Angel de Cora is not exactly a household name, but her story is as fascinating as it is little-known. A Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) with French ancestry, DeCora became the most influential Native American artist of the early 20th century.
She was born in 1871 and grew up during a time of great turmoil and upheaval for Native people. She attended the Hampton Institute, one of the era’s famous Indian boarding schools, where like many other Indian children she faced the twin hardships of separation from family and the systematic indoctrination of a deeply racist policy.
Her remarkable academic and artistic achievements earned her a ticket to advanced art training in Philadelphia and Boston under some of the country’s most renowned instructors. She absorbed multiple styles and incorporated them into a unique illustrating signature.
Right: Illustration from the book “The Middle Five” (Image: AngelDeCora.com)
Angel was reluctant to part with her heritage and stood out by making her skills a catalyst for expressing her people’s culture and experience in a modern context. By being such a “media maverick” she defied common stereotypes about Indians (and about women) and became a trend-setter in the field of Native American art. She was a conundrum to a public eager to categorize Indians into two classes: the backward, recalcitrant outsiders who needed to be assimilated into white society, or the romanticized “children of nature,” the noble savages of a lost age.
She illustrated her own stories as well as books by Zitkala Sa and Elaine Goodale Eastman. Her husband William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz, a Hampton alumnus, was also an artist and together they collaborated on many projects.
Some of her most important contributions were made during her appointment as an art teacher at the Carlisle Indian School, where she often pushed the boundaries of traditional teaching methods, using art to help her students rediscover rather than suppress their roots.
Left: DeCora and her husband William Dietz (Image: AngelDeCora.com)
She acted as a kind of cultural liaison with several government agencies and was constantly bombarded by the prejudice and incompetence of the cumbersome bureaucracy. She often traveled to Indian communities throughout the Midwest gathering ethnographic information, not only to reinforce her teaching skills but to contribute to a permanent artistic record of Indian cultures. In this role she was a major force in bringing Native arts and crafts into the public spotlight.
She died in 1919 at the age of 47. Few of her original works survive, but reproductions in books and magazines such as the popular Harper’s offer a rich glimpse of her versatile techniques, from the intricate realist detail of her early pieces, to the strong tonal style of her late works.
Angel DeCora: American Artist and Educator – Sarah McAnulty (a very good biography of DeCora)