Alice Cunningham Fletcher (March 15, 1838, Havana - April 6, 1923, Washington, D.C.) was an American ethnologist who studied and documented American Indian culture.
Fletcher credited Frederic Ward Putnam for stimulating her interest in American Indian culture and began working with him at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. She studied the remnants of the Indian civilization in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, and became a member of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1879.
In 1881, Fletcher made an unprecedented trip to live with and study the Sioux on their reservation as a representative of the Peabody Museum. She was accompanied by Susette "Bright Eyes" La Flesche, an Omaha spokeswoman who had served as interpreter for Standing Bear in 1879 in his landmark civil rights trial. Also with them was Thomas Tibbles, a journalist who had helped publicize Standing Bear's cause and arranged a several-month lecture tour in the United States.
These times also marked the beginning of Fletcher's 40-year association with Francis La Flesche, Susette's half brother. They collaborated professionally and had an informal mother-son relationship. They shared a house in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1890.
In addition to her research and writing, Fletcher worked in several special appointed positions during the late nineteenth century. In 1883 she was appointed special agent by the US to allot lands to the Miwok tribes, in 1884 she prepared and sent to the World Cotton Centennial an exhibit showing the progress of civilization among the Indians of North America in the quarter-century previous, and in 1886 visited the natives of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands on a mission from the commissioner of education. In 1887 she was appointed United States special agent in the allotment of lands among the Winnebago and the Nez Perce under the Dawes Act.
She was made assistant in ethnology at the Peabody Museum in 1882, and in 1891 received the Thaw fellowship, which was created for her. Active in professional societies, she was elected president of the Anthropological Society of Washington and in 1905 as the first woman president of the American Folklore Society. She also served as vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a longtime member of the Literary Society of Washington.
Working through the Women's National Indian Association, Fletcher introduced a system of making small loans to Indians, wherewith they might buy land and houses. She also helped secure a loan for Susan LaFlesche, an Omaha woman, to enable her studies at medical school. Graduating at the top of her class, LaFlesche became the first Native American woman doctor in the United States.
Later Fletcher helped write, lobbied for and helped administer the Dawes Act of 1887, which broke up reservations and distributed communal land in allotments for individual household ownership of land parcels. At the time, she thought it would enable American Indians to assimilate to European-American ways, as their best means of survival. The government also wanted to gain "surplus" land for sale to other Americans.
In 1888 Fletcher published Indian Education and Civilization, a special report of the Bureau of Education. She was a pioneer in the study of American Indian music, a field of research inaugurated by a paper she gave in 1893 before the Chicago Anthropological Conference. In 1898 at the Congress of Musicians held in Omaha during the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, she read several essays upon the songs of the North American Indians. A number of Omaha Indians sang their native melodies. Out of this grew her Indian Story and Song from North America (1900), exploring a stage of development antecedent to that in which culture music appeared.
In 1911, with Francis La Flesche, she published The Omaha Tribe. It is still considered to be the definitive work on the subject. Altogether she wrote 46 monographs on ethnology. In 1908 she led in founding the School of American Archaeology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.