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

The Impact
of Natalie Curtis Burlin


 Natalie Curtis in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1917.

The story of Natalie Curtis contributes to the fields of women's studies, Native American studies, African-American history, music history, art history, ethnomusicology, and folklore. Curtis's writings give us vivid glimpses into New York City, the American Southwest, and much else of American life during the first two decades of the 1900s. She gives us insight into the lives of influential people of the time, among them family friend Theodore Roosevelt.

Natalie Curtis must have amused Roosevelt, with her feisty, sparkling personality. This small person once bullied her way into the President's home in Oyster Bay, New York, bringing in tow a Mojave-Apache chief named Pelia to ask for tribal land rights. Another time she sang Indian songs for distinguished visitors at a White House luncheon.

In 1913, Roosevelt came into Walpi, Arizona, on horseback. Whom did he encounter first thing? "As I rode in," he wrote good-naturedly, "I was accosted by Miss Natalie Curtis ...." Even though Curtis took advantage of the occasion to badger Roosevelt to use his personal influence for the preservation of Indian culture, Roosevelt praised her as one "... who has done so very much to give Indian culture its proper position."21

As a talented musician and writer from a prominent New York family, Curtis was in a good position to act as an interpreter of Indian culture in the Eastern United States.22 She published Native American (she often used this term) views of white culture in a way that forced her readers to look at themselves. In a 1910 article she quoted an older Indian who had witnessed the encroachment of white civilization on tribal life: "White people spend half their lives obtaining things; they spend the other half in taking care of them. Of what good are things if a man have no time really to live? Are white men happier than we? Their faces are lined as with the tracks of hunted animals."23

By her promotion of The Indians' Book, her lectures and her articles for magazines like The Outlook, The Southern Workman, and The Craftsman, Curtis stimulated interest in native crafts and art. Ethnomusicologist Charles Haywood writes that her many articles "... served to introduce the study of American ethnic music to a wide public."24 Her romantic and readable style put her in position to interpret scholarly work in a popular format. For example, in 1909, she wrote an article that in part grew out of the work of Franz Boas with Northwest Indians.25

To be balanced, though, we should look critically at Curtis's attitudes and approaches to her work. Some of these, while progressive for her day, may prove misguided when looked at with hindsight. Her writings cry out a persistent lament over the vanishing Indian and his fading culture. This is not to minimize the danger that did exist and still does today. But Curtis seems to accept the disappearance of traditional culture as inevitable. In fact, native cultures have endured. And, though Indian peoples may appreciate the efforts of white friends, it is Indian peoples themselves who have seen to the continuance of their cultures.

Curtis also liked to paint a romantic and idealized picture of Indian life. She was no doubt sincere in this approach. Yet her 1907 book and other writings, her public appearances and lectures, the persona she created for herself by adopting native dress and the Hopi name "Tawi-Mana" (Song-Maid) -- all this certainly contributed to the exodus of a generation of Anglo "Yearners" to the Native American Southwest in pursuit of an alternative to a mechanized, violent civilization. This class of escapists or aficionados has been described by critics as intrusive, tactless, patronizing, overweening, and a nuisance.26 Some of this invasion can certainly be credited to the efforts of Natalie Curtis.

Curtis worked to increase opportunities for Indians and blacks. Nevertheless, her writings reveal that she was influenced by racial stereotypes. She often described Indian and African-American people as simple, childlike, and primitive. She referred to their musical talents as if they were inborn rather than learned. We have to acknowledge these shortcomings, while recognizing that Curtis was far ahead of her time in so many ways.

Natalie Curtis was a member of a circle of artists who promoted the "democratization" of music and art. She frequently commented that music was very much part of the daily life of most Indian people, but not of mainstream America. She hoped to encourage daily artistic expression for all peoples. Curtis, in association with musician David Mannes and others, established a music school in Harlem to serve black children. She quoted Mannes as saying, "I would like to fill the city with so many good amateurs that every house could make its own music."27

This view of art put Natalie Curtis in common cause with Percy Grainger, who called Curtis an "inspired genius among collectors."28 Grainger and Curtis were both folk music collectors and showed a love of the diversity of cultures. They shared the view that music should be the province of every person, not just a cultured elite. They also shared a nature that was kind and encouraging. In dedicating a composition to Percy Grainger, Curtis related an anecdote that exemplified Grainger's (and her own) generosity toward young artists:

Grainger was among a large audience at Carnegie Hall listening to a young black pianist playing for the first time before so many people. "Trembling with nervousness, her fingers missed the notes, her mind grew blank, and suddenly she dropped her face in her hands. Then pulling herself together, she somehow finished her piece and left the piano."

Grainger hurried out of the hall and met the discouraged young woman backstage. "Don't mind," he said to her. "We have all done the same thing; every artist has. That's part of a public career. Go back and play again. Don't you hear them applauding? This time you'll play better than ever!"

"Thus encouraged," summarized Curtis, "the girl reappeared before her audience and now came off with flying colors. "29

In examining the lives of people of past generations, it's sometimes hard to say whether someone's impact was great or slight. Natalie Curtis left behind The Indians' Book, which you can still order in paperback from Dover or find in many libraries. Examine the indexes of books on American music, Native American studies, and folklore, and you will find references to her. Study the lives of certain people -- Percy Grainger, Ferruccio Busom, Angel DeCora, Paul Burlin, Theodore Roosevelt, George Foster Peabody -- and you will find Natalie Curtis in the cast of characters. Mention her name to certain scholars, and their eyes will light up.

But symphony orchestras don't play compositions by Natalie Curtis Burlin. Indian and black activists don't laud her as a contributor to their causes. Books on the accomplishments of American women seldom list her, much less devote chapters to her.

Do we count the impact of a person by how well known she is? By how often she is quoted in the textbooks and reference works? By how many people's eyes light up at the mention of her name?

We can say that Natalie Curtis Buriin anticipated today's growing appreciation of multiple American cultures and that she probably contributed to that growth. We can say that many of the advances she hoped for in minority rights, education, and opportunities have taken place -- though that positive-minded and hopeful woman would probably be disappointed at the prejudice and hatred that still exist.

Reading the comments of those who knew her, you have no doubt of her personal impact on them.

"No one who came within the influence of her great qualities can ever forget her," said Elbridge L. Adams, a New York attorney, addressing the 1926 memorial service held for Curtis at Hampton Institute. "Natalie Curtis was the most tolerant person I have ever known. It was her almost divine quality of understanding and entering into the inner spirit of another race or individual which gave her tremendous influence."

Kurt Schindler wrote of her: "Music, literary gifts, conscience, self-effacement, zeal, and endurance were combined in her so as to create a special blending which in such perfection has not been seen in our age."

And finally there is the almost embarrassing, yet sincerely felt comment of C. Winfred Douglas, the clergyman friend who led the 1913 Southwest adventure: "She seems to me nearest to the character of sainthood of all the men and women I have known .... "30

For Natalie Curtis Burlin, her joy was not in praise and recognition from others, but from the work itself. The folklore collector, Curtis wrote in her last 1921 article,

 "... must warm himself chiefly at the fires of his own enthusiasm and feed himself on his own determination .... For him there is no pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow other than joy in a creative task and the moral satisfaction of having tried to help rescue from the tidal wave of an engulfing 'civilization' the faint-heard voice of singing men. There is nothing so poorly paid proportionately as work in any field of science or creative art -- though it long survive the worker to the good of humanity."31  



Copyright 2002-2004, Alfred R. Bredenberg