In 1889, Alice C. Fletcher arrived on the Nez Perce Reservation to divide the land among tribal members.As a respected anthropologist and one of the first women to be named a federal appointee, her duty was to carry out the Dawes General Allotment Act, a U.S. policy she helped craft that mandated reservation land be divided among tribesman with the aim of making them farmers and U.S. citizens.
What followed was not an objective process, according to author Nicole Tonkovich, who has pored through hundreds of letters and other documents Fletcher left behind that show a web of influences often overlooked in
While Tonkovich finds Fletcher a fascinating character, she describes her as “a proper dour Victorian woman focused on doing her duty” and doesn’t necessarily find her likable.
“For a woman as brilliant as she was, she was extraordinarily well educated and a scholar, she had a lot of blind spots,” said Tonkovich, author of “Dividing the Reservation: Alice C. Fletcher’s Nez Perce Allotment Diaries and Letters, 1889-1892,” recently published by Washington State University Press.
This is Tonkovich’s second book about Fletcher’s work on the reservation. Her first, 2012’s “The Allotment Plot,” re-examined the history of the allotment emphasizing the Nez Perce view of the process. The new book is a compilation of Fletcher’s reports, letters and diary entries full of names and details, like which Nez Perce tribal members were giving her trouble, who she liked and didn’t like and the names of stockmen who tried to bribe or threaten her.
“It occurred to me that the content of those letters would be really important for people to see,” said Tonkovich, a professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego who will visit the area today and Friday to discuss the book.
Fletcher studied American Indian life privately under Frederick W. Putnam, director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. She lived among the Omaha Indians, recording their traditions, and became “a force to be reckoned with in Indian policy circles,” Tonkovich said.
Anthropology was an emerging field and shaped U.S. policy with the theory that human culture developed in three progressive stages: savagery, barbarism and civilization. The idea behind allotment was that by teaching the Indians to farm their own properties they would assimilate faster into society.
Another force at work was religion.
In an attempt to rid the nation of corrupt Indian agents, President Ulysses S. Grant created the 1868 Peace Policy that filled supervisory positions on the reservations with Christian missionaries. On the Nez Perce Reservation the Presbyterian church took this role, even though Catholics had been there since the fur-trading days, Tonkovich said.
As the land was divided, the Presbyterian Church negotiated for choice land for churches, schools and missionaries.
“They were pretty much looking over Fletcher’s shoulder at any moment,” Tonkovich said.
Fletcher made nearly 2,000 allotments over four summers on the reservation. The first to receive land were Presbyterians in Kamiah, where the largest concentration of adherents lived, Tonkovich said. The last two summers Fletcher worked in Lapwai where there were more Catholics and traditional Nez Perce — tribal members who had not converted to Christianity but continued to practice their native customs and beliefs. She said traditional Nez Perce were the last to get allotments.
“They were frequently not advantageous,” she said of the parcels.
Throughout her life Fletcher carried a tiny diary and pencil. Each day she made notes about the weather, temperature, things she did and people she wrote to and received letters from.
In her diary, Fletcher calls a group of traditional Nez Perce who resist her efforts “the kickers.”
The diary is one of the few ways to access Fletcher’s personal thoughts, Tonkovich said.
“It’s a kind of check on what she decided to tell the Indian office in her letters and what she decided not to tell them in her letters. In the diary we get a real sense of her as a person,” said Tonkovich.
“At some point after she returned from Idaho she burned all her personal letters. What survives are letters that were kept by people to whom she wrote.”
This included the wives of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats who would pass her suggestions on policy onto their husbands, Tonkovich said, even though Fletcher was supposed to be objective.
Tonkovich is planning another book about the Nez Perce allotment which will focus on E. Jane Gay, a photographer and longtime companion to Fletcher who accompanied her throughout the allotment process. Gay took 400 photographs of the area and wrote a series of letters she meant to publish as a kind of travelogue, Tonkovich said.
The negatives for Gay’s photographs are owned by the Idaho State Historical Society. Tonkovich has helped write an electronic catalogue linking the letters to the images. The online catalog should be available for the public to search by spring 2017, according to Jenaleigh Kiebert, a librarian at the Idaho State Archives in Boise.
If You Go
Nicole Tonkovich will speak about her new book “Dividing the Reservation: Alice C. Fletcher’s Nez Perce Allotment Diaries and Letters, 1889-1892”
Thursday, Sept. 22: Tonkovich will speak about the evidence letters can provide for scholarly research at 4 p.m. at the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation on the fourth floor of Holland Library at Washington State University.
Friday, Sept. 23: She’ll talk about what the Nez Perce people can learn from Fletcher’s letters at 1 p.m. at Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center at Spalding.
Both talks are free.