Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Indian Blues

John W. Troutman. Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.

The ad for the book caught my eye as the book jacket was one of the iconic photos of ethnologist Frances Densmore recording the songs of the Lakota/Dakota people in the early twentieth century. While she believed, as did other anthropologists and federal policy makers of the period, that the American Indian tribes had to be assimilated into the white culture in order to survive, I’ve wondered about the motivation for her extensive field work, including recordings using a variety of technologies, of 3,500 songs and transcriptions of about 2,500 of them. Historian Troutman notes that she believed that their “value as racial artifacts was more significant than their value within Native communities to foster community ties or communal tribal identity. Viewing the songs as historically rather than actively relevant, Densmore and other ethnologists worked toward preserving performances of them as relics of the past, relics of a race that would either disappear or sacrifice the practices in order to assimilate into an assumed detribalized American social fabric.” (p.159)

Curiously, as the Office of Indian Affairs actively worked to suppress tribal dances and other traditional performances, the public’s enthusiasm for “authentic” Indian music increased. However, what these non-Indian audiences often heard were transcriptions by Densmore and contemporary ethnologist Alice Fletcher, sanitized and modified to fit American tastes and notational styles influenced by “classical” European music. Patronizing passages from Densmore’s correspondence while working with the Bureau of American Ethnology, now at the National Anthropological Archives, are an uncomfortable reminder of the distance between the observation and interpretation of "other" cultures.

Much of Indian Blues deals with the political power of the practice of music and related dance performance and the role that music has played in establishing and sustaining the identity of a cultural group. In spite of the mission of such late nineteenth century federal Indian boarding schools such as Carlisle, whose infamous mission was to “kill the Indian…and save the man,” music continued to be used to combat the control of Native peoples by the federal government.

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