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
In February, 1906, Angel DeCora was appointed instructor of native Indian arts at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, by Francis E. Leupp, President Theodore Roosevelt's commissioner of Indian affairs. It was to be one of the most important events in her life.
Natalie Curtis (collector of Indian music and wife of Santa Fe artist Paul Burlin) may have been responsible for introducing DeCora to Leupp and advancing her for the position at Carlisle. Curtis had been an advocate of reform in Indian education, at one time directly asking President Roosevelt that she be legally allowed to record the music of Indian tribes. The President took an interest in the artistic aspect of Indian culture and allowed several reforms to be instituted, albeit token ones. According to Curtis "the singing of Indian songs in the Indian schools came to be not only officially permitted, but encouraged." Another reform was that Angel DeCora was hired as an art instructor for Carlisle and, again according to Curtis, "for a time at least was given a free hand to develop the art of her own race and apply it to the useful industries taught there."
The man who appointed DeCora to her position, Francis E. Leupp, had been a student of Indian affairs and culture long before his appointment as commissioner. He was also a journalist with a knack for persuasive writing. Having earlier worked for the Indian Rights Association, he had a certain foresight lacking in many of those who were put in charge of the lives and education of young Indians. One of his primary contentions was that the art and music of the American Indians need not be totally wiped out in order to convert the Indian to "civilization." He felt that these art forms had value and demanded preservation.
Leupp apparently had to persuade DeCora to take the position, for she was busy and progressing with her own career and was somewhat suspicious of governmental programs and educational systems for Indians. She stated that she would take the position only if "I shall not be expected to teach in the white man's way, but shall be given complete liberty to develop the art of my own race and to apply this, as far as possible, to various forms of art, industries and crafts."
The Carlisle school to which DeCora went to teach was the prototype for Indian boarding schools throughout the United States. The school was established in 1879 under the direction of Colonel Pratt as an outgrowth and expansion of the work which he had done at the Hampton Institute. Pratt was both an idealist and a military man. The combination of these two characteristics gave him the fortitude to fight government red-tape and to oversee the establishment of the Carlisle School. He hoped that through a controlled exposure to white ways at some distance from family and tribe young Indians could be successfully transformed into people who were not on the public dole and who were like white Americans. The school which he established taught English, and introduced Indians to trades such as printing, tinsmithing, carpentry, blacksmithing, tailoring and shoemaking. The system also provided the opportunity for more advanced training through the "outing." Under this plan students were sent out to live and work with farming families in the nearby Pennsylvania countryside. Athletics was also heavily sponsored by the school, and Carlisle's football team was highly successful for many years. The arts were not scorned by Pratt, but his fear that his students would slip back into Indian ways caused them to be taught in an odd way. Leupp described the teaching of art at Carlisle prior to DeCora's arrival:
There was a general change in governmental educational policies for Indians when Leupp became commissioner of Indian affairs in 1905. Colonel Pratt was released from his duties as superintendent of Carlisle almost simultaneously with Leupp's appointment. Leupp and Pratt were on opposite sides of the fence concerning many aspects of Indian education, Leupp representing the new wave of thought which Pratt had fought against for years. The new commissioner favored the ultimate abolition of boarding schools distant from reservations. He was willing to continue Carlisle but tried to make it into a center for the advanced training of Indian students who had received their early education nearer to home and tribe. The new superintendent of the Carlisle school, Moses Friedman, stated that the new policy, was "to give breadth to the program. Courses in morals and manners, nature study, and native Indian arts have been added." The installation of Angel DeCora in her position at the school was a token response by the government to the reformers' demands. DeCora's approach to teaching the Indian students was affected, despite her desire for a free rein, by pressures from Leupp and the expectations of the bureaucracy. Typical of Leupp's ideas which DeCora had to adopt were those expressed in the following statement:
To combine the artistry of the Indian with the practical products appealing to the white market was the economic-oriented goal of the Leupp administration. To encourage an Indian student to be an artist just for the sake of art was an impossibility at this time.
During DeCora's first years as a teacher at Carlisle, she encountered difficulties, although as long as she was supported by Commissioner Leupp and Superintendent Friedman the troubles were not insurmountable. Some of the initial problems were with the students themselves. The pupils, who came from Indian reservations all over the United States, had been taught to shy away from all things Indian. They were unresponsive when she first attempted to broach the subject of their own cultural heritage to them. She says in this regard, "When I first introduced the subject - Indian art - to the Carlisle Indian students, I experienced the discouraging sensation that I was addressing members of an alien race."
Initially she was forced to resort to the use of Bureau of American Ethnology Reports as aids in the reinstruction of the students. Other materials or teaching aids were not available. She taught the students the varying design systems of Indian groups from the Southwest, the Plains, and the Northwest coastal areas. She held weekly exhibitions of her students' work in order to encourage them to compete. This is significant because competition was a value highly regarded by whites and was one of the principles which they wished to emphasize in the education of Indians. She made requests to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for examples of old-style Indian art work to use for teaching purposes. The students worked in basketry, pottery and weaving, and in the designing of book plates, textiles, interior wall decorations and the like. This latter group of projects typified the new ways in which she hoped the students would apply their traditional designs and reflected the general thrust of the government program.
In the nine years from 1906 to 1915 that DeCora stayed at Carlisle, she worked out a philosophy and methodology for teaching art to Indian pupils. The school itself did certain things which aided her in teaching and fostering interest in the native arts.
In 1906 the Leupp Art Studio was built by the students. Funds for the building were raised by the athletic association of the school. It had an art studio, a photography laboratory and a display room in which there was "a large collection of Indian curios, samples of work in burnt leather, in beads and in basketry. There are also fine examples of Indian drawings and paintings, some being of extremely intricate character."
Another aspect of the school's growing interest in the arts was its participation in the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition of 1907. DeCora arranged an exhibit based on the applied art work which she was teaching her students. Francis Leupp described what he saw at the Exposition in the following manner: "The frieze from Miss DeCora's art department at Carlisle was designed and made by Indian pupils, as was also a rug of Oriental weave. Other examples of applied Indian design on picture frames, pillow cases, etc. were furnished by them." Angel DeCora was cited for an award by the judges of the exposition for the work she had done on this exhibit.
In February, 1909, the Carlisle School took another step toward the enhancement and application of Indian art. They began to publish The Indian Craftsman, a journal recording the events of the school, containing articles discussing the culture of Indians, reports on progress toward solving Indian medical problems and occasionally an original story written by an Indian student. The journal changed its name to The Red Man about 1910 because of confusion with an outside publication called The Craftsman. The Red Man was enhanced by drawings, colorful covers, fancy lead letters and borders. The art work in the magazine was done by students under the direction of Angel DeCora and later of her husband Lone Star Dietz. Moses Friedman, superintendent of the school, served as its editor and contributed commentary on the activities of various departments of the school. It was for some time an accurate depiction of life at Carlisle.
There was a distinct change in the content of the magazine in 1914 when Friedman was replaced as superintendent of the school by Oscar Lipps, an appointee of Cato Sells, the new commissioner of Indian affairs. The magazine reflected this political change. It was no longer as experimental and entertaining; there were fewer and fewer student contributions and less information about the students themselves. It became filled with official press releases concerning other Indian schools across the country. Certainly the emphasis on arts and music was diminished. It was replaced by the image of the Indian as a farmer and not as an artist.
In addition to publishing The Red Man and fostering art in that way, an attempt to market the applied art work of the students and that of some of the reservation Indians was also undertaken at Carlisle. Friedman and DeCora hoped to obtain standardized and fair prices for the objects. These pieces, primarily rugs made with Indian designs and using an Oriental weaving technique, were advertised in The Red Man. The reader was invited to write for information on sizes, prices, and patterns. The high quality of the weaving and the variety of colors was stressed in the advertisement.
It may seem odd that an oriental weaving technique was being taught and used by Indian students, but eclecticism was typical of DeCora's approach to. her teaching. She explains her blending of cultural traditions in the following statement.
DeCora was probably also aware of the artistic principles forwarded by Arthur Dow in his book, Composition (1899). Dow based his ideas of beauty and design on Oriental art. DeCora may have been attempting to use these principles in teaching Indian students.
One final offshoot of the publication of The Red Man should be noted. The magazine was entirely printed in the shop at Carlisle, giving the young Indian printers the opportunity to see their work published, read, and criticized. The pride which they took in the publication was obvious in most issues. For example, many of the covers involved multi-colored printing, and it was a rare issue that contained a print which was blurry, or out of register.
The combination of artistic elements from various American Indian groups and the techniques of Middle East artisans and the attempt by Carlisle to market Indian-made wares did not occur in a vacuum. There was a general movement in the nation and abroad toward an emphasis on handmade articles and folk art. This movement, known as the Craft Revival, began in England in the 1860's. William Morris, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, began to encourage his artist friends to look for sources for designs in their native surroundings rather than depend on what he considered decadent French decorative arts and mediocre industrial designs. The artisans were to apply the natural designs to all forms of objects to be used in the home. Word of Morris' movement reached the United States in the early 1880's, partially by way of a lecture tour given by Oscar Wilde, and found a responsive audience. Since the followers of Morris recognized Japanese art and folk arts as valid aesthetic models and incorporated elements of these systems into their production, it is probable that this attitude opened Americans' minds to the value of American Indian art.
The Craftsman was a reflection of the newly awakened appreciation of the American public for the everyday item which was made by hand and embellished with design. It is probable that The Indian Craftsman, the Carlisle magazine, was modeled after The Craftsman. The writers of articles in The Craftsman presented the Indian as an artist-hero of the age. In one article the writer stated:
The primary region in the United States where native American arts and crafts were forwarded in response to the idea of a Craft Revival was in the Southwest. Traders such as Lorenzo Hubbell, J. B. Moore, C. N. Cotton, and hotel magnate, Fred Harvey, reacted commercially to public interest in native American crafts (particularly Navajo weaving) and to an extent created public interest in the rugs and silverwork. Lorenzo Hubbell enlisted E. A. Burbank, an artist and friend to paint small pictures of his weavers' best work: "The small pictures were framed and hung on the walls of the rug room where they were referred to by Hubbell's less talented weavers or by customers who wished to buy something 'like' one of the good Ganado rugs of familiar design." Both J. B. Moore (1911) and Hubbell (1902) published catalogs of their rugs, and these booklets were viewed in all parts of the United States. C. N. Cotton is known to have been one of the first of the traders to have made "a concerted, well-planned effort to develop an eastern market for Navajo rugs." Fred Harvey stimulated interest in Indian crafts by showing his great collection in his hotels in various parts of the country.
The books of U. S. Hollister and George Wharton James, The Indian and His Blanket (1906) and Indian Blankets and Their Makers (copyright 1914), were published in the midst of traders' commercial successes with Indian weaving. These books and others like them added historical information and lent support to those who had begun to see Indian craft work as art.
Commissioner Francis Leupp, the man who initiated and supported the program in native American art at Carlisle, having spent a good deal of time on the Navajo reservation, was certainly aware of the successes which Hubbell and others were having in marketing Navajo weaving. This knowledge no doubt influenced him in planning a program for the Carlisle School. President Roosevelt, without whose approval the Carlisle program in art might never have been started, was also acquainted with Lorenzo Hubbell and the arts of Southwest Indians and enjoyed several visits at Ganado, site of Hubbell's trading post, after retiring from office.
It appears, therefore, that several important government officials were intrigued by the possibility of developing the arts of the Indian at this time and recognized that the public would respond well to craft work and designs made by Indians. They attempted to translate the successes of the southwestern traders in the context of an Indian school, namely Carlisle.
Angel DeCora, as a teacher of art at Carlisle, was forced to work within the constraints placed upon her by governmental goals. Many of the methods which she employed reflected Leupp's desires to combine artistry and practicality and to use art as a means to economic independence for the Indian. Occasionally, though, DeCora's own inclinations concerning artistic freedom and innovation guided her teaching methods. Natalie Curtis reported a relevant incident in her article on DeCora, "An American Indian Artist." DeCora apparently had left her students with an assignment and on her return discovered that they had not done the assigned work; instead they had woven covers for the handles of the knives which they were to use. She did not condemn nor punish them for their innovation; instead she asked them to teach her the stitch which they had invented to accomplish the task. A group of educators on hearing an account of this incident were scandalized. Only Dr. Felix Adler, who was present at the conference where the story was told by DeCora, could see the value in her attitude toward education. He said to DeCora, "'Young woman, you have taught a lesson not only to your children, but to pedagogues as well. "'
DeCora also was willing to give special attention to individual students to help them understand and integrate their past and present experiences. She recounted a story which illustrated this aspect of her methods:
Angel DeCora was not only involved with art projects and teaching at this time. She also traveled widely, making speeches to a variety of groups concerning her work as a teacher of Indian art to Indians. In September, 1906, she may have been the first of her race to address the International Congress of Americanists at their annual meeting in Quebec. Her subject was "An Effort to Encourage Indian Art." She also spoke before the National Education Association convention held in Los Angeles in July, 1907, and at the Lake Mohonk Conference in 1908. In each instance her subject was the teaching of Indian art to Indians.
The speeches she gave generally outlined the methods which she used in teaching her classes, and they encouraged the acceptance of the idea of combining Indian design and western technology. Before the Pan-Indian conference in 1911, DeCora suggested:
The government was anxious that policy-influencing groups such as the Mohonk Conference and the National Education Association should accept their efforts at Carlisle. DeCora was a spokeswoman for these efforts. It is apparent that the government saw the development of modern crafts industries, combined with the retention of ancient designs, as a means to economically uplift the various Indian groups. Instead of totally blotting out existing Indian customs as had been the policy, the government now proposed to build on the craft traditions of Indians and saw their efforts as a way to solve the "Indian problem."
In the midst of all this activity DeCora was married. The Southern Workman, the Hampton Institute news magazine, reported the marriage of Angel DeCora to William (Lone Star) Dietz in the early summer of 1908. Dietz had been a student and art instructor at Carlisle and was best known as a football player on their famous team (1910-1912). Born on the Rosebud Reservation, he was part Sioux and part white. His father, William Dietz, was a German railroad engineer captured by the people of Red Cloud, and his mother an Indian woman of the tribe. While Lone Star was a baby, he was taken by his father to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The elder Dietz remarried and young Long Star grew up believing he was white. When he learned of his origins, he ran away from a preparatory school to the Rosebud Reservation, where he met and lived with his uncle, One Star. From Rosebud he went to the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma and later to Carlisle. At Carlisle he developed his talent for drawing and other forms of artwork under the direction of Angel DeCora, whom he had met previously at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. The student-teacher relationship blossomed into a romance and the two artists were married. Lone Star was twelve years younger than DeCora.
While at Carlisle he did most of the covers for The Red Man and is referred to as a "student artist" in the publication. After their marriage Dietz began to assist DeCora in teaching the art classes. He left Carlisle in 1915, and spent much of the rest of his life either coaching football or working in the arts, including a stint as an art production manager in a New York advertising agency. He tried to establish an art academy in Pittsburgh during World War II.
Following their marriage, the couple traveled to the Sioux reservation, possibly to Rosebud, where Angel visited with the elderly women. She stated the purpose of these visits in a later speech, as follows:
It is evident from this statement that DeCora realized that she could learn from the reservation Indians. She used the same open-ended attitude which she demonstrated in her approach to her students.
Dietz and DeCora collaborated on several projects other than teaching and the publication of The Red Man. In 1911 Little, Brown and Company published Yellow Star: A Story of East and West, by Elaine Goodale Eastman, poet and wife of the Indian leader, Dr. Charles A. Eastman. The illustrations in the book were done jointly by Angel DeCora and Lone Star Dietz (Figure 5). The quality and style of these illustrations make an interesting contrast to the work done individually by either artist. Those in which DeCora had a hand are the only known examples of her work from this period. Several of DeCora's paintings may have been exhibited in a Paris salon in 1910 and may have been done during this time.
At about the same time of the publication of Yellow Star, the Society of American Indians was founded in Columbus, Ohio, by college-educated Indians. This organization was the first reform-oriented Pan-Indian movement of the 20th century. Both Dietz and DeCora were members from the inception. DeCora addressed the first meeting of the society on the subject of "Native American Art." Although Dietz's enthusiasm for the group diminished over the years, DeCora's did not. In fact she left $3,000 to the society in her will.
The organization's "ideological common denominator was the postulate of a non-vanishing Indian race as a vital element in a democratic and progressive nation. Its organizational format closely resembled that of other American reform organizations." Under the ideological umbrella, Indians like the Reverend P. J. Deloria, Henry Roe Cloud, Rosa B. LaFlesche, Arthur C. Parker and other Indian graduates of eastern colleges who had made a "success" in the white sense, gathered to pool their resources. Their goal was to reform the institutions which government and religious agencies had created to serve Indians. There were some white members of the group, but the Indians wanted to control the organization and clearly took charge of the meetings and publications.
The proceedings of the first meeting which they held in Columbus, Ohio, indicate that they were interested primarily in resolving the ambivalent position of the Indian in American society. They criticized the system for making the Indian "neither a citizen nor a foreigner." Generally the aim of the group was to provide a forum in which Indians could freely discuss the problems that were plaguing them. They hoped to pull reservation Indians into the modern world and to see them as acculturated as they themselves were.
The first conference dealt with a variety of topics including the Indian in agriculture, industry, the professions, the law and the Indian, the issue of citizenship, and landholding policies. In a sense DeCora's plea for the preservation of old art forms and their recombination with modern technology was one of the few speeches which applauded the Indian's past achievements.
Several years later, J. N. B. Hewitt, the Tuscarora anthropologist on the staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology and a member of the society, began a push for the teaching of ethnohistory in Indian schools and the creation of a textbook to accomplish this purpose. During the first meeting DeCora received some support for her historical stance from Arthur C. Parker, the Iroquois historian and anthropologist. He gave a speech on the philosophy of Indian education, in which he expressed his fears that the Indian would be made into a pseudo-white with no conception of his past accomplishments. His desire was to see his race become full citizens of America and to contribute to the progress of the country and humanity in general.
The Society of American Indians was short-lived, dissolving about 1920 for several reasons. Carlisle School, which had been the organizational rallying point, was no longer in existence. Reform groups of all kinds lost much of their influence after World War I. There also began to be a new emphasis on the distinctly tribal cultures. In any case the ideas of the group had not reached the reservation Indians. Many of the members of the society were also initiates of the Pan-Indian peyote church. It was peyotism and not the society which truly united educated and non-educated Indians. For instance, Oliver LaMere, cousin of Angel DeCora, was strongly attracted to peyotism because "it mixed Christianity, Winnebago customs and Pan-Indianism."
The Society of American Indians was a formative attempt by urban Indians to take control of their own destinies and to gain a voice in the white-based institutions which touched their lives and was a forerunner for the Pan-Indian movements which followed. It also stimulated the birth of The American Indian Magazine, a publication through which many of the ideas discussed at their conventions were presented to a broader public.
Prior to 1914 when new Superintendent Oscar Lipps was appointed to Carlisle by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells, DeCora had the support of important government officials for her programs in native American art. But Commissioner Sells was opposed to some of his predecessor Leupp's programs, including native American development of arts. He cited a practical, social problem - alcoholism among Indians - as his major concern. These changes brought DeCora's work to a halt.
The Indian situation, always particularly vulnerable to political change, had begun to change again. Carlisle School closed in 1917 when it became a World War I army medical center. Angel DeCora and Dietz had left the school earlier. In 1915 Dietz became football coach at Washington State University at Pullman, and his wife resigned her post at Carlisle in December of that year to join him in the West. Their marriage was in difficulty. They were rarely seen together during their last year at Carlisle, and on November 30, 1918, they were divorced in Spokane, Washington.
DeCora wished to work again as an illustrator. In the summer of 1918, however, she worked as an arts and crafts teacher at Camp Oahe, a girls' summer camp started by Charles and Elaine Eastman. She considered creating a program for teaching American Indian crafts to disabled veterans of World War I but instead ended her career as an illustrator of Devonian fauna for the New York State Museum at Albany.
During the winter of 1918-1919, DeCora became ill with pneumonia. She went to Northhampton, Massachusetts, to stay with a friend of college days, and died there on February 6, 1919, from pneumonia complicated by influenza.
Several of DeCora's lifelong friends and supporters wrote memorial articles after her death. Cora Folsom published a long obituary in The Southern Workman. Elaine Goodale Eastman wrote in the Quarterly Journal of the Society of American Indians. Oliver LaMere published a memorial calendar. Natalie Curtis wrote a long article devoted to DeCora and titled "An American Indian Artist" and expressed an appreciation of DeCora's life and work in the following words:
After the initial flurry of suitable obituaries and memorial articles, the world of art and education promptly forgot Angel DeCora's efforts to produce art and to bring cultural awareness to young Indians. In order to place DeCora's ideas concerning education into an historical context, it is necessary to establish what qualities about them were truly innovative and have had continuing impact.
DeCora was not without influence shortly after her death and during her short career as a teacher. A number of students who had worked under her at Carlisle continued on, at least temporarily, in art-related fields. Certainly her husband Lone Star used the lessons that he learned to support himself till the end of his life in the 1960's. Aibright College in Pennsylvania, where he coached, has a collection of portraits of local dignitaries which Dietz painted in his later years. In The Red Man for September, 1913, John Farr, a Chippewa who graduated from Carlisle after studying with DeCora, was credited with drawing a plan for a New York public library. Thomas Saul and Reuben Charles, both students of DeCora, received Gillespie Scholarships to study illustration and interior decoration at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art. Isaac Quinn and Anna Miles, also Carlisle students, continued artistic studies at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art. Samuel J. McLean, who graduated in 1909, became an "art and penmanship teacher" at St. Mary's Mission near Omak, Washington. No doubt some of these people passed on DeCora's ideas to other Indians. It is also important that a group of eight Navajo silversmiths were brought to Carlisle to gain instruction in design and to learn more advanced technology. These men possibly carried back some of the ideas and techniques which they learned to their reservation in the Southwest.
It has been established through the data presented that Angel DeCora's teaching techniques and the ideas and methods which she developed reflected the first governmental recognition of the importance of Indian artistic traditions to American art. This she combined with practical experience as an illustrator and artist, the knowledge she gained through study of ethnographic objects and photographs and discussion with Indian artists. Because of the intensified awareness on the part of influential government workers of Indian arts and music, the program in native American art was established at Carlisle. Artists and collectors of handmade "curiosities" were also more cognizant of Indian art than ever before. Partially because of the influence of the Crafts Revival, there was a market for the products of Carlisle and of reservation Indians. The Carlisle experiment in teaching Indians the art of their race was the predecessor of many federally sponsored efforts - and Angel DeCora was at the heart of it.
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