Alice Cunningham Fletcher

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Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923), born in Cuba during a temporary residence of her American parents on the island. She traveled widely in her early years and eventually settled in the Boston area, where she studied American archeology and ethnology at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. It was out of intense concern for the welfare and rights of the American Indian that she began her scientific studies of them. Although she was eventually to gain great and well-merited recognition as a scholar, the recommendations in behalf of American Indians that she made in the name of anthropological authority suffered from an uncritical commitment to benevolent philosophies of the nineteenth century. The policy she advocated was based on the assumption that it was both inevitable and desirable for the Indians to be assimilated into white society and for their tribal culture to be rapidly destroyed. In 1870 she held a post with the Women’s National Indian Association as administrator of funds from which small loans were made to Indians so that they might buy their own lands and build homes. Then, in 1879, she met Thomas Henry Tibbles—frontiersman, minister, journalist, and ardent worker in the cause of Indian rights—and asked that she be allowed to take part in his work on the frontier. Tibbles found it difficult to take seriously the plans of the small, seemingly delicate woman, already 40 years old and a product of city life, but Alice Fletcher prevailed. On September 1, 1881, she arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, to begin work on field studies that were to become standard references in North American ethnology. But many anthropologists familiar with Fletcher’s work are not aware of the fact that this field work permitted her to initiate the large-scale implementation of her well-intentioned but misguided notions and thus to affect the course of Indian affairs throughout
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