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




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."[65]

Natalie Curtis was probably the single most influential person in getting the government to institute reforms in Indian educational institutions. She was interested in preserving native American arts, myth, and music and in helping the Indian to adjust to the white culture surrounding him, "not by stamping out all that was native to him in the futile belief that he might thus be transformed into a White man, but by developing his character through the preservation and fostering of all that was valuable in his own distinctive culture."[66] Curtis took her plea directly to President Roosevelt, who made a comment on Indian art which clearly demonstrates the general ignorance about the culture of the Indian: "How many Congressmen do you suppose there are who would understand that there could be such a thing as 'Indian Art'? They will say, 'Another of Roosevelt's vagaries.'"[67]

Charles Eastman, the Sioux writer and student of Indian culture, also wrote several articles explaining Indian art for journals such as The Craftsman. His description in "Indian Handicrafts," an article published in The Craftsman for August, 1905, was relatively accurate on the arts of his own tribe. He also perpetuated an idea which was common in most discussions of Indians - that the Indian was a "natural" or "born" artist. This attitude also was held by Leupp and DeCora and shows up in the structuring of the Carlisle class.

A speech given at the National Education Association meeting of 1909 by A. J. Flynn emphasized the inborn ability of the Indian as an artist:


The Indian has a natural inclination toward such work. Through long training he has acquired a skilled hand. His outdoor life and the nature of his occupation make him a keen observer. He excels as an imitator. All these emphasize the adaptability of the man to this kind of occupation [the arts].[68]


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."[69] 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."[70]

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.

It should be mentioned that there were several other efforts to preserve, save, and perpetuate the Indian art which was contemporaneous with DeCora's work at Carlisle. None of these efforts had the seal of approval of the federal government. In Oklahoma the Mohonk Colony, under the auspices of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, worked to stimulate Indian artists. At Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, Josephine Foard was conducting a project to teach the potters there to glaze their wares to make them more saleable.[71] There was also an Indian Industries League in Boston, Massachusetts. What this organization did is unclear. In addition there was an attempted exhibit of Indian art in 1919 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. The exhibit planners were thwarted because the American Museum of Natural History felt that their museum should be the place where Indian arts could be shown. Walter Pach, in his 1920 article, "The Art of the American Indian," records the brief history of this undertaking and indicates his regret that the objects could not be taken out of their ethnographic context and shown in a fine arts museum.

In the 1920's the Indian administration moved further and further away from the principles of education established by Pratt. Boarding schools were built closer to reservations and tribalism was strengthened to some extent. The government was now concerned with providing economic salvation for groups rather than for individuals. Arts and crafts industries began to flourish. The Meriam Report, published in 1928 by the Brookings Institute, emphasized the need for development of native crafts industries. It said:


The survey staff had been impressed by the possibilities of the development of native Indian art and its application as an enrichment to our industry. Already possibilities in this direction have been demonstrated by private organizations and activities.[72]


The ideas propagated by the Meriam Report were basically not so different from those practiced by DeCora and Carlisle, yet the report does not specifically mention her efforts. Because of the government intent to use the arts as an economic panacea, paternalistic regulations were proposed in the Meriam Report to control the quality and pricing of Indian arts. These controls went far beyond those exercised by DeCora in her classroom, for she did not expect all of her students to become practicing artists adding income through crafts to their tribes. She hoped merely to give the students a sense of pride in their own history.




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.


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.



1 Thomas Hughes, Indian Chiefs of Southern Minnesota: Containing Sketches of the Prominent Chieftains of the Dakota and Winnebago Tribes from 1825 to 1865 (Mankato, Minnesota: Free Press, 1927).

2. Angel DeCora (Hinook-Mahiwi-Kilinaka), "Grey Wolf's Daughter," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1899, 860-862.

3. Angel DeCora (Hinook-Mahiwi-Kilinaka). "The Sick Child," Harpers New Monthly Magazine, February 1899, 446-448.

4. Angel DeCora, "Angel DeCora - An Autobiography," The Red Man, March 1911, 279.

5. DeCora, "Grey Wolf's Daughter," 860.

6. Elaine Goodale Eastman, Pratt: The Red Man's Moses (Norman. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935), 65.

7. Ibid. 70.

8. Cora M. Folsom, "The Careers of Three Indian Women," The Congregationalist and Christian World, March 12. 1904, 375.

9. Cora M. Folsom, "Angel DeCora-Dietz," The Southern Workman, March 1919, 104.

10. Ibid.

11. The University of Connecticut, Dwight W. Tryon: A Retrospective Exhibition - April 19, May 30, 1971, Intro, by Nelson C. White (Storrs: University of Connecticut Museum of Art, 1971), 7.

12. Angel DeCora, "Angel DeCora-An Autobiography," The Red Man, March, 1911, 279.

13. Henry C. White, The Life and Art of Dwight William Tryon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930). 91.

14. Ibid. 98.

15. "In Memoriam-Angel DeCora Dietz," The Smith Alumnae Quarterly. July, 1919, n.p.; Letter from Grace B. Howes, assistant archivist, Smith College to John C. Ewers, senior ethnologist, National Museum of Natural History. May 24, 1974.

16. Walt Reed, editor The Illustrator in America: 1900-1960 (New York: Reinhold Publishing Company. 1966), 13.

17. Delaware Art Museum, Howard Pyle, Diversity in Depth: March 5-April 15. 1973 (Wilmington, Delaware: Wilmington Society of Fine Arts, 1973). 21.

18. Cora M. Folsorn, "Angle DeCora Dietz," The Southern Workman, March. 1919, 104.

19. Natalie Curtis, "An American Indian Artist," The Outlook: An Illustrated Weekly Journal of Current Events. January 14, 1920, 64.

20. Ibid.

21. "Frank W. Benson," Biographical Sketches of American Artists. 4th ed. rev, and enl. (Lansing: Michigan State Library, 1927), 40.

22. Letter from Karen L. Elias, executive secretary to Dean William Bagnell of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to the writer, July 3, 1974.

23. DeCora, "Autobiography," 285.

24. Zitkala-Sa, Old Indian Legends (Boston: The Athenaeum Press, 1907), v.

25. Francis LeFlesche, The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School (Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1900), 1.

26. Mary Catherine Judd, Wigwam Stories as Told by the North American Indians (Boston: Athenaeum Press, 1906), 217.

27. Elaine Goodale Eastman, Yellow Star: A Story of East and West (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1911). 269.

28. Van Deren Coke, Taos and Santa Fe: The Artist's Environment 1882-1942 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press for the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art and The Art Gallery, University of New Mexico, 1965), 15.

29. Curtis, "An American Indian Artist," 65.

30. Ellwood Parry, The Image of the Indian and the Black Man in American Art-1590 to 1900 (New York: Braziller, 1974), 143.

31. Ibid, 128.

32. Martha Jackson, ed., The Illustrations of Frederic Remington, Commentary by Owen Wister (New York: Crown, 1970), 122.

33. J. J. Brody, Indian Painters and White Patrons (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1971), 82.

34. Dorothy Dunn, "Awa Tsirah: Painter of San Ildefonso," El Palacio, April, 1956, 108.

35. Curtis, ed., The Indian's Book (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907), vi.

36. Ibid.

37. Hazel W. Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity - Modern Pan-Indian Movements (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1971), 17.

38. Curtis, "An American Indian Artist," The Outlook, January, 1920, 65.

39. Ibid.

40. Moses Friedman, The Indian Craftsman, February, 1909, 7.

41. Francis E. Leupp, The Indian and His Problem (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1914), 166.

42. U.S. Department of the Interior, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior-1906 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906), 66.

43. "Indian Arts and Crafts," The Indian's Friend, March, 1907, 2.

44. U.S. Department of the Interior, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior-1907 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907), 52.

45. DeCora, "The Native Indian Art," The Indian School Journal, VII (September, 1907), 45.

46. "Nursery Wall Coverings in Indian Designs," The Craftsman, October, 1903, 99.

47. Frank McNitt, The Indian Traders (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 209.

48. Ibid. 222.

49. Curtis, "An American Indian Artist," 66.

50. DeCora, "An Effort to Encourage Indian Art," Congres International Des Americanistes-XV Session, II (Quebec: Dussault and Proulx, 1907), 208.

51. DeCora, "Native Indian Art," Report of the Executive on the Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians Held at the University of Ohio, Columbus, Ohio-October 12-17, 1911, I (Washington, D.C.: Society of American Indians, 1912), 87.

52. Statement of Dr. John C. Ewers, Senior Ethnologist of the National Museum of National History, Smithsonian Institution, personal interview, Washington, D.C., January 12, 1975.

53. DeCora, "Native Indian Art," The Report of the Twenty-Sixty Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians and Other Dependent Peoples (Lake Mohonk, New York: Lake Mohonk Conference, 1908), 17.

54. Clarissa Bucklin, ed. Nebraska Art and Artists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska School of Fine Arts, 1932), 18.

55. "Gift of Angel DeCora-Dietz," The American Indian Magazine, Summer, 1919, 62.

56. Hertzberg, Pan-Indianism, 79.

57. Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians, 4.

58. Hertzberg, 248.

59. Curtis, "An American Indian Artist," 66.

60. The Red Man, September, 1913, 34.

61. The Indian Craftsman, April, 1909, 18.

62. Ibid, 41.

53. The Red Man, December, 1910, 180.

64. The Indian Craftsman, April, 1909, 18.

65. Margaret Eadie Henderson, "An Ancient Art Modernized," Canadian, March, 1907, 425.

66. Curtis, The Indian's Book, vi.

67. Ibid.

68. A. J. Flynn, "The Preservation of Aboriginal Arts," Journal of the Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association Meetings-Held at Denver, Colorado, July 3-9, 1909, 947-950.

69. Howard Fremont Stratton, "The Place of the Indian in Art," The Red Man, March, 1910, 4.

70. DeCora, Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians, 91.

71. Pach, Walter, "The Art of the American Indian," The Dial, January, 1920, n.p.

72. Lewis Meriam and Associates, The Problem of Indian Administration, The Brookings Institution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928), 125.


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