Monday, August 5, 2019

Women in important places

I have a theory—that women have often stepped into new fields as they emerged and were not yet dominated by men. Mostly--but not always--for good. And usually men have come along to restore the hierarchical order and women have been pushed aside in any case.

In the early days of rodeo, women riding  “rough stock” were often crowd favorites. Then, in 1929, Bonnie McCarroll, who had thrilled Pendleton Roundup audiences since 1915, was thrown from and rolled over by a bucking horse, and the Roundup decided bucking events were too dangerous for women. Other rodeos followed, and women were left to be rodeo queens and sometimes to do—what might be more dangerous than bucking—trick rides. No matter, the glamorous heart of the rodeo, bucking horses, were left to the men.

In the early days of flight, women jumped in as pilots, airport managers, and flight instructors. Bessie Coleman, the daughter of Texas African-American-Cherokee sharecroppers, worked, saved money, found sponsors, and went to France for flight school—opportunities for African-Americans were limited in the US—and in 1921 got her international pilot’s license. Coleman was an early air show and test pilot—she died in a crash testing a new plane in 1926.

And we remember Amelia Earhart (who actually had an Oregon connection, but that’s another story!). And locally some remember Bessie Halladay, who trained WW II pilots in Ontario, Oregon and managed the Joseph, Oregon airport after the War.

I think one can make the same arguments about women in academic fields. The beginnings of wildlife biology saw women birders and butterfly followers—and writers. Brothers Adolph and Olaus Murie pioneered wildlife biology in Alaska and Wyoming, but it was Olaus’s wife, Mardy, who lobbied Justice Douglas and Congress on behalf of Alaskan wilderness and went on to lead the Wilderness Society. And Mardy who transformed the Murie Ranch in Wyoming to the Murie Center for continuing studies in wildlife biology.

“Out of the Shadows,” a recent documentary on Idaho public television, features two early photographers, Jane Gay and Benedicte Wrensted—and the photos they took of Native Americans in Idaho in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an interview, producer Marcia Franklin said that most photographers were amateurs in the early years, so the field was wide open, and there was room for women.

Jane Gay is of course the companion, photographer, and helpmate to the anthropologist, Alice Fletcher, who came to the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho to carry out the Dawes Allotment Act. She was known at Lapwai as “the measuring woman,” who could not be bought by white ranchers, but the program itself was a disaster.

Fletcher with Chief Joseph, who did not take an allotment.
And Alice Fletcher was one of its architects—possibly the primary one. Fletcher was a wealthy Easterner with a big heart who taught school, was in at the beginning of anthropology, and began studying and writing about the Plains Indians in the 1880s.

Although Fletcher was a leader in the new field of anthropology, and would be followed soon by other women, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, to name the two most prominent, she was a creature of her time. And her time saw the low ebb for Indians as well as academic and popular curiosity in the new Eugenics movement. There were, eugenicists believed, natural hierarchies among humans, with whites of European descent being at the top.

Fletcher’s response to the poor state of Indian affairs was to document the Indian cultures of the day, and help draft the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887.  Indians, in Fletcher’s thinking, and in that of her contemporary, Indian Boarding School developer Colonel Richard Pratt, could be saved only by making them white! By total Assimilation. Fletcher’s Allotmhhent Act would give Indians individual land holdings and turn them into Jeffersonian farmers. Pratt’s schools would take away their unique languages and cultures, give them English, Christianity, and trade skills like cooking and carpentry which had value in the white world (although obviously not places in the higher rungs of white society).

Fletcher’s anthropological studies survive—her books on Omaha songs and dances are still in print! Fletcher’s anthropological heirs, Mead and Benedict, found values in other cultures—childrearing ways, even ideas about homosexuality—that could be of value in our Euro-American world.

But many tribes across the country are still dealing with the impacts of Fletcher’s Allotment act and the policy of forced assimilation. Slowly, reservation lands long owned by or with long-term leases to whites, are being reclaimed, and tribal practices are being revived through court action and sometimes by the obvious failures of white management—e.g. of fire and fish.

And the eugenics movement, and the idea that White-Anglo-Saxon culture is somehow the apex of world culture, has no academic credibility today, but lives on in the minds and values of some white Americans and Europeans afraid of “displacement” by people of Asian, African, and indigenous American stock.

In the end, Alice Fletcher was a woman of her times, big heart and all, sympathetic to the Indians in poverty and want, but given to paternalistic assimilation and the undercurrent of eugenics and white superiority.

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