In the ninteenth century, the government sent Native Americans to Indian schools in an attempt to Americanize them. Not all Indians went willingly and some, like Angel De Cora, had to be duped, or as she said, "kidnapped" to make possible her attendance at Hampton Indian School in Newport News, Virginia. Leaving the Winnebago culture where women held positions of honor, Angel entered the white world, where men were in charge while women engaged in domestic duties. Angel struggled throughout her life against this cultural bias, and ultimately became recognized as a celebrated artist.
Born in 1869, Angel's ancestry included Winnebago, French fur traders, and Métis. She lived between the Civil War and World War I, when Indians lived on or near reservations and treaties changed often. She lived in Nebraska near the Winnebago reservation with her younger sister and extended family, until their father left the family when she was seven. When Angel was fourteen, she left the reservation and unwillingly traveled to Hampton Indian School.
Biographer Linda Waggoner provides detailed descriptions of Angel's genealogy, her time spent in Hampton, and her transfer to Smith College in 1891. Angel had already shown her artistic skill in Hampton and benefactors enabled her to transfer to Smith by paying her tuition and finding a place for her to live. A reserved, unassuming young woman, Angel spent her time making art, but spent little time promoting herself.
After graduating from Smith, Angel moved to Philadelphia to study at Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry under the direction of Howard Pyle. A leader in painting historical scenes, Pyle encouraged Angel to paint or illustrate scenes from her Indian childhood. However, her former teacher in Hampton had discouraged Angel from returning to the reservation, fearing that the old scenes might entice Angel to stay, so Angel went to visit a friend in North Dakota where she made many sketches and photographs of the Indians living there.
Angel became a founding member of the Society of American Indians, "a progressive organization to work toward social justice for their people." Known as the "Red-Progressives" this group of educated Indians worked through peaceful means to better the conditions of their fellow Indians. Angel continued to teach and illustrate and presented her educational philosophy to many groups/ She believed in using the inherent abilities of Indian students to incorporate their native designs into their work. Her marriage to William "Lone Star" Dietz, a white man who pretended to be Indian, pushed her achievements to the background while Dietz used her talents to promote his own art and prowess on the football field. Eventually they divorced.
Although Angel's career blossomed, she encountered many obstacles, such as the negative attitudes held by whites toward Indian culture and her role in society as a woman. However Waggoner details Angel's faithfulness to Indian ways in her art. Through Angel's art works and letters, Waggoner shows how she continued to champion Indian culture as the first Winnebago to receive a college degree and become a major artist. She died of influenza in 1918. Although few original works remain by Angel De Cora, the ones that do "bravely offered the best productions of her mind and hand and created a permanent record for her race."
Linda M. Waggoner is an independent scholar residing in Healdsburg, California. A specialist in Great Lakes Métis history and Winnebago culture and genealogy, she is the editor of Neither White Men nor Indians: Affidavits from the Winnebago Mixed-Blood Claim Commissions, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 1838-1839.
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