Top of page

Biography Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923)

Image: Alice Cunningham Fletcher at her writing desk
Alice Cunningham Fletcher at her writing desk.
Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4510

In many respects, Alice Fletcher was a typical Victorian intellectual--articulate, energetic, and active in a variety of social movements and women's organizations. She began her studies of American Indian life under the private tutelage of Frederick W. Putnam, director of Harvard University's Peabody Museum, and joined the public lecture circuit, as did many intellectuals of her day, championing the new discipline of anthropology. (Nearly 20 years later, Frances Densmore, another student of Indian music, also launched her career by embarking on the lecture circuit and in fact based her early lectures on the work of Alice Fletcher.)

Fletcher's long association with the Omaha people began at an 1880 Boston literary gathering with an introduction to Francis and Susette La Flesche, the son and daughter of Omaha chief Joseph La Flesche, who were touring the East Coast in an effort to raise support for their endangered kinspeople, the Poncas. Until that time she had based her anthropology lectures on library research and a small amount of archaeological fieldwork, but now she wanted to observe Indian culture directly and made arrangements to visit the Omaha reservation the following year. Over the next three decades, she traveled extensively throughout the West, studying not only Omaha traditions but those of the Pawnee, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Oto, Osage, Nez Perce, Ponca, and Winnebago as well. Although she is best known for her work on Omaha music and culture, she also published a study of the Pawnee Hako ceremony with the collaboration of Pawnee ethnologist James R. Murie, as well as articles on a variety of Indian subjects.

By the last decade of the 19th century Fletcher had become a leading figure in scientific circles, dividing her time between the Peabody Museum in Boston and the growing Washington, D. C., anthropological community. Support for her ethnological research came in the form of a 30,000 dollar fellowship established at Peabody exclusively for her by Mrs. William Thaw of Pittsburgh in 1890, and occasional donations and contributions throughout her life. For a while she continued to work closely with the Peabody Museum, but closer ties with the Bureau of American Ethnology and her increasing involvement with negotiations surrounding the establishment of the Archaeological Institute of America at Santa Fe -- which later became the School of American Research-bound her both physically and intellectually to Washington.

Fletcher's ethnological researches frequently coincided with active work on behalf of Indian peoples. Her willingness to live on the reservation and her knowledge of Indian culture made her a natural intermediary between the tribes and various government agencies. She was asked to administer the settlements for the controversial land-allotment program on several reservations, and she supported educational and economic projects designed to move Indian people closer to an assimilation with mainstream white culture which she felt would be their only salvation.

Recognizing the crucial role of song in ceremonial, Alice Fletcher began to collect Omaha Indian music early in her fieldwork. Like many accomplished scholars of her day, she was able to render the melodies she heard in standard musical notation, but because Fletcher saw herself as an ethnologist, not a musicologist, she did not feel qualified to comment on their musical characteristics. For this, she relied on the skills of John Comfort Fillmore, a music scholar with whom she shared decided theories on the implicit harmonic nature of Indian music. Fillmore harmonized all of the songs in the monograph, using as his justification Fletcher's observation that "the song played as an unsupported solo did not satisfy my memory of their unison singing, and the music did not 'sound natural' to them, but when I added a simple harmony my ear was content and the Indians were satisfied (1893, p. 240)." Fillmore, incidentally, did not trust the cylinder phonograph, preferring to work with transcriptions made in the field.


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)