Editor's note: The following article, with notes, was rekeyed and 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. Images accompanying the text in the Nebraska State Historical Society publication were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the NH issue containing the article, please contact the Nebraska State Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:


Angel DeCora: American Artist and Educator

by Sarah McAnulty




Since the majority of DeCora's work as an artist is illustration, it is appropriate at this point to discuss the purpose, style and subject matter involved in it. A comparison will be made between her work and that of other illustrators of the day, especially those who dealt with Indian-oriented images. Also, an attempt will be made to historically place her artistic efforts among other art works which dealt with the image of the American Indian.

An interesting comparison can be made between Zitkala-Sa's purpose in the collection and transcription of Indian stories for her Old Indian Legends (DeCora did the illustrations for the book published in 1907), and DeCora's purpose in making visual representations of Indian culture. Zitkala-Sa, a Sioux woman writer, says in the introduction to her book:


While I recognized such a legend without the least difficulty, I found the renderings vary much in little incidents. Generally one (storyteller) helped the other in restoring some lost line in the original character of the tale. And now I have tried to transplant the native spirit of the tales - root and all - into the English language, since American in the last few centuries has acquired a second tongue.[24]


In a sense Angel DeCora was trying to do the same thing in her illustrations - to translate Indian customs and life style into and through western European pictorial traditions. In doing this she matched her pictures to the story being told. In some of the books, each illustration has its own phrase from the story to accompany it. Not all of the illustrations of DeCora's are quite so literal, but most refer to the written material which they accompany.

The subject matter treated by DeCora in her illustrations and designs was consistently concerned with the American Indian or based on Indian designs. If she produced art not related to her heritage, it is not to be found among the examples which were published or are held in the Hampton collections.

An undated example of DeCora's work which can be presumed to be one of her earliest paintings is to be found in the Hampton Institute archives. It depicts a tipi, glowing from a fire within, placed on a treeless, flat landscape. The openness of the space surrounding the house structure is broken by a drying rack with ladder, a woodpile, a wagon, and a horse grazing in the distance. This painting stands alone as an example of her student work and is, therefore, not really a useful key to the discussion.

More commonly, her illustrations picture the transition of the Indian from his own culture to that of the white man, a current event of her day. There was controversy concerning the system of removing Indian children from their tribal environments and training them for industrial or agricultural careers. Colonel Richard H. Pratt, mentioned above, re-stimulated the idea, current in colonial days, of removing young Indians from the reservations and bringing them to boarding schools in the eastern United States to be educated in industrial trades and Christian values. Pratt was opposed by several powerful factions within the government, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of American Ethnology. Senator Preston Plumb of Kansas opposed appropriations for separate Indian schools because he felt that Pratt was a fraud and a swindler. Other senators were in favor of continuing appropriations for the industrial schools. Many of the Indians who were educated in Pratt's system remained loyal to Pratt and their school for the remainder of their lives.

Angel DeCora's illustrations and the articles which they accompanied appear to approve Pratt's system. For example, an illustration from the story "Grey Wolfs Daughter" shows the melancholy figure of a young Indian girl looking back at the Indian camp which she is leaving for the eastern boarding school. This picture reflects the sadness of leaving home for the young Indian and appeals to the sentiment of the reader, yet the story indicates that the girl wanted to leave the reservation. The colored frontispiece from Francis LaFlesche's The Middle Five (see cover) is even more explicit concerning the fears which Indian children felt upon leaving their families and tribes for boarding schools such as Hampton and Carlisle. The illustration accompanied a text which literally documented LeFlesche's own experience at a mission school:


Leaning against the wall of a large stone building with moccasined feet dangling from a high wooden bench on the front porch, sat a little boy crying. His buckskin suit, prettily hinged and embroidered with porcupine quills of the brightest colors, indicated the care bestowed upon him by fond parents. Boys and girls were at play around the house, making the place ring with their merry laughter as they chased each other among the trees. but the little boy sat all alone sobbing as though his heart would break. A big boy came and sat by his side, put an arm around him, and in a kindly tone said, in Indian: "What are you crying for"? Don't cry - I'll play with you and be your friend. I won't let the boys hurt you."[25]

Despite the image of the tearful child, one has the feeling that DeCora and LaFlesche felt that the risk had to be taken, that young Indians should be encouraged to go to school.

DeCora's cover design for the September. 1913, issue of Carlisle's The Red Man (Figure 7) is in this same sympathetic and sentimental vein, it is titled "The Indian Nurse" and shows an Indian woman competently ministering to the needs of an Indian patient. The Carlisle Press ran a series of covers showing the Indian making a successful effort at pursuing a "civilized" career and helping his own people by doing so. All of these covers except "The Indian Nurse" were drawn by DeCora's husband, Dictz.

Figure 5 shows one of the full-page illustrations which DeCora did for Judd's Wigwam Stories published in 1900. The title of the illustration is "The Indian Today." The picture does not specifically deal with the problems of Indians and education, but it does comment n the transitional Indian. It shows a young Indian man leaning in the doorway of a log house and wearing, for the most part, the clothing of a white. He has retained his long, braided hair and his native footwear. The expression on his face is one of sadness and boredom. This illustration accompanies text by Judd which states:


A number of the tribes have become much like the White Man, and live in houses and have large numbers of horses and cattle upon the plains or on their farms in the East; other tribes, proud of their ancient customs, still try to live as nearly as possible in the way of their ancestors.
Their love for their nation, tribe and family is very great, and that is one reason why a few of the Indian students become once more Blanket Indians. They cannot endure the taunt that they have forgotten their own people.[26]


Elaine Goodale Eastman's book, Yellow Star: A Story of East and West (Figure 6) deals with the conflict, for an educated Indian, between living on the reservation and pursuing a career elsewhere. The tale tells of a young Indian girl brought to a previously all-white school in New England and the prejudice which she encountered and surmounted. Yellow Star, the girl, chooses to return to her people at the end of her high school training. As a field matron she gave the people the benefit of her knowledge of white technology and ways. She finds it difficult to please her people on some occasions and is scorned by the white government employees who consider her "uppity." When given the opportunity to return to New England where she would be welcomed, she says:


Do you know, Ethan, I seem to be two people again, just as in the first months in Laurel, when you teased me about having so many names . ...I'm pulled two ways at once; I so want to really belong, and I can't tell where I belong! I know now, that I can't do for my people what I once thought I could here on the reservation; and yet isn't it my place?[27]


It is appropriate that Angel DeCora and William Dietz, her Indian husband, did the illustrations for this book. The confusion expressed in the passage above expresses the conflict which they must have felt in their rather tenuous relationship to both the white and Indian worlds.

Another attitude concerning Indians appears in DeCora's work. In addition to her basically hopeful attitude, concerning the power of education to help the Indian adapt to white ways, is her belief that the Indian had designed and applied his art to forms in a manner which contained his own canons of beauty and was valuable. Many of her early illustrations show that she had developed an appreciation through her trip to Fort Berthold and study of ethnological literature of the details of dress and the structure and design of everyday items made by Indians. The painted leather hide background in one illustration, or the matting and baby cradle in Figure 2 are examples of the incorporation of these ideals into her work. She became even more active as a conservator of these native canons after she began teaching at Carlisle in 1906.

Some of her work presents an extremely romantic, lyrical conception of what Indian life was supposed to have been prior to the white man. "Firelight," a painting used to illustrate an article by Natalie Curtis, has a dream-like quality in the softening of details. There is a sugary charm to it, but little accuracy. It represents an Eden which never existed, but in which many whites and some Indians preferred to believe. Many of the page decorations and initial drawings from Judd's Wigwam Stories have the same quality. DeCora, long removed from an Indian life, tended to idealize that past and shroud it in a rosy haze. This tendency to generalize and idealize about Indian subjects was common among both illustrators and painters of her day, according to Van Deren Coke:


Many Indian painters tended to allow pictorial consideration to outweigh cultural facts and painted costumes or pottery from one tribe in association with Indians of another tribe in order to make use of interesting color or pattern arrangements.[28]


This tendency was no doubt reinforced by the public acceptance of art which represented this idealized image of Indian life.

DeCora came closest to a realistic rendering of Indians in some of the work she did while under the influence of Howard Pyle. The portrait studies (Figure 1), done while she was visiting Anna Dawson at Fort Berthold during the summer of 1897, are representative, in these she depicted individual differences in the faces of her subjects and added details of jewelry and dress that distinguish these people from the stereotyped Indian so often found in her work. The experience of first-hand contact with Indians on the reservation enriched her understanding. The main illustration for "The Sick Child" (Figure 2) benefited from the second look. The more specific approach to her subject matter, learned while studying with Pyle, slipped away from her in the years which followed her departure from Philadelphia.

The combination of illustrations and text in Zitkala-Sa's Old Indian Legends was an interesting experiment when it appeared in 1901. DeCora's drawings which accompany the Iktomi or Trickster tales included in the book are both humorous and imaginative. This was one of the first times an Indian artist tried to translate legendary or supernatural figures, such as the Trickster, into a non-Indian visual format. DeCora did not pursue a single style throughout her career. Her approach to her subject often changed in response to the purpose for which the finished picture was to be used.

Much of her work was done in a painterly style not notably different from that of other artist-illustrators of her day, and there was nothing distinctly "Indian" about this body of work. In most of her work as an artist or illustrator, DeCora emphasized paint texture through the use of an impasto technique. Three-dimensional space was indicated, although her command of perspective was weak. In the majority of the illustrations the humans or animals figured were presented in a theatrical manner with the emphasis on gesture. They were normally placed well forward on the picture plane, possibly to avoid perspective problems.

Her use of color, in the few examples in which it can be studied, was realistic and descriptive. She painted a school boy's uniform blue if it was supposed to be blue and did not use color in an expressionistic or arbitrary manner. Since the stories she illustrated generalized about Indians, made few references to tribal affiliations or details of dress, housing or craft, and only occasionally dealt with legendary figures such as Iktomi, her illustrations are of a non-specific "Indian" image. In most she was highly dependent on her imagination, on a stereotyped decorative image, which she could have culled from such books as George Wharton James' Indian Basketry (1902), or J. B. Moore's Navajo weaving catalog, or from photos and etchings found in Bureau of American Ethnology Reports.

She may also have known of or had seen the art works and illustrations of artists, such as Thomas Moran, Joseph Sharp, Ernest Blumenschien, Irving Couse, and others, who were the nucleus of an art movement centered around Taos, New Mexico. These artists specialized in portrayals of Indian life, and their work was growing in popularity at the time DeCora was a working illustrator. The fact that some of their work was published in Harper's and McClure's Magazine increases the possibility that DeCora may have used it as a guide or as a source for material. Her distant knowledge of Indian life may have been reflected in the vague definition of many of the figures and shapes and the lack of specific detail.

The remainder of DeCora's production represents a kind of montage of style and purpose. Indian-style designs were used to decorate title pages, lettering and book covers. Examples include the title page and lettering of Curtis' The Indian's Book (Figure 7), the title page and cover design of Judd's Wigwam Stories, and a thunderbird design in the upper right-hand corner of Eastman's article about the American Eagle (Figure 8). DeCora consciously chose discrete elements from traditional Indian designs to create these book decorations. She borrowed from Plains beadwork, parfieche painting, Navajo and Pueblo pottery and weaving designs, and recombined them. She commonly used elements as triangular forms, stepped pyramids and arrow-like figures. Her designs mimic the symmetry, angularity, repetitiveness, and two-dimensionality of traditional Indian motifs. Several of her works utilize the Thunderbird motif, the type of design which had come to be expected by white people and so has been used often by Indian artisans on items to be sold to the public. Several other contemporary publications on Indian arts and crafts decorated their pages with this type of design meant to evoke an Indian flavor. U. S. Hollister's The Navajo and His Blanket (1906) and George Wharton James' Indian Blankets and Their Makers (1914) are two examples.

For the lettering of Natalie Curtis' The Indian Book (1907) DeCora invented a script evocative of designs found on Indian baskets, woven sashes, pottery, and wooden boxes (Figure 7). Curtis describes her publisher's reaction to DeCora's designs:


So the order was given, but when the pages came back we found to our astonishment that the lettering was not the least like that with which Angel had decorated the Winnebago section. She had invented a different kind of lettering for every Indian picture, and the forms of the letters were composed of motifs from the drawings which they accompanied.[29]


It is important to understand the historical milieu in which DeCora worked. She was certainly not alone in portraying Indians in her illustrations. In fact, the "Indian" theme was very popular in 19th century art, although it had different manifestations. There was also ample opportunity for illustrators and photographers who dealt with Indian or frontier subject matter to publish their work at the end of the 19th century, because, according to Eliwood Parry, "action themes involving lurking, skulking or attacking Indians, were a consistently popular form of escapist entertainment during most of the nineteenth century."[30]

Art works concerned with Indian subject matter were popularized in the 19th century by George Catlin, who painted Indians in the West in the 1830's. He made over 320 portraits and 200 landscapes and collected artifacts from the various tribes with whom he visited. In the late 1830's and early 1840's, he exhibited his collection of paintings and artifacts in the eastern United States and Europe. The exhibitions were a great public attraction and were well attended. Catlin was more concerned with the veracity of details in his paintings than some of his followers in the field were to be. In proof of his desire to give accurate information concerning Indians, he published his Manners, Custom and Condition of the North American Indians in 1841. In a similar vein was the McKenny-Hall gallery of Indian portraits published in 1837.

John Banvard, an inventive artist, created a 2,000-foot-long painted moving panorama of the Mississippi River Valley, which included scenes of Indian life and was first shown in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1846. It, too, was a popular success.

The publication of Henry Schoolcraft's Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States from 1851 to 1857 and Henry W. Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha in 1855 stimulated artists in various ways. Schoolcraft's volume encouraged collectors of genuine Indian crafts and ethnologists and photographers bent on preserving vestiges of the fast-fading tribal lifestyles. Longfellow's work, while it suggested the importance of preserving the oral traditions of Indian groups, also inspired poetic visualization of the "noble savage" by such artists as F. 0. C. Darley and Thomas Moran.

Even though knowledge of Indian design could have stimulated artists to mimic the two-dimensional, abstract qualities of the native's art, according to Eliwood Parry:


Public comprehension remained a highly desirable quality in American art even after 1900; it is hardly surprising that enormously popular themes, showing Blacks and Indians, continued to be painted in a "Romantic-Realist" manner through the last quarter of the nineteenth century.[31]


An illustrator whose work was contemporaneous with that of DeCora was Frederic Remington. He, like DeCora, wrote stories and illustrated them; but this is where the similarity stops. He was an easterner who fell in love with the West during the decline of its wilder days. In many of his illustrations he portrays whites against Indians, cowboy against steer, and Indian against nature, essentially in an effort to capture the dramatic collapse of the West. His pictures are full of rearing horses, running horses, and docile horses. His technique emphasized muscle, vigor and action. He viewed the frontier as a man's world and rarely included women in his illustrations. In spite of their dramatic tendency, some of Remington's illustrations were accurate portrayals of Indian customs and dress. Two works offer a contrast to the general theme of his pictures and have relevance here. One is an illustration which he called "Training U.S. Troops in Indian Warfare." Most of the picture is devoted to scenes of militarism, jumping horses, and sparkling uniforms, but in the lower left-hand corner of the composite he has included a sketch of an Apache family peacefully seated in front of a wickyup. Underneath he has written, "The innocent cause of all this pomp and circumstance."[32]

The second exceptional illustration by Remington was a full scale work called "The Twilight of the Indian." This picture shows a strong-looking Indian man plowing a field with the aid of two horses. The background shows a settler's house side by side with a tipi. With few exceptions DeCora's work is almost antithetical to that of Remington. She often portrayed women, a subject he avoided. His figures are extremely active and excited, those of DeCora static, calm, and peaceful. He continually emphasized death and violence, while her emphasis was on the more pacific aspects of Indian life - for example, tale-telling, a women's dance ceremony, and group scenes inside of wigwams. Since many of her illustrations dealt with the transitional Indian, a comparison with his "Twilight of the Indian" is warranted. It is obvious from the way he titled his picture that Remington did not see the life of a farmer as an appropriate one for his heroes of the Plains. In such illustrations as "The Indian Today" (Figure 5) or some of those from Yellow Star, DeCora revealed a more ambivalent attitude toward the value of acculturation.

The books DeCora illustrated were primarily directed to an audience of children and contained accounts of Indian customs, transcription of legends, or stories about Indians. The work of other artist-illustrators for this literary genre covers a relatively wide range of artistic styles. Frederic N. Wilson, for instance, worked from life sketches and photographs of Indians in illustrating Indian Hero Tales, the book written by his brother, Gilbert L. Wilson. The two brothers made a study trip among the Hidatsa in 1912 for the American Museum of Natural History. The drawings Wilson made on this trip are in black and white and highly detailed. He drew Indians engaged in every-day activities, such as women hoeing corn, and set these off with smaller studies of individual items useful to the Indian, such as birch-bark bowls, ladles, and other equipment. He also studied the environment of the Indian and included sketches of squirrels, fern, and other natural elements of the Hidatsa surroundings. Even when drawing pictures of Indian myths involving supernatural events, Wilson included ethnographic details which give his portrayals veracity. Some of Wilson's pen and ink studies decorate the pages of Judd's book, Wigwam Stories, side by side with DeCora's.

Ernest Thompson Seton, a writer of naturalist leanings, wrote and illustrated books such as Two Little Savages (1903) contemporaneously with DeCora's work. Nearly every page of this book had a drawing on it; often the subjects were Indians or little white boys exploring the world of the Indian. Seton wanted youngsters to learn how to make a tipi and how to survive in the wilderness, and so the book contained diagrams to aid in the construction of a tipi. There were full page illustrations as well, and these are similar in style to DeCora's work, although they approach their subject in a more humorous manner.

Other illustrators, such as Edwin Deming, knew enough of Indian life to include a token pot or blanket here or there in the picture to give it credence; but Deming, in his Little Red People illustrations of 1899 combined a Southwestern landscape with a tipi and a Navajo blanket to illustrate a story about Winnebago Indians. Deming also used a fairly common technique to picture Indian legends in which a spirit is sometimes an animal and sometimes a person. He had walking, talking animals as the protagonists in his picture-stories. "Little Friend Coyote," a story written by George Bird Grinnell for Harper's New Monthly Magazine of January, 1901, was illustrated by Deming in this manner.

Other artists who illustrated books of this genre made stylish representations of their subjects, but obviously had only cursory knowledge of Indians. J. E. Laughlin's illustrations for Children of the Forest: A Story of Indian Love (1904), Francis Olcott's drawings for The Red Indian Fairy Book (1917), and George Varian's pictures for Eastman's Indian Legends Retold (1919) are of this type. The facial features of the actors in the scenes are vaguely Indian. Much emphasis is put on fanciful conceptions of costume and virgin forest setting, and most often than not the Indians look like fairies or wood sprites.

DeCora's illustrations differ in several ways from the pictures discussed above. First, her illustrations often have the look of fully developed oil paintings rather than sketches - perhaps because she was trained primarily as an easel artist. Second, in some cases DeCora dealt with the non-romantic subject matter of the Indian transition; few other illustrators attempted to comment as thoroughly as DeCora on the changes wrought in Indian society by economic and educational forces from outside their traditional background. Third, there is an emphasis on women as subjects. Most illustrators of and writers on Indian life shied away from studies of Indian women, possibly through ignorance of the dress and manner of women, or possibly because most of the stories to be illustrated had male protagonists. Generally they emphasized the flamboyant and exciting activities of the male Indian warrior, hunter or dancer. Her story, "Grey Wolf's Daughter," depicts a woman of amazing strength, a heroine comparable to Sacajaweha. A fourth divergence is DeCora's emphasis on the facial features of the figures in her pictures. Generally her visages look as if she had modeled them on the people she knew and show familiarity with Indians, a quality which is sorely lacking in many of the illustrations of her contemporaries.

A possible explanation for her emphasis was her actual contact with Indians through the educational institutions of the East, through trips to the reservations and through her own self-consciousness. She would have known the Indian face but not necessarily the traditional dress and customs of Indians of diverse tribes. The final and most radical difference between her work and that of others was her use of modified, traditional Indian designs as decorations (illustrations of a sort) on the pages of books. This technique appears, for instance, in the lettering in Curtis' The Indian's Book, on the cover and title page border of Judd's book, and later also becomes a strong element in DeCora's teaching techniques. The use of such designs, modified and recombined in most cases, created an aura of "Indianness" in the publications which they enhanced.

It is appropriate to discuss the kind of art being produced by other Indians at the turn of the century. There were few contemporary Indian artists working with western materials, techniques or subject matter. There were the ex-warriors of the Plains who were arrested and incarcerated at Fort Marion, Florida, where under Pratt's guidance they were given colored pencils and paper and allowed to carry on the tradition common among Plains warriors of visually recording their heroic battles, participation in sacred dances and other scenes of past glory. Many of these drawings were sold to tourists in Florida. Some men who remained at home on the Plains also used western artistic materials and produced similar drawings and paintings. In the latter part of the 19th century Jesse Walter Fewkes, an ethnologist, commissioned a group of Hopi men to produce a series of colored drawings of their katcinas for his publication on that subject. Although these drawings were done on paper with western materials, they have almost no relationship to Angel DeCora's art work. They were meant to look as aboriginal as possible even though produced by artists using unfamiliar materials. Elsewhere Indians continued to produce native crafts such as weaving, basketry, pottery, and the like; but many of these artistic items were made to be sold to white tourists rather than to be used in the traditional ways in the home of the maker.

It has been suggested that artists trained as DeCora was had no effect on the growth of modern Indian painting.[33] It is my contention that if the schools of painting among Indians which developed later in the environs of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and to some extent in Oklahoma, are regarded as the only focal points of the modernization of Indian painting, then possibly the statement is true. But if the experience of Indians outside of the southwest is considered, several artistically influential Indians can be found, including especially Angel DeCora. A study of their careers is important if only to pinpoint an alternative use of art by Indians at the turn of the century.

There have been few formal, extended studies of the lives, careers and art of individual Indian artists. The models available for my study primarily concern students of Dorothy Dunn or other artists who followed the pattern set by the Santa Fe movement of the 1920's and 1930's. For example, Spin a Silver Dollar by Alberta Hannum is a fictionalized account of the growth of a Navajo artist, Beatin Yazz or "Little No-Shirt" and his discovery by the Lippincotts, traders at the Wide Ruins Post in Arizona. The boy artist is seen in his native context and while this story is charming, it is embellished by fictionalized devices and therefore loses force. Maria, the Potter of San Ildefonso by Alice Marriott deals with the career of this great ceramicist of the Southwest. Again, the book is not a formal history of San Ildefonso or of the career of Maria Martinez. The artists discussed in such books as these were for most of their lives isolated from the mainstream of American society or modern art. As Dorothy Dunn says of Awa Tsireh, one of the forerunners of modern Indian painting in the Southwest:


Although fame and citations came to him, the artist seldom journeyed far from his native San lldefonso Pueblo. Occasionally after he had turned to silversmithing and weaving, he worked for an arts and crafts dealer in Colorado Springs and accompanied him to Florida one winter. But home to Asa Tsireh was the wide valley where the Rio Grande flows past Black Mesa and the upland of the prehistoric Pajaritan Pueblos.[34]


It is impossible to approach the career of Angel DeCora in the manner of the above mentioned works. While she had supporters among whites, much of her career was dictated by her own desire to be an artist. She was not isolated from the mainstream of American society, but was a part of an era in which some Indians were encouraged to become self-sufficient and to assimilate rapidly into the white world. Neither was she totally removed from her Indian background, nor from a situation where she could and did influence the art of other Indians. In 1906 De Cora's artistic career was interrupted by her decision to become a teacher of Native American Art at the Carlisle Indian School. She did not again try to support herself as a free-lance artist until a period near the end of her life. In giving up her career as an independent artist, DeCora was returning to the safety of a school. This sort of change was not and is not atypical of the careers of many artists. Often, finding that his art work is not being accepted and being caught in an economic bind, an artist will follow the well-worn path from fine arts to commercial art and finally to teaching. Carlisle was unique in being an all-Indian school and in this it was probably all the more attractive to DeCora, who had long been cut off from her tribe and Indian affiliations.


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