|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following excerpts are from an article reprinted on August 4, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Nebraska State Historical Society. The article was previously published in Nebraska History Volume 57, No. 2 (Summer 1976), pp. 143-199.|
Angel DeCora: American Artist and Educator
by Sarah McAnulty
Chronology of Angel DeCora
1871, May 3 Angel DeCora born at the Winnebago Agency in Dakota County, Nebraska.
1883 DeCora is taken to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural School in Hampton, Virginia.
1887, June 21 DeCora returned to the reservation.
1888, November 10 Returned to Hampton to complete course of studies.
1891 Graduated from Hampton and went to Miss Burnham's School in Northhampton, Mass.
1892 Went to Smith College to study art under the direction of Dwight Tryon.
1896 Graduated from Smith and went to Philadelphia to study illustration at the Drexel Institute under the direction of Howard Pyle.
1897, Summer Went on art study trip to Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
1899 Published "The Sick Child" and "Grey Wolf's Daughter," two stories she had written and illustrated, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for February and November.
1899 Moved to Boston to continue art studies at Cowles Art School with Joseph DeCamp.
1899-1900 Worked on designs for Indian students to apply to cabinets shown at the Buffalo Exposition.
1899-1902 Maintained a studio at 62 Rutland Square in Boston.
1900-1902 Studied at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston with Frank Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell.
1902 Went to New York to open a studio.
1900-1906 Did the illustrations for Francis LaFlesche's The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School; Mary Catherine Judd's Wigwam Stories; Zitkala-Sa's Old Indian Legends; and Natalie Curtis' The Indian's Book.
1904 Worked on Indian exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri.
1906 Appointed by Commissioner Francis E. Leupp to be instructor of native American art at the Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
1906 Spoke before the Congress of Americanists in Quebec on the subject, "An Effort to Encourage Indian Art."
1907 Participated in the Indian exhibit at the Jamestown Tercentennial and was awarded a prize for her exhibit of Indian art student work.
1907, July Attended and spoke on native American art at the National Educational Association convention in Los Angeles.
1907, Summer Visited Pueblo groups and interchanged ideas about designs with women artisans there.
1908, July Married William (Lone Star) Dietz, a Sioux Indian and student at the Carlisle School.
1908, Summer Visited Sioux. women artisans on the reservation and discussed their arts with them.
1908, October 21-23 Spoke before the Lake Mohonk Conference on native Indian art.
1911 Did illustrations with Dietz for Yellow Star: A Story of East and West by Elaine Goodale Eastman.
1911 Became a member of the Society of American Indians and delivered an address at the society's first meeting in Columbus, Ohio; her subject was "Native Indian Art."
1914 Attended meeting of the Society of American Indians at Madison, Wisconsin.
1915, December Resigned post at Carlisle Indian School and left to join Dietz, who was coaching football at Washington State University, Pullman.
1918 Divorced Dietz on November 30 in Spokane, Washington, and returned to New York.
1918, Summer Taught arts and crafts at Camp Oahe, a summer camp run by Charles and Elaine Eastman.
1918, Fall Worked as an illustrator of Devonian fauna for New York State Museum.
1919, February Died of pneumonia and influenza in Northhampton, Massachusetts, age 48.
1919 Summer issue of The American Indian Magazine, the publication of the Society of American Indians, has an article by Dr. Charles Eastman which was illustrated by Angel DeCora.
1919, November An issue of The Southern Workman records the fact that Angel DeCora left $3,000 in her will to the Society of American Indians.
1920, October An issue of The Southern Workman records that a memorial calendar was prepared in honor of Angel DeCora by her cousin Oliver LaMere.
Excerpts from text of the article:
Shortly before Angel DeCora was hired to teach at Carlisle, several articles concerning Indian arts and crafts appeared in widely read magazines. Agnes Laut wrote "The Indian's Idea of Fine Arts" for a 1905 issue of Outing in which an analogy was drawn between the myths of white men and those of the Indian as expressed in art. She emphasized the basic humanity of both racial groups and asked for understanding and appreciation of Indian work.
Many articles of this type emphasized the necessity for Indians to begin making items which would be useful in a white man's home, an attitude which infiltrated the efforts of DeCora at Carlisle and was partially a function of the aforementioned Craft Revival and the efforts of the Southwestern traders. For instance, Margaret Eadie Henderson, in an article concerning the basketry of Northwest Indians, noted that the Indians were making basket "fruitstands, flask-cases with removable tops, photograph baskets, card receivers with beautifully curved pedestals, field glass cases and baskets shaped like Pompeiian vases."
In response to the view of the Indian as a "natural artist," the government planners seized on the arts as an economic "bootstrap" for Indians. Ever since the introduction of this concept, schools, government officials, and many Indians have seen their traditional arts as a primary tool to be used to gain self-sufficiency. The Carlisle plan was different from the more recent plans which have encouraged tribal art centers and tribal art. DeCora and other educated Indians of her day saw art as one of the resources which an educated Indian could use to facilitate his or her individual entry into white society. They did not utilize a tribal orientation; if it was based on one focal point, it was the boarding school and the ideas which were generated there.
While it is true that many Indian children who were coming to the white educational system were raised in homes where their mothers made things by hand and instilled their own aesthetic on these items, DeCora's experience with the boy who had forgotten his tribe implies that some of the children had no more interest and inborn ability in art than the average white child. Howard Fremont Stratton, director of the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art writing on "The Place of the Indian in Art" in 1910, cited two approaches to Indian art used in his time. One was to suppress all that was Indian in students and the other was to encourage the student to produce exactly what Indians were making before the arrival of Europeans. His comment: "Of course neither was right or normal, and either would effectively arrest all rational development." Stratton suggested freedom of intercourse between white and Indian worlds and giving the Indian the advantage of the most modern technical training in the arts. Stratton's ideas were too progressive for the government agencies, collectors, teachers, and artists who were to influence Indian art students for the next forty years.
The reaction of the educated Indian audience who heard Angel DeCora speak at a Society of American Indians conference in 1911 on "Native American Art" provides interesting commentary on the confusion of ideas concerning the future of the art of Indians. Charles Eastman applauded DeCora for her appreciation of the past achievements of Indians because he felt Indians had a great deal to be proud of in their history and that this should not be overlooked in their attempts to integrate their race in the white world. Laura Cornelius, another Indian listener, suggested that department stores selling supposed Indian handicrafts guarantee their authenticity. The only voice raised in opposition was from Horton G. Elm, who said, "Nobody appreciates more than I do that this matter of Indian art is important, yet at the same time, we as a race cannot all be artists."
The people who listened to DeCora's speech did not truly discuss what she had said. Each offered his or her own observation and ignored many of the rather profound ideas presented by DeCora herself. Only Eastman grasped the significance of her idea of looking backwards with pride before moving forward.
Angel DeCora's early experience set in motion a conflict between choosing a life on the reservation and a life as a student of art. The seed of the idea of being an artist was planted during DeCora's days at Hampton. She received praise and encouragement for her musical and artistic efforts there, and so logically and emotionally chose to follow that path rather than to return to a reservation and tribe which had no place for her.
The life of an artist has never been an easy existence and there are grounds to question DeCora's awareness of the difference between being a student of art and an economically stable free-lance artist. In any case, she went on to Smith College, Northhampton, Massachusetts, to continue her artistic training. Smith College's purpose in teaching art to young women was not to prepare them for careers as artists, but to instill in them an appreciation of the arts which they would hopefully pass on to their husbands and children. Angel was not a typical Smith student; she had no family to support her nor the prospect of a suitable marriage upon graduation. She had to fend for herself, so she went to Philadelphia for training in a practical art, illustration. Her old desire to be a portraitist and landscape painter haunted her though, as evidenced by her return to Boston Museum of Fine Arts School. The economics of survival finally limited her choices, and in the end she chose to illustrate and then to become a teacher.
In spite of the short duration of her career as an artist and her general adherence to traditional western European techniques and style, DeCora touched on areas of design which were prophetic of future art. The work in which she used Indian-like script and applied two-dimensional Indian motifs to paper was especially predictive of what was to come among both Indian and white artists.
When DeCora returned to the comforting Indian educational unit of Carlisle, she had a home base again. Because of the added security of being with other Indians, being given responsibility and support of the United States government for the program in native Indian art, DeCora lost some of her ambivalence and blossomed as a spokeswoman for the preservation of Indian culture and as a creative teacher. During this period she also reunited with her Indian heritage through teaching Indian children, marriage to an Indian, trips to various reservations and membership in the Society of American Indians. She had an effect on the future of Indian art through her students who continued to work in the arts and through the speeches she made concerning Indian art.
Although there were efforts by charitable groups, traders in the Southwest, anthropologists, and interested individuals to kindle interest in saving Indian arts and crafts, Angel DeCora was at the center of the first major government-supported effort to do so. The program which she was part of at Carlisle was not only exemplary of Indian art but was a prototype for the much-expanded programs which followed in the succeeding years.
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