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Biography Francis La Flesche (1857-1932)

Image: Francis LaFlesche
Francis La Flesche. Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4504.

The second son of Omaha chief Joseph La Flesche, Francis La Flesche attended the Presbyterian Mission school and participated in tribal ceremonies associated with approaching manhood. His mission education proved useful in his work as an interpreter and research assistant for James Owen Dorsey, who arrived on the Omaha reservation in 1878 to continue his studies in Dhegiha Siouan languages. In 1879 La Flesche accompanied his sister, Susette, and uncle, Ponca chief Standing Bear, on their grueling Eastern crusade for Indian land reform, and took a job a year later as a copyist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working at night to complete two law degrees. He formally transferred to the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1910, although he had been engaged in research for the Bureau for a number of years. During his tenure at the Bureau of American Ethnology he also began his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Alice Fletcher, who became first his employer, then his tutor and colleague, and who eventually adopted him as her son.

Between 1880 and 1910 Fletcher and La Flesche collected extensive data on the Omaha people. La Flesche's status on the reservation, his knowledge of the language, and his early participation in tribal rituals proved invaluable in their research. He was strongly committed to preserving every detail of Omaha life because he wanted non-Indians to understand the spiritual nature of Indian culture. When Fletcher commissioned John Comfort Fillmore to study Omaha songs for the 1893 monograph A Study of Omaha Indian Music, La Flesche worked closely with the musicologist, going over transcriptions and accompanying him on a field trip to the reservation.

Fletcher and La Flesche's most fruitful collaboration resulted in the publication of The Omaha Tribe in 1911, the culmination of nearly 30 years of meticulous gathering, sorting, and synthesizing data on the Omaha Indians. Apart from these joint efforts, La Flesche found time to publish articles on Omaha life and a popular account of his childhood at the mission school (The Middle Five, 1900). But he is best known for his independent research on the cognate Osage people for the Bureau of American Ethnology; his massive study, The Osage Tribe, was published between 1914 and 1928 in four separate volumes of the Bureau's Annual Reports.


This biography is reproduced from Dorothy Sara Lee and Maria La Vigna, eds. Omaha Indian Music: Historical Recordings from the Fletcher/La Flesche Collection. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1985.


Omaha Indian Music (American Memory)