02 August 2005

camping with the sioux

Sitting Bull. Photograph by Palmquist and Jurgens [?], 1884.

Camping with the Sioux: Fieldwork diaries of Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Fletcher chronicled the trials and successes of her 1881 field trip in two journals accompanied by her drawings of the plains, reservations, and her many campsites throughout eastern Nebraska and southern South Dakota. Although they contain scant ethnographic information, Fletcher’s writings provide an important insight into the attitudes of many white scientists and administrators in the late nineteenth century with regard to what they termed "the Indian Question." As Native Americans faced the threat of white westward movement and land-hungry settlers, as well as brutal military aggression, many concerned Americans felt that the only way to "save" the Native American from extermination by civilization was to introduce them into American society – to "Americanize" the Native American.

Many late nineteenth century Americans envisioned the movement of American civilization as the inevitable evolution of man’s mental and physical capacities. In contrast, Native American societies were considered to be primitive relics of man’s ancient past, and therefore in danger of extinction. Alice Fletcher subscribed to this theory, and although many of her comments may seem nothing short of absurd to our late-20th-century sensibilities, her writings reflect the attitudes regarding the movement of history and social evolution prevalent in her day.

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