Natalie Curtis Burlin Center for American Culture Studies


  1. Introduction

  2. Preserving Indian Culture

  3. Angel DeCora and Indian Art

  4. Arizona With Roosevelt

  5. Busoni's Indian Fantasy

  6. African-
    American Music

  7. Defending American Folk Music

  8. Natalie's Legacy

  9. Endnotes

  10. Readings

A Fight to Preserve
Indian Culture

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.

Natalie Curtis, 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 likes Tawakwaptiwa."7

Natalie Curtis 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.



Copyright 2002-2004, Alfred R. Bredenberg