Alice Fletcher's correspondence and other papers are deposited in the archives of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. An extensive account of Fletcher is in the chapter by Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Women in Early American Anthropology," in June Helm, ed., Pioneers of American Anthroplogy (1966), which compares her career with those of Erminnie Platt Smith, Matilda Stevenson, Zelia Nuttall, Frances Densmore, and Elsie Clews Parsons. J. O. Brew, One Hundred Years of Anthropology (1968), is recommended for general background.
Additional Biography Sources
Mark, Joan T., A stranger in her native land: Alice Fletcher and the American Indians, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.