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

Standing Up
to Eurocentrism in 1921

George Foster Peabody
 Curtis wrote several times from Paris to Foster Peabody and his wife Katrina Trask, a writer and peace activist. Probably the last letter was the one of October 16, 1921, where Curtis described her speech to the art history congress.

This letter and the speech it describes show the mature Natalie Curtis, with a well-grounded air of authority, a definite and well-articulated point of view. Someone -- probably Peabody himself -- recognized the letter's value sometime in the 20th century, for the copy I have is a carbon typescript of Natalie's letter, originally scrawled in pencil.

In the letter, Natalie tells her friends how she came to speak at the International Congress of Art History at the Sorbonne in Paris. She recounts a striking conflict that arose between her and another speaker at the conference, Professor Edward Burlingame Hill of Harvard:

Professor Hill said to me 'I intend to say that the reason we haven't any great music in America is because we have no folk music -- I intend to say we haven't any, and I suppose you'll say we have?' 'I most certainly will' -- said I. Thereupon ensued an argument.

In their presentations, Hill and Curtis locked horns publicly. She writes:

he came first on the program, and with true dogmatic Professionism he stated that while it was true that there was folk-music in America (a modification of his first statement) it was mostly Negro and Indian and thus wasn't American! So you see he knocked my subject on the head first. I didn't mean to get into any kind of controversy, but when I sang those songs about the American maize, about the big, hot American sun that rides his turquoise horse across our Rocky mountains; those chants that have come out of America itself -- the audience was literally electrified! I spoke of our 12 million Negroes who are good enough 'Americans' to die for American ideals in our wars.... If [their] songs that are the very voice of our South are not American, what is! ... I resented Mr. Hill's everlasting monopoly of the white race, and I resented the notion that only New England with Harvard College as its 'hub' can be 'American'!

To poor Professor Hill, Mrs. Burlin must have seemed an intolerable upstart. "All America is not New England," she said in her speech, but an agglomeration of races with a rich and diverse folklore. "And all the music of America is not found in universities and schools but out in the great expanse of territory that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, and from Canada to Mexico."17

This certainty of viewpoint also comes across in her article for Musical America, published posthumously in March 1922. In "The Difficulties of a Folk-Lorist" (a.k.a. "Recording for Posterity the Music of Primitive Humanity"), probably her last written work, Curtis stressed the need for a student of cultures to be broad-minded, to show respect for the people he's studying, and to understand their point of view. The folklorist's work, she said, "... brings him into direct contact with the people. He has to do with live human beings, not dead data."

Curtis herself never tried to achieve a supposedly scientific, detached approach to people. Rather, her method was "... to study directly from the singers and wherever possible to live the life of the people whom I am investigating so that their song, heard all about me, is subconsciously absorbed as well as consciously studied."18

Kurt Schindler, a folk music collector and the conductor of the Schola Cantorum, a New York City choral group, had assisted Natalie Curtis with The Indians' Book and accompanied her on the 1913 trip to Hopi. He commented on her ability to relate to people: "To observe her among her beloved Indians was to witness a miracle, for with her utter frankness and her beaming simplicity of approach she could make even the most reticent ones among them talk and sing to her, and explain the mysteries of their legends."19

A week after writing to Peabody, on October 23, 1921, Natalie stepped off a streetcar in Paris and, according to her brother George, was hit by the car of a doctor who was hurrying to see a patient. She died soon after, without regaining consciousness.20



Copyright 2002-2004, Alfred R. Bredenberg