DeCora and Indian Art
American Folk Music
A Fight to Preserve
The Victorian society that spawned Natalie
Curtis in 1875 placed restrictions on a young woman's pursuits,
but a musical education was one of the acceptable options. During
her teens, Curtis studied music in New York and Europe with Arthur
Friedheim, Anton Seidl, Ferruccio Busoni, the Wagner family, and
others. She attended concerts frequently and developed friendships
with flirtatious Walter Damrosch (she called him "It")
and Ignacy Paderewski (she called him "Pad").
About the turn of the century, Natalie
Curtis's travels in the western U.S. and attendance at major expositions
and fairs of the period sparked her interest in American Indian
music. She was intrigued by this music and feared that it, along
with Indian folklore, would die in the face of forced enculturation
of Indians by whites. So she became determined to make a record
of these native art forms and publish them as a collection.
In 1903 Curtis set up a workshop at Hopi
in northern Arizona and began making transcriptions and Edison recordings
of Indian music. When you listen to tapes made from the scratchy
wax cylinders, Natalie Curtis's voice sounds distant. Across the
decades, you hear her cultured, British-accented voice commenting
behind spits and pops and crackles at the end of the faint recording
of a singing man: "Anga Katzina, sung by Masahongva at Oraibi,
May twentieth, nineteen hundred and three."5
Natalie Curtis had arrived on the scene
at Hopi at a tumultuous time. Charles E. Burton was superintendent
of Keam's Canyon School and was the appointed official in charge
of the Moqui Reservation. Burton was a zealous advocate of enculturation.
He used force of arms to take Hopi children to the government school
and to inflict various indignities on the Hopi, including compulsory
haircutting. Indian children were forbidden to speak their native
language or sing their songs in the schools. Burton, encouraged
by government policy and popular prejudice, seemed determined to
wipe out Indian culture within his domain.
an Indian musician, and the wax cylinder recording machine Curtis
used to record native music. Arizona, about 1903. The basket
and the man's weaving suggest Hopi, Third Mesa.
Curtis found that her Indian friends
were afraid to sing for her, for fear of the superintendent's wrath.
She had to work discreetly during her first brief sojourn among
the Hopi. "Ten years ago," she wrote in 1913, "a
friendly scientist on an Indian reservation advised me that if I
wished to continue my self-appointed task of recording native songs
(which were at that time absolutely forbidden in all the Government
schools), I must keep my work secret, lest the school superintendent
in charge evict me from the reservation!"6
Nevertheless, she soon built relationships
with Pueblo people, especially Hopi. One of her prime contributors
was Tewaquaptewa, Hopi kikmongwi (village chief) at Oraibi from
about 1904. Tewaquaptewa is most noted for his role as head of the
so-called "Friendly" faction in the Oraibi split. It was
during his leadership that the village of Oraibi divided, partly
over the issue of whether village children should attend government
schools. The supposed "Hostile" faction was forced out
of Oraibi and formed a new settlement, Hotevilla.
But, true to form, young Natalie Curtis
was interested in Tewaquaptewa as an artist. "Of all the Hopi
poets," she wrote in The Indians' Book, "none sings a
gladder song than Tawakwaptiwa (SunDown-Shining). He is one in whom
the gift of song wells up like living waters ...." "He
makes good songs," a fellow tribesperson told Curtis. "Everybody
and Tewaquaptewa, Hopi kikmongwi, with a copy of The Indians'
Book, newly published. Tewaquaptewa was one of the contributors
to the book. This photo was taken in 1908 at the Sherman Institute,
a government Indian school in Riverside, California.
Well, maybe so in 1903. But by fall of
1906, political enemies at Oraibi were threatening to kill him.
Much of the disruption and dissension in tribal life could be laid
at the feet of administrators like Charles Burton and the assimilationist
public policies that supported them.
Appalled by the oppressive conditions
she observed, Curtis, when she returned east, went to see a family
friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had never been known
as a great lover of Indians, but, interestingly, he responded to
the songs Curtis brought him, and he agreed that these native art
forms should be kept alive. This turnabout was not uncharacteristic
of Roosevelt. Curtis, who often wrote about him, described him as
open-minded and hungry for new knowledge.
On her next trip west, Curtis went armed
with a personal letter from the president, authorizing her to record
Indian songs on the reservations. She spent much time with the Navajo
and Hopi and with other Southwest groups and also collected extensively
among Plains Indians. Perhaps meeting some contributors at expositions,
Curtis collected from Kwakiutl, Wabenaki, and Winnebago as well.