Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Living With Native Americans
Alice Cunningham Fletcher
Alice Cunningham Fletcher was born March 15,1838 in Havana, Cuba. Her father was Thomas Gilman Fletcher, a New York Lawyer, and her mother was a Boston socialite by the name of Lucia Jenks Fletcher. At the time of Alice’s birth, her parents were residing in Cuba due to the failing health of Thomas. Mrs. Fletcher moved to Brooklyn with Alice after the death of Thomas, less than two years later.
Mrs. Fletcher remarried, and Alice went to fine schools, traveled in Europe, and retained employment as a governess for a short period of time. She began her study of archaeology in 1880 at Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Her early studies were in Florida and Massachusetts, where she studied Indian remains.
Alice Fletcher developed a keen interest in Indian life, and in September 1881 decided to live among and study an authentic Indian tribe. She camped and lived among the Omaha tribe. On September 16, 1881, she began her journey.
Journey to Sitting Bull and the Sioux Indians
Alice Fletcher left Omaha City at 9:45 am September 16, 1881, with carriage driver Mr. Baker; travel companions Mr. Tibbles; his daughter , Suzette Tibbles; and Mrs.Tibbles, Sr. The travelers made it to the town of Florence, Nebraska the first evening and found lodging approximately three miles out of town in the home of the Smith family. They were fed an evening meal of eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, applesauce, pie, bread, butter, and coffee. The group reached Fort Calhoun on the second evening where the only available lodging was a house which was filled with a strong unpleasant odor. The evening meal consisted of bread and milk.
On September 18, 1881, the group camped approximately three miles out of the town of Blair, Nebraska. Blair is only 30 miles out of Omaha and the trip took the travelers all day to get there. This is certainly a different concept for modern travelers since this can be achieved in 15 minutes or less in this time period. Here they purchased steak and watermelon for their dinner and oats for the horses.
The meal fare was certainly a poor standard of what modern Americans consume. September 17, 1881, found the group in Tekama, Nebraska, miserable, with bland food and dirty sheets. The next day the band entered the Omaha Reserve, which divides the white boundary and Indian boundary line. It was here that the first Indian was seen.
An Omaha Indian by the name of Wajapa (called Ezra Freemont) caught up with the group at this location. Wajapa built a fire for the group and gave the travelers a lesson in building fires. The Indians build fires by placing long sticks or logs coming to the center like spokes on a wheel. As the logs burn they are pushed into the center of the fire, which produces a longer burning fire. The fire will generally last all night when built in this manner. The Indians claim to be able to discern if a dead fire was built by an Indian or a white man by the ash that is left. White men placed their logs oblong where the Indian used the circular pattern.
The group traveled 18 miles in 4 ½ hours and reached the Winnebago Indian Reserve where they were able to purchase watermelon, grapes, beef steak, and feed for the horses.
On leaving the Winnebago village the group noted an old Omaha village where the dead were buried. There were old mud huts and bodies were laid out on their backs. The hill is now known as Grave Hill. This was the hunting and battle ground of the Omaha and the Sioux. The battles resulted in the Omaha relocating to what is now known as Bellevue, Nebraska.
The group passed a Winnebago Indian campground. The Winnebago tents were made of sticks placed in a circle and bent together at the top, in the shape of a half globe. Mats were then placed on top. The mats were infested with fleas so the travelers refused to make their camp and traveled a couple of miles farther to a location which they named Mosquito Camp due to the huge number of mosquitoes in residence. The evening meal consisted of bacon and coffee. Breakfast was flapjacks and bacon. They camped at Ponca City with only boiled potatoes for dinner.
Alice came from a wealthy family and she was use to dinners which lasted two hours and many courses. Many times she longed for the food and the comfort of her bed while living among the Native Americans.
The following night was spent in an Indian tent, where the group became acquainted with Indian manners, which were the reverse of ours. Indians did not speak to the person by name when present. No word of courtesy, no good morning or good night, only silence. Their custom was to come quietly and go quietly.
The wife’s place was by the door on the left hand of the tent after entering. The husband was next, and the guest place was at the rear, opposite the door. Other family members’ place was on the right. The group was served soup and coffee and the whole group slept in the same tent. Surprisingly the Indians ate their meat very well done. Along the way the group saw horses that had been stolen from the Omahas but were told that Indians had no formal redress under the law, so they could not reclaim their processions.
They next night they stopped at a house that belonged to a woman , who originally came from New York state, along with her four children. Her name was Hugho. She taught Alice how to cleanse the water by making lye out of wood ashes by boiling. Then the lye is placed in the hard water, and it is ready to use.
The woman stated that they had to travel 20 miles for wood. Many people had to travel 50 miles for wood, so they often burned corn cobs and such, instead. The woman sold them a watermelon and served them fried potatoes, hard boiled eggs, black coffee, and biscuits. Rain and thunder caused the group to make camp by placing a tent between the wagon and a fence. Dinner was again boiled eggs, coffee, and biscuits.
September 25, 1881, the group reached the reservation of the Sante Sioux. The Sioux were considered a fine looking race. The women stooped and bound their shawls around their shoulders. Some had tattooing above their foreheads. There was a mission located on the reservation which served to attempt to educate the Indians. The effort was difficult since the Indians themselves had no written language.
Alice then visited Standing Bear, whose wife took her around to visit numerous large Indian families. The men often had more than one wife in residence. The women wore many rings, bangle-like bracelets, and beads tied where the hair was gathered for married women, and at the ends for single women. The men wore bear skin around their front hair braided or twisted at the side.
The Ponca women had red painted in the part of their hair. Dinner was served in Standing Bear’s tent by his wife, consisting of roast pork, stewed beef, soup, and bread. Alice noted the pet dog present had no hair. After dinner a council was held, Alice Fletcher was welcomed, and the pipe was smoked. Whenever the Indians carried food to the mouth, the elbow was crooked out. The Sioux tents were put up by the women. Three poles were securely tied together a few feet from the top and set up as a tripod. The forks and other poles are laid, and their ends were forced into the ground. The tent cover was circular and opened to one side, where the flap is cut that forms the chimney. At the back a rope is tied to a pole. The pole was set opposite the entrance, and the tent cover wrapped around on either side and was pinned with sticks through holes. The entrance was approximately three feet high. Gutters were dug around the outside of the tent in order to keep out water from the ground . Hay was used to cover the dirt floor.
The average tent took twenty buffalo skins. The more impressive ones had thirty and the poor members had to make do with ten. The group traveled on and spent the night at a government fort. They were assigned a scout. On October 11, 1881, the group reached Spotted Tail. They were placed as guests in a 30-foot tent belonging to Asanpi, the chief of the Ogallala. They slept on hay and were served dried buffalo, bread, and sweetened coffee. The group was notified that Spotted Tail had been killed. October 17, 1881, they party went to view the government’s distributing beef to the Indians. This was a day of great celebration among the Indians. Indians came from every direction dressed in full costume, paint, feathers, gay blankets, and on ponies, carrying rifles.
The women rode painted ponies and adorned themselves with shell earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and painted hair. On October 20,1881, the party left for Turtle Creek. The group was feeling ill at this point, and there was no game in the area. A dinner of heated soup was consumed. The following day a blizzard set in. The tent was pitched in the rain and wind, and a miserable night ensued. The group set out the next morning but had to strike camp due to rain and hail. October 24, 1881, saw ice and snow.
Wajapa located stored artichokes in a squirrel nest as available food was scarce. October 25, 1881, the party reached Fort Randall (winter camp of Sitting Bull). October 27, 1881, the party visited Sitting Bull’s camp. There were 168 persons - men, women and children. Sitting Bull asked for sympthy for his women and children. Alice found him very interesting . He expressed a desire to leave the old ways behind and make his way toward civilzation. Alice gave him her address and promised help. He gave her his autograph. October 30, 1881, Alice took the stage back to the mission farm. She was glad to see the mission ahead. She continued her work with the American Indian and supported their cause. Alice Fletcher died in Washington DC April 6, 1923, at the age of 85. She was the first woman Indian agent, first woman to become a fellow at Harvard University, and the first woman President of the American Folklore Society.