Frances La Flesche (Minxa’ska)

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. (Photograph 4504).

Native American (Omaha), Ethnomusicology, Museum Work

Frances La Flesche (Minxa’ska)


Francis La Flesche was the first Native American professional ethnologist. Working at the Smithsonian, he dedicated his scholarship to documenting Omaha and Osage tribal life and customs.  

Born on the Omaha reservation (in present day Nebraska) in 1857, Francis was the son of Elizabeth and Joseph La Flesche, the last chief of the Omaha people. He came from a prominent Omaha family who practiced their Omaha culture, while also successfully living and educating in the non-Indian world. Francis, along with his siblings, Susette, Susan, Rosalie, Lucy and Cary, and his father Joseph, all used their various skills and education to assist their people by promoting tribal culture, rights, health, and medicine.

After Ponca Chief Standing Bear won the landmark civil rights decision, Standing Bear v. Crook (1879), affirming that “Native Americans were persons within the meaning of the law,” La Flesche and his sister Susette served as his interpreters on his speaking tour of East Coast from 1879 to1880. In 1881, La Flesche also worked as an interpreter in Washington, DC, for the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Later that year, he was hired to work with anthropologist Alice C. Fletcher at the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, starting a long collaboration. There he worked as a copyist, translator, and interpreter, then advanced to professional-level research with Fletcher. While working at the Smithsonian, La Flesche took classes and graduated from the National University Law School (now George Washington University Law School) in 1892, and then earned an MA in 1893. Between 1881 and 1910, he worked with Fletcher to collect information about Omaha and Osage cultural traditions. In 1910, he gained a professional position as an anthropologist within the Smithsonian’s Ethnology department where he researched, published, and lectured extensively on his research.

La Flesche published The Middle Five (1900), an account of his childhood at the reservation’s Presbyterian mission school. The decades of data collection and research by La Flesche and Fletcher culminated in a co-authored publication, The Omaha Tribe (1911). He also published a massive study for the Bureau of American Ethnology entitled The Osage Tribe, which was published between 1914 and 1928 in four separate volumes of the Bureau’s Annual Reports. Throughout his research, he made recordings on wax cylinders of Osage songs, documented them in writing, and published the Dictionary of the Osage Language (1932).

In 1922, La Flesche was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and from 1922 to1923, he served as president of the Anthropological Society of Washington. In 1926, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Nebraska.

Among his prolific publications of interest to folklorists are:

with Alice Fletcher. A Study of Omaha Music (1893)

The Middle Five (1900)

Susana Grajales Geliga