Frances Densmore: Can we Learn from “White Saviors?”

Pretty much everyone who’s taken a musicology course in the US has heard the name Frances Densmore. She was one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology, a scholar who traveled the country in the early 20th century recording somewhere between 2000 and 3500 samples of Native American music and speech and publishing ethnographies which integrated her analysis of these recordings with relevant cultural information from the tribes involved. Her work shaped the discipline. Because of that influence, many scholars have since turned a critical eye toward her work, aiming to better understand her attempts to represent Indigenous cultures. After all, it’s dubious that a culture can be accurately represented at all, much less by someone who is a member of a different cultural group. In 1950, Densmore broke from her typical ethnographic formal to publish the LP “Songs of the Chippewa” with the Library of Congress.1 This complication of recordings, taken on Ojibwe reservations between 1907-1910, was published with a bulletin, a document similar to liner notes which proved to be extremely revealing as to Densmore’s engagement with, and attitudes toward, those she recorded.

The first page of the “Songs of the Chippewa” bulletin1

In her favor: Densmore credits her performers in the notes, lays out relevant personal information about them, and presents freely given and accurate cultural information about their tribes. In this, her engagement has some authenticity (if such a thing exists). She includes performers’ Native names and the song lyrics recorded in tribal languages, which I find to be a particularly significant example of genuine cultural engagement. Here especially, there are traces of Native voices, of Native histories as Indigenous Peoples wanted them preserved, in her work, and she showed genuine respect for them in how earnestly she preserved them.

However, her writing also reveals concerning white-saviorist attitudes toward the Indigenous people she worked with. While she may have had shining moments of respect for her performers and their cultures, Densmore often failed to consider how Native Americans wanted their music to be represented; she used writing to codify aural traditions, and she dissected music with western analytical methods instead of using the language and analytical tools that the musickers themselves used to engage with their own traditions. She engaged with Native musics on her own terms, not as the peer of those she was working with. This implies an attitude of superiority, the white-savior attitude which discards the possibility that culture-bearers have any knowledge to offer as to how intercultural engagement should take place. Densmore’s white-saviorism also took more explicit forms: she wrote that she undertook her recording projects to preserve in White institutions that which was “disappearing”2 while ignoring the fact that, as a white woman, her interests were the reason why those musics were being intentionally destroyed in the cultural genocide of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The juxtaposition between Densmore’s perspective and Indigenous perspectives preserved in her work complicates established profiles of this early musicologist. She’s often reduced to either the intrepid founding mother of ethnomusicology or the misguided white savior who took advantage of Native tribes all over the country; in a way, she was both. There are Native voices that shine through her texts, and to discard her writing or her recordings is to discard those valuable perspectives and pieces of cultural history. However, everything Densmore wrote has to be read with a most critical eye, because those white savior attitudes permeate every inch of her activities. She was an extremely flawed human being who preserved some genuine aspects of cultural and Native voice (almost despite her own best efforts). 

Embracing the paradox of her work, however, does not answer the question of how or whether modern musicologists should use it. Densmore’s materials teach us a lot about white constructions of identity in opposition to an Indigenous “other,” so they’re useful on a meta-musicological level, but should they be considered good source material for modern study of Indigenous traditions? I honestly think the answer is generally no. We can and we must address Densmore’s legacy, but I believe that when it comes to cultural research we should prioritize the voices of Native scholars, and focus on Indigenous cultures that willingly produce musical content to share with the broader world, or otherwise want to participate in musicological research – many, unsurprisingly, don’t. Perhaps the broader musicological community, particularly the American musicological community, should take a step back from trying to study Indigenous musics and focus on pursuing material, reparative action with Indigenous groups. When Indigenous peoples and Indigenous scholars are uplifted, there may be room for us collectively to overcome legacies like Densmore’s and more ethically engage in musicological study of vibrant, living traditions.

1 Densmore, Frances. Songs of the Chippewa. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Division of Music, Recording Laboratory, 1950.

2 Densmore, pg. 4

Musical Performance or Spectacle? Documenting Native Music and Ritual

I came across a journal kept by George Catlin, an explorer and painter traveling the American West in the 1830s, in which he documents a yearly Mandan ceremony commemorating a great flood, in the American Indian Histories and Cultures database. While Catlin describes the ceremony as a dance and documents the role of singing and drumming in the ritual, he spends far more time describing the elaborate costumes of the dancers and the story they are telling than he does describing the music itself.

This is typical of a wider attitude which prevailed among ethnomusicologists, historians, and the public until fairly recently that Native American musical traditions were little more than primitive chants and drum beats and were certainly not artifacts of high culture like the European musical canon.1 This attitude meant that Native music was often not taken seriously by early observers like Sir Francis Drake and John Smith, whose descriptions of “a most miserable and doleful manner of shreeking [sic]” and “such a terrible noise as would rather affright” the listener echo those of Catlin.2 Even the work of later authors like Frances Densmore and Alice Fletcher, who pioneered serious ethnomusicological investigation of Native traditions, often relied on theories of social evolution to justify the idea that Native Americans and their music could not possibly be as advanced as European culture and music.4

Catlin’s focus on the story being told seems more appropriate to a play or pantomime rather than a musical performance. He does not analyze the music itself beyond a few short comments, but describes at length the elaborate costumes of the dancers and the many animals and natural phenomena they represent, noting that “many curious and grotesque amusements and ceremonies” took place over the four days of the ceremony.3 Besides devoting several pages of text to describing the ceremony, Catlin also preserved it in several paintings. Catlin mentions that large water-filled sacks were used as drums, along with rattles, to accompany a song which is repeated many times throughout the ritual, and notes that it was impossible to obtain a translation of this song, as it was a closely guarded secret even within the tribe. However, beyond these observations he makes no attempt to analyze the lyrics, composition, or instrumentation of the song, focusing instead on the visual spectacle of the bull-dance, which he describes as being “of an exceedingly grotesque and amusing character”.3

As an explorer who was clearly dedicated to documenting the rituals he saw both on the page and the canvas, it is fair to assume that Catlin was truly interested in preserving the details of the ceremony he was witnessing. Of course, Catlin was far from a trained ethnomusicologist, as the field didn’t even exist for fifty years after he was writing, and therefore did not have the same goals or values and was probably not musically trained. However, this amateur status actually reveals that Catlin’s attitude that the ceremony was simply too far outside of his experience to count as music and was not worth preserving or even really discussing was a common reaction to Native music. While these cultural attitudes clearly had nothing to do with formal training or education, they were still taken as scientific truth for decades.

Transcriptions and Telling the Whole Story

Upon studying an unfamiliar culture’s music, there are many different aspects of the music that could be taken into account. Simply the notational aspects of the music can be notated, such as pitches, rhythms, dynamics, tempos. However sometimes there are extra things that a western 5-lined staff cannot display in detail, such as pitch-bending, amount of vibrato, sliding, and tone-quality. This has been a challenge for many ethnomusicologists for years.

Two transcribers produced books regarding some to their findings about Native American Song. Theodore Baker published his dissertation ber die Musik der Nordamerikanischen Wilden (On the Music of the North American Indians) in 1882 while studying in Leipzig. His book describes most of the primary characteristics of the music he witnessed, like the rhythm, singing quality, dancing, and instruments. His notations include grace-note ornaments and chromatics slides. However, Baker does not go into detail how these features fit in with the music he transcribed, nor does his commentary note what function the music plays in Native American Spiritual life.

Frances Densmore, a well known ethnomusicologist, published The American Indians and their Music in 1926. Her book contains many of the same features as Baker’s, except her transcriptions do not include any grace-notes like Baker. However, she offers far more written context on the music. She has a whole section devoted to each dance, game, and Native American life. Overall I think that Desmore captures more accurately the meaning behind the music.

When looking into another culture that is not one’s own, it is important to mention all aspects that go into music because does not just involve the print ink on the page — it involves our cultural experiences and knowledge.

Documenting Native American Song

It’s no wonder that Americans have a narrow, stereotyped understanding of Native American song. On the one hand, there are mass media representations that run from the antiquated and embarrassing…

… to the downright confusing – I’m thinking especially of all the conflations between Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish musical culture in the 1920s and 1930s, including this one, and this one (at the very end). In fact, mass media’s propensity to get Indian song wrong is so cliché that the stereotyping itself has been parodied, most famously in the irreverent Fox cartoon Family Guy:

It’s not so hard to see where these misunderstandings come from. From the colonial era to the present day, the majority of Americans have never encountered Native American song themselves; they have mainly read accounts of it written by others. For example, Chicago’s Newberry Library preserves an 1835 account by John T. Irving, Jr. (accessible via the Adam Matthew database, specifically its “American West” collection) that describes an expedition to the Pawnee Tribes. We “hear” music through Irving’s ears, for example in this description of a group of Indians assembling before a journey:

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 5.11.12 PM
Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 5.12.56 PM




Likening the Indians’ song to a “low, and not inharmonious cry,” a “wailing moan,” and a “mournful chant,” Irving doesn’t really tell us what the “dirge” or “death song” sounds like. Rather, he sets the sounds he heard apart from what his readers might know; he renders the Native American song utterly Other.

It’s unfortunate that accounts like Irving’s have been more influential than systematic, respectful attempts to document Native American song, like that of Frances Densmore. A native of Minnesota, Densmore undertook an enormous study of Native American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under the aegis of the Bureau of American Ethnology, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Densmore’s prescience about the misrepresentations referenced above borders on the prophetic. In 1927 she wrote, “There is danger that the future will form its opinions of Indians from the sentimental movies and the theater music when the Indian is seen through the bushes. Neither the “love lyric” nor theater tom-tom music are genuinely Indian, in the best sense” (Qtd. in this Smithsonian Institute online archive; see footnote 5 for archival citation).

Building on the pioneering work of Alice Fletcher, another ethnologist and collector of Indian Song, Densmore published dozens of book-length accounts of music making by individual tribes, including a volume on Pawnee music.


Her description of Pawnee music is nothing like Irving’s. Here’s an excerpt: “An important point, made evident in this comparative analysis, is the individuality of Pawnee music. It is distinct, in its entirety, from the songs of other tribes, though bearing a resemblance to one tribe or another in separate characteristics. The study of Indian music by an established system of analysis shows there are characteristics that are common to Indian songs of various tribes and different from the music of the white race, and also characteristics which distinguish the songs of one tribe from those of another. Among the former is the change of measure-lengths found in many Indian songs and the downward trend of the melody…” (Frances Densmore, Pawnee Music [New York: Da Capo Press, 1972, reprint of 1929 ed. issued as Bulletin 93 of Smithsonian Institution]). Below is another excerpt from the book, this one including a piece she transcribed from a recording made by one of her research associates.


Densmore took Indian music as seriously as it deserved to be taken, and as a result, created an incredibly rich resource for anyone who’d like to know what music Native Americans actually made.

Other Resources:

Books by Densmore at the Carleton and St. Olaf Libraries

Minnesota Public Radio profile of Densmore

Libguide on Densmore created by the Minnesota History Center

Edward Curtis’s Photographic Ethnography of American Indians, hosted by the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project