This is a firsthand account written by Moses K. Armstrong from a periodical titled The Youth’s Companion. Armstrong was a member of Congress from 1871-1875 for the Dakota Territory and spent time living in the area. Armstrong offers a brief, but comprehensive narrative of the Sioux Sun Dance that he witnessed somewhere in the Dakotas around the turn of the 20th century. The Sun Dance was an important ritual of song, dance, and self-mutilation.
By referring to the music as “the usual sorrowful Indian dirge” and “monotonous Indian notes,” Armstrong references a preexistent concept of Indian music. The use of the word “usual” and the indication of “Indian notes” shows that Armstrong is recalling a common familiarity with Indian music that the readers would have had, even if the familiarity is with stereotypes of Indian music, and not from the musical source itself. By adding the descriptors “monotonous” and “sorrowful,” Armstrong is imparting his own opinions about the music onto the reader. There are also some more obvious negative word choices, like the use of “hideously” to describe the face paint of the Sioux women, which convey certain images and ideas that entail more than a simple observation.
While not all accounts have blatantly negative opinions embedded within them, a lot have underlying meanings. One account in Judith Tick’s book describes a “doleful manner of shrieking.” In some cases like this account that Tick included, it is hard to discern to what extent an observer’s bias is conveyed. Although, as Richard Crawford argues in America’s Musical Life, non-Natives’ perceptions are often based on their political and economic advantages. Whether or not accounts are obviously negative or not, many seem to share a similar motivation or effect for recording their encounters. I see the effect being the creation of a space for which non-Natives to contemplate the encounters they have.
When I looked at the first volume of The Youth’s Companion from 1827, I found that the purpose of the periodical was to provide education and entertainment for young people. It also clearly states that a lot of its content was to be religious. I think it is important to consider the religious goals of this periodical because it could parallel the lens through which Armstrong and other observers might have seen the Sioux Sun Dance. As someone like Armstrong writes about a Native American ceremony with specifically chosen words, he is actually contemplating it by relating it to his own experiences, and the readers are invited to compare it to their own sacred beliefs, rituals, and music.
Myers, Helen and Kay Edwards. “Sioux.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 26, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2257292.
Rand, Willis. 1827. “Prospectus of the Youth’s Companion.” The Youth’s Companion (1827-1929), Apr 16, 1.
Ragsdale, Bruce A. and Kathryn Allamong Jacob. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989 : The Continental Congress, September 5, 1774, to October 21, 1788, and the Congress of the United States, from the First through the One Hundredth Congresses, March 4, 1789, to January 3, 1989, Inclusive.Washington D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1989. 100-34.
Tick, Judith, and Paul Beaudoin. Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
“The Sioux Sun-Dance.” 1901. The Youth’s Companion (1827-1929), Sep 12, 1.