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

An Arizona Encounter
With Theodore Roosevelt

Curtis's book also gained popularity because of her literary style. Rather than the dry, factual recitation of most scientific works, Curtis used a storytelling approach. Strong images and anecdotes dominate her writing. In "Theodore Roosevelt in Hopi-Land," an article for Outlook magazine, Curtis described her 1913 trip to northern Arizona. She told about her comic search for a way to clean up and make herself presentable for the former President on the day he was to arrive at Hopi:

"I was travel-strained from head to foot, and on the front of my khaki riding-skirt flared with placid disregard of all conventions a large round circle of black axle-grease, where the camp wagon had branded me for my affront of trying to climb in over the wheel. My companions called the round stain an 'Indian sun symbol,' and it was not comforting to hear them jeer that nothing but a bath of gasoline could ever make me clean again."

"And you expect to talk with Colonel Roosevelt when he arrives this afternoon!" one of her friends teased. "He wouldn't touch you with tongs, even though you are old friends!"

Unfortunately, Natalie had no other clothes with her. "I decided to achieve the bath of gasoline!" she wrote.

At the nearby government Indian school, the employees were too busy to help with gasoline for the grease stain: "Sorry, we can't bother about anything now. We're cleaning up for Roosevelt."

"But so am I," Natalie pleaded. No response. They just kept on scrubbing.

At the schoolteacher's house she found the same cleanup in progress. The teacher did allow her a cup to put some gasoline in: "You can have any cup you want if you won't bother me to get it for you now; I am getting ready for Roosevelt." A universal preoccupation, it seemed.

Cup in hand, she sought out an automobile and got permission to drain some gasoline. But Natalie, a child of the nineteenth century, knew nothing about automobiles. "I gazed at the automobile in despair," she wrote. "I was as ignorant of its inner workings as an Indian." Presently, though, a good-looking but weather-stained young cowboy in blue overalls came by, leading some horses.

Arizona group photo
Group photo taken August 1913 at the foot of Hano, First Mesa, Hopi, Arizona. This group had traveled together and had come to Hopi for the Snake and Flute ceremonials. They met up with the party of Theodore Roosevelt, who had been traveling in Arizona on horseback. From left to right: unidentified man, possibly Ted Whittaker; Alice Klauber; Kurt Schindler; Harry, Snake Priest at Walpi; Natalie Curtis; C. Winfred Douglas.

"I wonder if you could get me some gasoline from this car?" Natalie asked. "You see," she said, getting into the spirit of the day, "we are all trying to clean up in honor of Colonel Roosevelt -- he is expected today sometime."

The cowboy smiled, crawled under the car and "milked" it for her. Thanking him, she sped off with her cup to find a place to scrub the stubborn grease stain.

"As I climbed the crest of one of the sandhills," she wrote, "I stopped short, open-mouthed in wonder. A stalwart figure on a cow pony was riding up the hill, alone and unattended; without any flourish of trumpets, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt had arrived! His sunburned face was partly shaded by a big Stetson hat, a red handkerchief fluttered at his throat, and he too looked as though gasoline might improve his khakis."

"This is capital!" said Roosevelt, as he shook hands with Curtis.

"But don't spill my gasoline," she said. "Everyone in Hopi-land is trying to clean up for you!"

Roosevelt laughed. "You must meet my boy," he said, and called out, "Archie!"

"We have met today before," Archie said, when he sidled up. Archie Roosevelt, it turned out, was the helpful cowboy in blue overalls.9

Curtis wrote at least 75 magazine and newspaper articles, including stories for The Outlook, The Craftsman, The Southern Workman, Harper's Monthly, and the New York Evening Post. Her articles cover a remarkable range of interests, including art, both native and classical, folklore, folk music, classical music, education, architecture, history, and biography.

Curtis's writings, like her work, were marked by a profound respect for the culture and sensibilities of her subjects. She considered herself merely the editor and recorder of the material in The Indians' Book (note the apostrophe). "The Indians are the authors of this volume," she wrote in the foreword.10 Curtis tried to show respect for the sacredness and ceremonial nature of songs, where that was a concern: "No one was ever urged to desecrate anything held sacred ...."11

Natalie Curtis's success with The Indians' Book placed her in the public eye and brought her recognition as an authority on Indian culture. She continued traveling, collecting, writing, and lecturing. In her lectures she gave authentic demonstrations of single line Indian music accompanied by drum and rattle.



Copyright 2002-2004, Alfred R. Bredenberg