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Alice Cunningham Fletcher
(15 Mar 1838 - 6 Apr 1923)

American anthropologist who made pioneer studies of Native American Indian life, about which she spoke on the public lecture circuit. She influenced the passing of the Dawes Act.


National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C.

Evening Session (29 Mar 1888)

[p.237] Miss [Susan B.] Anthony. I now present one who will talk to you of our native-born people, the Indians—Miss Alice C. Fletcher, whom you all know and love and want to hear.

THE LEGAL CONDITIONS OF INDIAN WOMEN.

[by Alice Cunningham Fletcher]


Indian woman holding baby, standing beside a tipi. Photograph by William Henry Jackson (1868). (source)

Miss Fletcher. The popular impression concerning Indian women is, that they are slaves, possessing neither place, property, nor respect in the tribe. This impression is confirmed by observing that women are the workers and the burden-carriers; that upon them falls all the drudgery of life. They are also said to be bought and sold as wives, and their life is without honor or happiness. In the face of this generally accepted picture of the Indian woman, I can hardly hope to greatly modify this opinion by the statement of facts. I must, therefore, ask you to receive what I say as from one who, having lived among the people, sharing their poverty in summer and in winter, has thus learned their social and religious customs.

The Indian tribe is not a mere collection of men and women; it is a completely organized body, girt about by laws, unwritten, it is true, but rooted in the religion and time-honored customs of the people. The tribe is divided into clans or gens, each division having its location in the camp, and duties in the tribe. These clans are organized and subdivided, having appropriate [p.238] officers to fulfill their rites and customs. These clans are based upon kinship, and are the fundamental units of the tribe. A man is born into his clan, into this family of kindred. In a large proportion of our Indian tribes the mother carries the clan—that is, the man belongs to the clan or kindred of his mother, not to that of his father. It is a general law among a large portion of the tribes that a man may not marry in his own clan. The family, as we understand it, can not exist in the tribe, as the husband and wife represent two distinct political bodies, so to speak, which can never coalesce, for neither the man nor the woman by marrying lose or change any of their rights in their respective clans. There are no family names in an Indian tribe. Of course, I do not refer to the customs which have been introduced by our race in many of the tribes, but to the native conditions unmodified by the white man, which conditions are to-day more or less potent in every Indian community.

The man is given in his infancy one of the names belonging to his clan. These names are generally mythologic in their origin. He frequently takes other names later in life, marking his career, but he never forgets or loses his clan name. The woman is similarly named, and bears her birthright name to her grave. Her children, if the clan follows the mother, are given names proper to her clan, and are identified with her kindred and not with that of their father. The child is never the heir of both his parents, since the claim of the clan into which he is born is primal, and that of the family, as we know it, secondary. For the same reason the wife never becomes entirely under the control of her husband. Her kindred have a prior right, and can use that right to separate her from him or to protect her from him, should he maltreat her. The brother who would not rally to the help of his sister would become a by-word among his clan. Not only will he protect her at the risk of his life from insult and injury, but he will seek help for her when she is sick and suffering. When I last saw the Sun Dance, one of the young men who went through all the tortures did it to redeem a vow he had made when his sister lay ill. At that time he went out of her lodge, and, lifting his hand to the sun, he promised that if she might recover he would tie his body to the tree and suffer for her. The woman never, from her birth to her death, is without the strong protecting arm of her kindred, to whom she can appeal in the case of injury. This is the general law. There are, however, circumstances in which a woman loses by her own act this right of appeal to her kindred, and there is in some tribes a strong superstition concerning witchcraft, from the dread suspicion of which there is no more protection for the Indian accused, than there was for our own ancestors not many centuries ago.

In marriage the woman, as a rule, is free to choose her husband if she so desires. Whether or no she is forced to marry a man against her will to gratify her family, depends upon the individual woman. Still, matches are made all the world over. The gifts made by the man to the family of his [p.239] wife are not a price paid for her, but the recognition of certain claims and demands upon him. The equivalent of these gifts is returned to the wife, within a few months after her marriage, by her father or near of kin. Custom demands that the man should serve his father-in-law for a few years prior to setting up a separate establishment. Should the husband prove tyrannical or lazy in providing for his family, the wife tells him to go back to his kindred, or if the pair are living in a lodge apart from her family she takes down the lodge and departs, leaving her husband to watch the dying embers of the fire. Her kindred will not send her back, nor would her husband be allowed to coerce her to live with him.

It is true that Indian women are the laborers and burden-bearers. That is not because they are slaves, but because they belong to the non-combatant portion of society. All that part of any society which is not demanded for war is more or less engaged in labor. This is true among us, but the line is not drawn on sex. We set aside a class of men to defend us by arms, another class to defend us by laws, still another to execute the law, and so on; the remainder are employed in the industries and arts of peace. These labors are shared by both sexes and do not belong to women alone, because our society has become co-ordinated. In the Indian tribe you see a much simpler form of society.

No international courtesy or law holds tribes in peace or neutrality, and, until within a few years, every Indian village or camp was hourly in danger of war parties. The Indian man had to sleep on his arms, to be ready at any instant to defend his mother and sisters, his wife and children. This condition of affairs made it impossible for the Indian to become a laborer, and to this was added the necessity of hunting to procure meat and clothing. The Indian man was the sole provider and protector, and the Indian woman the conservor, of the home. He must ride free that he may strike the needed game or the dreaded enemy. He could not be hampered by the impedimenta of family bundles and burdens. Since all men were needed to protect all women and children, to the women fell the ax, the hoe, and the burden-strap, and, as a logical consequence, all the property belonged to the women.

In olden times the women claimed the land. In the early treaties and negotiations for the sale of land, the women had their voice, and the famous Chief Cornplanter was obliged to retract one of his bargains because the women forbade, they being the land-holders, and not the men. With the century, our custom of ignoring women in public transactions has had its reflex influence upon Indian custom. At the present time all property is personal; the man owns his own ponies and other belongings which he has personally acquired; the woman owns her horses, dogs, and all the lodge equipments; children own their own articles, and parents do not control the possessions of their children. There is really no family property, as we use [p.240] the term. A wife is as independent in the use of her possessions as is the most independent man in our midst. If she chooses to give away or sell all of her property, there is no one to gainsay her.

When I was living with the Indians, my hostess, a fine looking woman, who wore numberless bracelets, and rings in her ears and on her fingers, and painted her face like a brilliant sunset, one day gave away a very fine horse. I was surprised, for I knew there had been no family talk on the subject, so I asked: “Will your husband like to have you give the horse away?” Her eyes danced, and, breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the other women gathered in the tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. I tried to explain how a white woman would act, but laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man’s hold upon his wife’s property.

It has been my task to explain to the Indian woman her legal conditions under the law. In bringing our legal lines down upon her independent life I have been led to realize how much woman has given of her own freedom to make the strong foundation of the family and to preserve the accumulation and descent of property. All this was necessary, that the pressure of want should be removed, time for mental culture secured, and the development of civilization made possible to the race—a sacrifice needful, but nevertheless a sacrifice. As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” Men have said: “Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself. She is worth little but to help a man to have one hundred and sixty acres.” One day, sitting in the tent of an old chief, famous in war, he said to me: “My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of the women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.” Not only does the woman under our laws lose her independent hold on her property and herself, but there are offenses and injuries which can befall a woman which would be avenged and punished by the relatives under tribal law, but which have no penalty or recognition under our laws. If the Indian brother should, as of old, defend his sister, he would himself become liable to the law and suffer for his championship.

I have been considering strictly the legal conditions of Indian women under tribal and under our own laws. I have not touched upon customs which bear heavily upon them. Many of these customs can not be reached by the law. Their amelioration must depend upon other influences which [p.241] it is the function of Christian philanthropy to exercise. I would have you, my friends and sisters, take pity on the Indian woman. Her old-time individual independence is gone. She has fallen under the edge of our laws—an edge few of us have ever felt. We do not live under the letter of the law, but in the midst of a growing, broadening Christian spirit that is each year making its mark upon our statute-books and emphasizing the right of every human being to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile our Indian sisters are called to enter our civilization, and for them the path is full of difficulty and hardship. They must lose much they hold dear and suffer wrongs at the hands of those whose added legal powers, when untempered by an unselfish, cultured spirit, makes the legal conditions of woman akin to the crudest slavery. I crave for my Indian sisters, your help, your patience, and your unfailing labors, to hasten the day when the laws of all the land shall know neither male nor female, but grant to all equal rights and equal justice.

Miss Anthony. Now, friends, we have had at the Riggs House during the last week one of the race about which Miss Fletcher has been talking— an Indian—Princess Viroqua. She is here on the platform, and, since we are representatives of all nationalities and all people, I want her to step forward and let you look at a native-born Indian.

Princess Viroqua. Madam president, ladies, and gentlemen: I am truly glad to be allowed to stand on this platform with these great ladies, of whom I have read as long ago as I can remember.

[Webmaster note: As stated on Monday, 25 Mar 1888, at the formal opening Address of Welcome, this convention was held “to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first organized demand made by women for the right of suffrage.”]

Image, not in original text, colorized by Webmaster, added from source shown above. Text from Report of the International Council of Women: Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888 (1888), Vol. 1, 237-241. (source)


See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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