Noise, More or Less: White Ethnologists and Their Role in the “Vanishing Indian”

Upon decades and even centuries of reflection, scholars can debate the true motivations and implications of the cultural observation and study of Native Americans. At best, the efforts of ethnologists like Frances Densmore and James Owen Dorsey can be hailed as necessary archival work that preserved cultures on the verge of extinction from a colonialist nation. At worst, their work can be essentialized as the groundwork necessary to provide a basis for the “Vanishing Indian” discussed at length by scholar Daniel Blim and our class. 

The latter is my understanding of the work of Rev. Myron Eells. In his article “Indian Music” published in an 1879 volume of The American Antiquarian: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to Early American History, Ethnology and Archaeology, the anthropologist and missionary studied many indigenous groups of the American Northwest.1 In his article, his first topic sentence immediately eases the fear of any upstanding, white American enjoying some ethnology from the safety and comfort of their log cabin: Eells assures readers the music of the American Indian is nothing complicated or culturally relevant.

“Music… consists more of a noise, as a general thing, than of melody and chords” – Rev. Myron Eells describing the music of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest

Eells compares the musicality of the Clallam and Twana people of the Pacific Northwest. Despite detailed accounts of the percussive instruments created and the diverse use of song in the daily lives of these peoples, Eells summarizes the music as plain and dull, with little variety save for loud or soft moments. The reverend does notate the various melodies described in his prose, but his level of analysis and specificity is but a shadow of the work of Frances Densmore- a scholar discussed at length in class who will release volumes of her own works just a few decades later. Eells’ work is important in providing a sort of early “part one” to the “Vanishing Indian” condition, assuring white audiences that the music of the Native American groups he’s studied the sophistication to deserve attention beyond defining their music as simply cacophony.

To further contextualize the “Vanishing Indian”, we look to an article published The Atlanta Constitution in 1906. In this article, we are informed that an ancient relic has been preserved that upends decades of historical understanding of Native American music. The article claims a portion of the “first, genuine Indian melody” has been found. Overlooking the concerning lack of scholarly oversight in this sweeping statement, the article focuses instead on composer Abe Holzmann’s2 arrangement of this melody while in-process. After further digging, I was able to procure both a recording of a military band arrangement and a score of a piano rag arrangement of the piece.

Scan of Holzmann’s “Flying Arrow” Rag for Piano

This sheet music was found in a rag piano collection at the music library of St. Olaf College

Recording of a military band performing Holmann’s band arrangement of “Flying Arrow”

The work of ethnologists like Rev. Eells signaled to broader American society a subordination and savagery of Native Americans, which allowed composers like Abe Holzmann to create music that glorified indigenous melodies (whether truly authentic or not). By comparing these two examples, we see how the passage of time allowed for conclusions from earlier ethnologists to be realized by the musicians of the early twentieth century.

1
https://www.northwestanthropology.com/myron-eells

2
http://ragpiano.com/comps/holzmann.shtml

The Expansion of the “Vanishing Indian”

In his paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Dr. Daniel Blim writes that the “Indianist” movement of using Native American inspiration for American music owes its success largely to the composer Edward MacDowell, and especially to his Indian Suite, premiered in 1896. Blim connects this to the “vanishing Indian” trope: “the Indian as a cultural figure . . . began to ‘vanish,’ and no longer a threat, could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.” He discusses MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music as one way in which it aligns with this trope. Regarding MacDowell’s piece “From an Indian Lodge,” Blim writes, “the subject of this work is not Native America, but a reenactment, subtly Westernized.”1

Reviews of the Indian Suite support this view, showing a strong alignment with the “vanishing Indian” trope and praising MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music. Blim uses the Indian Suite as an example of MacDowell’s music before it reflected the shift to the “vanishing Indian” view, still depicting Native Americans as a “living oppositional force.” However, the following two reviews, though approaching the Indian Suite from opposite directions, both project the “vanishing Indian” trope onto the piece.

In 1898, the magazine The Critic published a review (right) praising MacDowell’s ability to “weave a series of tone-pictures out of . . . purely native material.” It contrasts his suite with Dvořák’s ninth symphony, stating that MacDowell “clings to what is elemental and more thoroughly representative, . . . carefully avoiding as inappropriate a too complex treatment of native themes.”2 Rather than seeing Native Americans as a living opposition still in need of Westernization, The Critic praises MacDowell for getting to the core of what is Native American, showing the extent to which their opposition had been replaced by an opportunity for inspiration.

In 1939, 41 years later, the magazine Forum and Century also published a review (left) praising the Indian Suite, but comparing it favorably with Dvořák’s symphony: “The Suite is in no sense a sequence of Indian tunes. It is a sweeping orchestral work, symphonic in nature, that evokes auditory images of our ancestors, their mores, and their cherished aspirations and bitter frustrations.”3 For Forum and Century, rather than Westernization being an obstacle, it allows the Native American to be more effectively appropriated, so much so that they are now “our ancestors,” and the music’s frustration that Blim associates with their oppositional position now reflects the “bitter frustrations” of the Native Americans themselves.

From only two years after the premier through the following several decades, MacDowell’s Indian Suite was fully enveloped by the trope of the “vanishing Indian.” Though approaching the piece from opposite directions, both reviews celebrate MacDowell’s synthesis of Native American music. They do not make Blim’s differentiation between the suite and pieces that more explicitly align with this trope. Rather, due to the strength of the national shift spurred by MacDowell himself, they project onto this piece the concept that the Native American has vanished and transformed into fodder for American music.

1. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

2. “Music: Notes of the Season.” The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts (1886-1898), Feb 05, 1898, 97, https://search.proquest.com/docview/124892533?accountid=351.

3. ARTHUR, WALLACE HEPNER. “THE RECORD REVIEW.” Forum and Century (1930-1940), 11, 1939, 1, https://search.proquest.com/docview/90883079?accountid=351.

The “Vanishing Indian” Materializes Before Audiences

The opening imagery of Daniel Blim’s conference paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” that vividly describes the setting of Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition, stuck with me after class. What would it be like to walk down a corridor in the natural history museum to have real people and animals stare back at you? Historical newspapers and current scholars describe these events as half circus, half Night at the Museum.

Blim’s article introduced the idea of the “vanishing Indian,” a symbol of Native America(ns) that “could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.”1 We know that Native Americans were (literally) put on display at the 1893 World’s Fair, but in what other instances were Americans, and other nationalities in the case of the World’s Fair, witnessing and consuming Native American culture? Based on research via newspaper archives from the 19th-century, World’s Fairs, International Expos, and museums were the primary contexts in which non-Natives could interact with actual tribes. 

To further investigate the “vanishing Indian” trope, I found an article originally printed in Scientific American in 1898. The article, titled “the Omaha Exposition and the Indian Congress,” described the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898. After quickly mentioning the technological advancements of fireworks, the author lays out the newest and most attractive addition to the Expo ⎯ the Indian Congress. The Indian Bureau of Washington, D.C. allocated $40,000 to find, deliver, and enclose 35 distinct Native American tribes. Nearly 500 members of these tribes were camped out over four acres of Expo premises. For three months, anthropologists, sociologists, and the general public could observe Native American musics, rituals, and all modes of living in between as if they were zoo animals.

“Representative Indian Chiefs, Indian Congress, Omaha Exposition.” from left to right: Four Bulls, Assiniboin; Antoine Moise, Flathead; Different Cloud, Assiniboin; “Killed the Spotted Horse”, Assiniboin; Eneas Michel, Flathead

The article, read by thousands across the U.S. every year during this time, delivered the story triumphantly:

It is a curious and interesting fact that less than half a century ago the same docile Omaha Indians who peacefully doze by the camp fires within the Exposition gates were waging the war of the tomahawk and arrow on these very grounds, which is gratifying proof of the triumphal march of civilization.2 

No wonder the “vanishing Indian” trope was recognized by music consumers and the general public ⎯ the only times Native Americans were presented as apart of American society were part of a curated experience:

The agents were instructed to send old men, and, as far as possible, “head men,” who would typically represent the old-time Indian, subdued, it is true, but otherwise uninfluenced by the government system of civilization… some [tribes] have become so civilized, like the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles, that their presence would add little interest from an ethnological point of view; so the government did not assemble it most civilized proteges at Omaha, but the tribes it has conquered with the greatest bloodshed are the most important at the congress.3

Not only curated, but curated to show their defeat and vulnerability in the face of America’s power. 

Ethnographic analysis of Cheyenne Tribe from 1910

During my search through the American West archive, I found a scan of a rare book which exhibits early features of ethnographic analysis and contribution to literature. This book, written by a white man, is an interesting and complicated portrayal of events that occurred in the tribes he lived with. However, I think that despite its problematic and complicated nature, this mostly first-hand account of events can shed light on important aspects of certain tribe’s cultures. Specifically, I will analyze his account of two chiefs singing a “death-song” before entering into a battle in which they knew they would die.

In 1910, James McLaughlin, who had been living among the Native American Tribes for 38 years, wrote of his experiences with the native peoples. His book, My Friend the Indian, is an ethnographic account of his time spent with the Native American tribes from “Standing Rock, North Dakota to Round Valley, California.” In the preface to his book, he notes that he tries to give the Indian account for events that transpired during his time with the native people. He explicitly notes that he hopes that his account does not come across as a white account, but as a native account.

picture of Two Moons, one of the Cheyenne Chiefs who died in McLaughlin’s account

While I doubt anyone would ever actually consider it a native account, it does bring into question the status of the author, and therefore, his trustworthiness. This author was obviously not native, but he did live among them for nearly 40 years… I would not qualify him as a native, but he isn’t so much an outsider, either. As a non-member participant, ethnographers are, in a Nick Carroway from Gatsby-esque way, both “within and without.”

So, how trustworthy can they be? I believe this account is fairly trustworthy, for a couple of reasons.

In contrast to the people who wrote their first impressions of limited encounters with Native Americans in the 1600’s, McLaughlin shows finesse and respect for the culture of the people. While some people in the late 19th century began a new movement of acknowledging the native presence in the US, much of this does so with a “vanishing culture” hermeneutical lense.

McLaughlin writes with almost the opposite of the “vanishing Indian” idea – he wants to preserve the culture it in its true form and acknowledges that the culture is still alive, still a contributing, oppositional force, rather than a passive, nostalgic issue of the past, as mentioned in Blim’s article.1 Additionally, he does not shy away from calling out the problematic people who have decided to ignore the way that their colonizing culture snuffed out many people of a culture that was just as valuable.

Specifically, he recalls how, at one point when a Cheyenne tribe was surrounded and the chiefs asked to surrender, that the Chiefs sang their “death-song” and showed white men how natives could die honorably. The reverence with which he regards the song and actions of the Chiefs shows his respect. Additionally, his writing about the death of these two men kept their stories alive. It kept them in the minds of all who heard of them, and let people know that though these Chiefs were gone, the practices of their culture, like the death-song, lived on.

Importantly, McLaughlin notes how the chiefs sang while they fought a battle they knew they would lose. The singing here is not a passive part of the culture and history of the Cheyenne people. It is an active part of the fight which parallels the fight of the Native American people. In the “vanishing Indian” idea, the “native american problem” is finished and dealt with, and so the native people will all assimilate or die out. However, this use of music in an active fight against white men shows that even when the tribe knew they were outnumbered, they would fight till the end. Similarly, the Native American people written off by the vanishing Indian theory were not in fact slowly fading as an ember. They were energetically and vigorously fighting until the end, like a firework.

So, McLaughlin gives a fairly credible voice to people who were ignored. However, we also must remember that “determining who speaks for a culture and how much consensus is required to define a culture is only one of  several problems of theory and method faced by an ethnographer of music.” (Nettl).2 While I do not think that McLaughlin’s account should be taken as the be all end all interpretation of the Cheyenne tribe he spoke of, I do think he genuinely wanted to use his privilege as a white author to lift up the stories of those who were marginalized.

While this can be problematic, the sincerity and intention behind his retelling (especially in light of his place in history) gives his account more positive attributes than negative. Importantly, he also set out with extreme humility and intent to tell these stories from the perspective of the native people. After living among them for almost 40 years, I think that his telling of their history comes from a place of utmost respect. His caveats at the beginning of his book – which warn the reader that he does not know everything, and that his own place is problematic – almost anticipate the criticism which we might apply to his work today.


Footnotes

 

Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

 

Natalie Curtis: A dedication to preserving Native American culture

In her article entitled “The Perpetuating of Indian Art,” Natalie Curtis unveils a complicated attitude in regards to studying Native American culture. While her perspective is filled with racial biases, she does advocate for preserving Native American music in it’s most traditional and authentic form. This insistence on the importance of maintaining the original music in all its beauty is twofold: it is guided by an appreciation of the culture, but an appreciation driven by a western mindset. This mindset, shared by many scholars and white people in positions of power at the time, takes Native American culture apart in its attempts to honor and preserve what it so earnestly admires.

Natalie Curtis was an American ethnomusicologist particularly interested in preserving American Indian and African American music by transcribing songs as accurately as possible. Her work is often recognized along with the work of Alice Fletcher and Frances Densmore as an essential contribution to the preservation of a “vanishing” culture. In 1907 she published “The Indians Book,” a collection of about 200 songs transcribed principally from live performances. While that work would be thoroughly interesting to study and analyze, I have chosen to reflect on an article she wrote in 1910, which highlights a problematic approach to ethnomusicology of the time. This in no way diminishes its historical significance.

Natalie Curtis in Southwestern garb and Indian beads

“The Indians Book,” a collection of 200 Indian songs transcribed by Natalie Curtis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The abstract of her article is as follows:

“Those who have worked among the American Indians, and have learned to respect the thought, the art, and many of the religious ideas of this most interesting people, must feel a sense of almost personal gratitude to the present Secretary of the Interior for having appointed a Supervisor of Music in the department of Indian Education, whose duties shall be to “record native Indian music, and arrange it for use in the Indian schools.”1

If I could rewrite her thesis into my own words I would write that Indian art is beautiful and can be of use to white Americans, therefore we should preserve Indian culture instead of trying to stamp it out.

While Curtis recognizes that there are many American Indian tribes, she tends to cast large generalizations of American Indian culture in her descriptions and assertions. She refers to all Native Americans as an “underdeveloped race” and as “noble dogs.” These racially charged generalizations are contrasted with an intense attempt to exalt the beauty of the Indian music and art she witnesses, in order to spread her appreciation for this art to a larger white audience. Sharing this conflicting view of American Indians is Francis E. Leupp, whom Curtis cites in her article as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Francis E. Leupp, in his own work entitled The Indian and his problem, asserts that westerns can know nothing of Indian culture unless they observe communities from within, but in doing so reveals gaping holes in his understanding of Indian culture. Both Curtis and Leupp demonstrate a genuine interest in Native Americans, but struggle to view it without a western scope.

Curtis makes reference to the Carlisle Institute, the primary Indian boarding school from 1879-1918. The goal of the school was to Americanize Native Americans, and Curtis undoubtedly saw a problem with this model, shown by her critique of the governments push to destroy Indian culture. She instead believes that white teachers should encourage and inspire Indian children to learn and sing their own songs, free of western harmony and influence. Despite this honest effort to maintain American Indian culture, Curtis’ appreciation of Indian art still forces the culture to fit into her western model, as white people are the ones entrusted with preserving an art form that would disappear without the white savior.

 

The Carlisle Institute, an Indian boarding school.

Sources