Nicole Tonkovich is the author of newly released, The Allotment Plot: Alice C. Fletcher, E. Jane Gay, and Nez Perce Survivance. Tonkovich recently began a blog where she will transcribe field diaries kept by Alice Fletcher during her allotment work. Click here for the first entry. Below she discusses how she discovered her book's topic.
I became aware of E. Jane Gay and Alice C. Fletcher while watching Ken Burns’s PBS series The West. I was immediately intrigued--both by the clarity and beauty of Gay’s photographs and by the fact that these two women were well into their middle age when they went West, where Fletcher supervised the allotment of lands to the Nez Perce Indians from 1889 to 1892.
As I delved into the story I was initially attracted to Gay’s work. In addition to her photographs, she documented the pair’s adventures in a series of witty and sometimes-acerbic columns published in reform periodicals of the era. What she was telling the readers of these newspapers differed in detail and in intent from the reports her friend Fletcher was sending to the Indian Bureau. Somewhat reluctantly, I began to read Fletcher’s records, as well. She was in many ways Gay’s opposite: where Gay was acerbic and witty, Fletcher was earnest and hectoring. Gay had a lively sense of irony; Fletcher lacked that sense entirely. Yet together they were part of the conception and administration of a major federal program that impacted not only the Nez Perces but nearly every Indian tribe in the nation, decimating their lands and endeavoring to erase tribal identities altogether.
The more I read of the details of how the Nez Perces received these two women who came among them with the intent to reconfigure--even erase--their culture, the more I was sure that a major part of the story of allotment was missing from Fletcher’s and Gay’s records. Tantalizing hints suggested that Nez Perces mounted a fierce if peaceful effort to resist the worst outcomes of allotment. And what began as a biography of “two heroic women,” as the Red Man newspaper fancifully called them, became a quest to reconstruct a series of encounters, negotiations, disagreements, false turns and starts, concessions and compromises about allotment. The allotment went forward, but it did not proceed as Alice Fletcher had imagined it would, and Nez Perces who were involved with her gained significant concessions that mitigated some of the worst effects of the law.
My book is also a meditation about evidence. What constitutes evidence of a historical event? Does it lie in the official records, often written to placate or flatter policymakers? How do well-known story forms that structure our historical understanding? How might we hear the Native voices, see the conditions through their eyes, and understand their efforts to save their patrimonies and sovereignty? How has the structure of our archival record determined what is visible to us as evidence, and thus, what we imagine to have happened?
In my book, I use Native celebrations of the Fourth of July as one way to answer some of these questions. Their resistances lie in performances whose intent is to preserve tradition and adapt it to present circumstances. These performances may be couched in orator, music, dance, the visual image, or the written word.