Angel DeCora

1871, Thurston, Nebraska
1919, Northampton, Massachusetts

Angel DeCora was a late 19th- and early 20th-century artist, illustrator, graphic designer, and educator. Born in a wigwam, she was the descendant of two prominent French Canadian-Winnebago Native American chiefs. Her Winnebago tribal name was Hinook-Mahiwi-Kalinaka (Fleecy Cloud Floating in Space), and she was a member of the Thunderbird clan.

As a girl, she was kidnapped from her family in Nebraska and taken thousands of miles away to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a boarding school instated by the United States government to “civilize” Native American children, with the goal of stripping them of their culture, severing family and tribal connections, and assimilating them into Euro-American society. Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first off-reservation boarding school is known for his statement, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Yet despite being educated to devalue indigenous cultures, DeCora created sympathetic, humanizing depictions of native peoples throughout her life’s work and advocated for the value of Native American art and design.

At Hampton, DeCora performed well academically. After graduating in 1891, she attended Miss Burnham’s Classical School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts. However, she become uncomfortable with the elitist atmosphere and left the school in 1892 to attend Smith College, where she was one of the first Native American students. At Smith, she attended the School of Art and studied under Dwight William Tryon, a well-known Tonalist landscape painter.

DeCora won several awards for her work while at Smith, and after graduating in 1896 she attended Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia. Here, she studied under the famous American illustrator, Howard Pyle, who taught many well-known illustrators and considered DeCora, in particular, a genius. The following summer, Pyle encouraged DeCora to travel to North Dakota to paint Native people, and the summer after that he awarded her a scholarship to attend a special course of his. Thanks to his connections, DeCora also wrote and illustrated two stories for Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1899, both featuring Native American girl protagonists.

Working as a commercial artist, DeCora designed and illustrated a number of books with Native American subjects. For Old Indian Legends (published by Ginn & Company in 1901), a collection of Dakota stories retold by her friend Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), she contributed illustrations and a cover design reminiscent of Plains beaded blanket strips. For The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School (published by Small, Maynard & Company in 1901)—an autobiography by the first Native American ethnologist, Francis LaFlesche, the son of a chief who was of Omaha, Ponca, and French heritage—DeCora created a cover with a stylized scene of two tipis with a bow-and-arrows border motif as well as a frontispiece with an emotionally charged painting. It depicts a Native boy in a school uniform comforting another boy, a recent arrival in Native dress, who covers his face while he weeps.

DeCora also produced a number of designs for The Indians' Book (published by Harper and Brothers Publishers in 1907), which features a collection of songs and stories from diverse Native American groups across the continent, curated by Natalie Curtis. The book received national attention, and included an introductory note from Theodore Roosevelt. DeCora designed the main title page with stylized eagles and lettering that complemented the drawings of other contributing Native artists and referenced the design conventions of their respective tribes. At the time, the publisher hadn’t seen anything like it. She also presumably designed the cover, which clearly draws from the abstract, geometric designs created by Plains Indians on parfleche bags.

In 1906 she accepted a position at Carlisle Indian School to teach Native American art, which represented an incredible shift as Native art was heavily discouraged until then. She frequently traveled, giving talks and presenting papers at conferences on Native art and design. By this time the American Arts and Crafts movement was in full swing, which made the mainstream more open to a variety of design traditions. For DeCora, this was a vehicle to promote the value of Native American art and design. She expressed her support as a member of the Society of American Indians, one of the first Native-led rights organizations, as well as in her speech for the 25th Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and other Dependent Peoples in 1907:

There is a general revival throughout the country of the old handicrafts and skilled hands are in demand. Let me tell you that the Indian is an apt pupil for any sort of handicraft. The basket and textile weavers, pottery, and metal workers are already well established. Each of these industries can be expanded in various directions both for utility and ornament. The simple dignity of Indian design lends itself well to ways of conventional art and I think the day has come when the American people must pause and give recognition to another phase of the Indian’s nature, which is his art.

In 1908, DeCora married the younger William “Lone Star” Dietz, a football player at Carlisle. Together they collaborated on a number of projects, including the illustrations for Yellow Star: A Story of East and West, by Elaine Goodale Eastman, the wife of Dr. Charles Eastman (Ohíye S’a), a Santee-Sioux physician.

As DeCora’s assistant in the art department, Dietz illustrated the bulk of the covers and delved into the design of The Indian Craftsman (later renamed The Red Man after a dispute), notable for two facts: it was printed by Native students in the print department, and a number of the designs and illustrations in the magazine were produced by students in DeCora’s program.

Just a few years later in 1915, when a scandal engulfed the school and resulted in the dissolution of the art department, DeCora left Carlisle to pursue her career as an artist. In 1918, she and Dietz divorced. The same year, she illustrated Devonian fauna for the New York State Museum. While Angel had many more artistic ambitions yet, she became ill and died of pneumonia and influenza in February 1919.

Later that year, American Indian magazine recognized DeCora for her gift of $3,000 (more than $40,000 adjusted for inflation) to the Society of American Indians in her will and expressed gratitude: “This gift is a sacred trust! Such faith in her own race inspires us to our uttermost effort. Angel DeCora Dietz, living and dying, has left us a noble example of devotion to our people. Let us take heed. Let us prove our worth even as she has done.” The same issue features DeCora’s illustrations for an article written by Dr. Charles Eastman, “The American Eagle, an Indian Symbol,” about the significance and symbology of the eagle, a subject that’s just as timely today in the light of recent issues over cultural appropriation.

Throughout her career, DeCora was frequently featured in the press, though as a Native American woman, she was often romanticized and stereotyped. For many years, her contributions to modern Native art and design were forgotten. Today, however, DeCora’s influence is receiving greater recognition once again.

Works consulted:

  • Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light: The Life of Angel De Cora, Winnebago Artist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).
  • Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora: American Indian Artist and Educator,” Nebraska History 57, no. 2 ( Summer 1976): 143-199.
  • Angel DeCora, "Angel DeCora – An Autobiography," The Red Man, March 1911, 280-285.
  • Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and the Transculturation in American Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
  • Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and other Dependent Peoples, Lake Mohonk Conference, 1907, 16-18
  • Angel 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), 85-87.
  • Tom Benjey, Keep A-goin': The Life of Lone Star Dietz (Carlisle, PA: Tuxedo Press, 2006), 72-75.
  • Society of American Indians. The American Indian Magazine. (Washington, D.C.: Society of American Indians, 1919).
  • Yvonne N. Tiger, (2008). Angel de Cora: her assimilation, philosophies, and career as an art instructor while employed at Carlisle, 1906-1915 (Unpublished master's thesis), 30. University of Oklahoma, Bizzell Memorial Library, Peggy V. Helmerich Reading Room.