Appropriation of Native Music in the Early 20th Century Entertainment Industry


Many harmful stereotypes and mischaracterizations remain about Native American culture, driven by well over a century of its appropriation by the entertainment industry. While more recent examples of inappropriate use deserve much of our attention, it is often helpful to reach into the past and examine the ways in which Native American music was being appropriated a century ago in the entertainment industry.

One example of appropriation is the opera–referenced as the “Indian Opera”– “Shanewis” by Charles W. Cadman. The work was premiered on March 23, 1918, nearly one hundred years ago. The linked newspaper article declares that this work “captivate[d]” its audience with “Native scenic art” and was “beyod question of authentic originality and Native worth.” The paper continues to praise the authenticity of the opera which supposedly “carried a thought of the cool morning of life on this continent in aboriginal ages long ago.”

An interesting aspect of this assessment is the presumption of an understanding for authentic Native American music. The article makes no attempt to define any standard of authenticity to which it measures the opera. The author seems to feel that a certain level of understanding on the topic is self-evident–that the listener will know real Native American music when they hear it. This carries the implication that a common perception of the music was already being carried in 1918, which is undeniable. However, another implication of this article is that by 1918, the perception of an ‘authentic’ versus ‘inauthentic’ production of Native music was already mainstream and factored into audience appreciation.

Sadly, the opera which was celebrated (and achieved great financial success) for its authentic portrayal of Native culture and music was still horribly inaccurate. While the article states that “Mr. Cadman had taken the origin of some of his songs from melodies of the Cheyennes, the Omahas, the Osages,” it also makes clear that a “sophisticated” orchestration was provided and that “in performance the songs told their own story.”

The story it told, which has been told over and over again for over a century, is the story of the appropriation of Native music as a stylistic enhancement for the benefit of the predominantly white-run entertainment industry. The story it told was the erasure of the actual context of cultural elements.


‘SHANEWIS,’ INDIAN OPERA, CAPTIVATES. (1918, Mar 24). New York Times (1857-1922) Retrieved from