of Natalie Curtis Burlin
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
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
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
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
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
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