Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919

Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919

Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919

Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919

Excerpt

In 1889, ethnologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher arrived at the Idaho Nez Perce reservation along with her companion and fellow reformer E. Jane Gay. Fletcher and Gay, both well into middle age, had left the home they shared in Washington, D.C., for the more rugged climes of the West bent on convincing the Nez Perces that home ownership was the quickest route to civilization. As a government agent empowered to allot homestead plots to Native Americans under the auspices of the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act, Fletcher was to untangle the threads of tradition that bound the Nez Perces to each other and to their land and to bring them into the ranks of individual property owners. With land surveyor, marking chains, and plat book in tow, the reformer the Nez Perces called “Measuring Woman” was determined to persuade the people to embrace Euro-American lifeways in exchange for plots of land and eventual citizenship.

Yet Fletcher found the reservation in turmoil. The Nez Perces were writing petitions to reject their government-appointed Indian agent, three of the agency officials were on trial for infighting, and settlers were grumbling that the government had sent a woman — an easterner, no less — to perform the allotment. “The introduction of the square idea has a depressing effect,” Jane Gay wrote of white cattlemen's response to the enterprise, “for hitherto they have worked only in rings, but I dare say they really have no faith in anybody being able to square their circle.” Likewise, many Nez Perces rejected Fletcher's carefully marked corners and the patrilineal family lines she recorded in her plat book. “The Indians often destroy the Surveyor's corners as soon as his back is turned and make corners of their own,” Gay lamented, and she noted that Fletcher was plagued by “a sort of kaleidoscopic shifting of the wives and husbands and children, to the detriment of the family group system of allotment.”

Gay's letters home to relatives and reformers as well as the photographs she made while in Idaho portray Fletcher's work as a constant struggle to make . . .

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