Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934

Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934

by John W. Troutman

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From the late nineteenth century through the 1920s, the U.S. government sought to control practices of music on reservations and in Indian boarding schools. At the same time, Native singers, dancers, and musicians created new opportunities through musical performance to resist and manipulate those same policy initiatives. Why did the practice of music generate fear among government officials and opportunity for Native peoples?

In this innovative study, John W. Troutman explores the politics of music at the turn of the twentieth century in three spheres: reservations, off-reservation boarding schools, and public venues such as concert halls and Chautauqua circuits. On their reservations, the Lakotas manipulated concepts of U.S. citizenship and patriotism to reinvigorate and adapt social dances, even while the federal government stepped up efforts to suppress them. At Carlisle Indian School, teachers and bandmasters taught music in hopes of imposing their “civilization” agenda, but students made their own meaning of their music. Finally, many former students, armed with saxophones, violins, or operatic vocal training, formed their own “all-Indian” and tribal bands and quartets and traversed the country, engaging the market economy and federal Indian policy initiatives on their own terms.

While recent scholarship has offered new insights into the experiences of “show Indians” and evolving powwow traditions, Indian Blues is the first book to explore the polyphony of Native musical practices and their relationship to federal Indian policy in this important period of American Indian history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806150024
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 06/14/2013
Series: New Directions in Native American Studies Series , #3
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

John W. Troutman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.

Read an Excerpt

Indian Blues

American Indians and the Politics of Music 1879â"1934

By John W. Troutman


Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5002-4




Music is at the center of Lakota life in the old days and since the reservation days started. No matter what you do, whether it's a man singing to himself because he's a brave warrior, or because he is feeling bad, or is singing to himself because he wants to identify more closely with God, anything you do in your band or community requires singing. Music helped Lakota people survive a great deal of hardship and endure lots of pain because there was a song there. —Severt Young Bear, 1994

When the tom tom sounds the cloak of civilization drops off the shoulders of the Sioux Indian. The tom tom is the same kind of an instrument that is used by the lowest savages of today and they use it in their religious rights. Pure savagery. The singing that accompanies this dance is the same as the sound you hear from the religious ceremony of the lowest savages.... When the Sioux Indian goes into the dance ring he is a savage. A savage garbed in a suit of underwear dyed red. —Superintendent E. D. Mossman, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, 1922

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, a resurgence of Native musical practices among the Lakota peoples began to resonate through and alter the implementation, and eventually the course, of federal Indian policy. Disillusioned with or disgusted by the directives of OIA allotment and assimilation policies, many Lakotas challenged them through a series of inventive political acts of revitalization and resistance. Their efforts were exceptional, given the circumstances: since 1878, but particularly following the massacre of Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee in 1890, missionaries and local Indian agents, concerned about their dances and economic practices, placed the Lakotas under extraordinary surveillance. For those reservation-based Lakotas who opposed the allotment and assimilation policies, challenging those policies on a public or national level was nearly impossible; the OIA controlled the resources necessary for subsistence on reservations, and many OIA agents were not averse to withholding rations for any "trouble." The traditional avenues to express dissent in the American political system—through speeches before the American public, congressional hearings, the media, and the courts, for example—were quite limited, if virtually nonexistent, for most Native people at this time, particularly for those living on reservations.

Yet many did effectively challenge the economic and cultural mandates of the allotment and assimilation policies, as well as the very meaning of American citizenship. Too often overlooked by historians of federal Indian policy, these local-level struggles reveal the adaptability of alternative methods of resistance. American Indians manifested such political engagement in myriad ways: through delegations, petitions, and religious movements, for example, or more subtly through their participation in fairs, rodeos, or other events that, in borrowing from James Scott, nurtured "hidden transcripts" of everyday resistance—resistance disguised and located "behind the scenes ... [when the oppressed] create and defend a social space in which offstage dissent to the official transcript of power relations may be voiced." Like many other American Indian peoples, the Lakotas combined the subterfuge of "hidden" acts of resistance with blatant and effective challenges to federal Indian policy through a most unexpected yet highly political medium: musical performance. From the turn of the century through 1922, the Lakotas succeeded in vastly expanding their dance traditions, despite increased efforts by the OIA agents and missionaries to curtail them. They fought their battles on a very local level, against specific adversaries found within the ranks of OIA agents and missionaries; their success was due in part to their establishing a "citizenship of dance"—that is, their framing of a right to dance as a right of their newfound U.S. citizenship. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, many Lakotas used dance in this vein as a means of engaging the politics of American citizenship and, in so doing, disarmed the more culturally insidious, local manifestations of federal Indian policy.

In this chapter and those that follow, I discuss numerous musical forms, which each have histories of their own, as well as relationships with one another. This chapter focuses on the Omaha Dance complex and some related forms. These forms of expressive culture derive from Lakota or other indigenous contexts, whereas other forms discussed in the following chapters might derive from Europeans or from non-Indian Americans. It is tempting to refer to the Lakota dances and songs in this chapter as "traditional" in order to create shorthand for referring to tribally derived musical practice. The term is fraught with problems, however, as it cannot help but denote stasis rather than change, reversion rather than innovation, and it can also refer to certain dance styles in contemporary powwows that may or may not relate to the dances discussed here. Such use of "traditional" would be of little use here, for the history of the Omaha Dance complex, which includes many varieties of social dances and giveaways, was and remains exceedingly dynamic in Indian Country. Therefore use of 'traditional" is avoided here, and songs and dances are described as specifically as possible, given the nature of the archival sources, which often referred to any dances on reservations of the time simply as "Indian dances."

Of course, many forms of Lakota dancing and singing are extremely powerful, important, and complex, and as Lakota singer Severt Young Bear was quoted as saying in the introduction, they are also interrelated acts. They may articulate individual, band, social, and communal identities as well as serve ceremonial and social purposes; they can foster intense competition at intertribal powwows as well as mediate tensions or heal and reconstitute individuals and communities. The practice of sacred and social music within Native communities can take on many layers of meaning that derive from multiple indigenous systems of knowledge. In addition, the ceremonial or sacred dances in particular often contain knowledge and meaning that is not intended for most individuals, and certainly not for outsiders. Even the "sacred" and "social" distinctions are problematic. According to Shoshone elder Esther Horne, "Dance could be sacred or social, private or public, but always is hallowed with spirituality." The practice of music elicits multiple meanings, but the present discussion focuses specifically on the possibilities of one level of meaning—the early twentieth-century Lakota practice of music as a means to engage and shape the local implementation of federal Indian policy. For our purposes, the reactions of government officials and missionaies are as important to consider as the intentions of the dancers and singers, for it is through these reactions that we can see exactly how dance affected federal policy. Surveying the landscape of Lakota social dances of the period in this way demonstrates not only one manner in which music was negotiated as a significant political force but also the resolve and brilliant success of the Lakota dance practitioners who wielded it to such effect.


In order to understand why music came to play such an important role in engaging federal Indian policy initiatives, it is useful to command an overview of late nineteenth-century Lakota history. From the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth, federal policy had detrimental social and economic consequences for the Lakotas. Instead of creating productive, individualistic, independent American citizens, the polices of the assimilation and allotment era succeeded in crippling many Native populations, forcing them into positions of dependency by not providing the equipment with which to become successful, self-sufficient farmers, by taking away more of their lands through allotment, and by attempting to stamp out their communal means of providing for one another in times of need. The OIA established an assimilation agenda accordingly. However, the Lakotas used the practice of music as a means to redefine U.S. citizenship and the rhetoric of patriotism to serve their own needs.

The 1860s were a period of great conflict between the United States and the Lakotas. In 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. government began building a string of forts through Wyoming and Montana along the Bozeman Trail. This was prime hunting territory for the Lakotas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes, who considered the new construction to be an offensive maneuver. By 1865, mounting violence between encroaching whites and the Lakotas had begun to render diplomatic efforts such as the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty ineffective, so that as the U.S. government built its forts, the famed Oglala warrior Red Cloud voiced stiff opposition to this latest breach of trust. By the end of 1866, Red Cloud had carried out a number of successful attacks on the forts to protect his people's hunting territory, resulting in the U.S. government's inability to maintain the forts. In 1868 the United States and the Lakotas returned to the negotiating table and signed the second Fort Laramie Treaty, which established the Great Sioux Reservation; the reservation included the entirety of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The treaty also guaranteed the right of the Lakotas to hunt in the territories of Wyoming and Montana and in significant parts of Kansas and Nebraska. Red Cloud, writes William Powers, "emerged from battle as the only Indian ever to win a war against the United States Government."

Despite this victory, conflict continued between the Lakotas and the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. When the federal government stole the Black Hills and warned the Lakotas to leave the hunting lands that had been guaranteed them in 1868, tensions reached a frenzy. In June 1876, Custer and his men were routed at the Battle of the Greasy Grass. In response to this defeat, the federal government stepped up its efforts to systematically force the bands dwelling outside the reservation to return to the government agencies on the reservation. In addition to these extraordinary pressures on the Lakotas, in 1889 the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up into a much smaller set of five reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge. The federal treaty negotiators deemed the remaining eleven million acres of land, one guaranteed to the Sioux by the 1868 treaty, to be "surplus" to the Lakotas' needs and turned it over to the public domain. The non-Indians who moved onto the former Sioux lands, however, also eyed with envy the remaining lands of the smaller five reservations. The 1889 Great Sioux Agreement stipulated that, in time, the entirety of all Sioux reservations should be liquidated into the hands of private landholders. The loss of massive amounts of land—in conjunction with an economic depression that swept the country after the 1898 Spanish-American War, followed by a drought that devastated the plains—amounted to a critical economic situation on the Lakota reservations, exacerbated by the OIA's extraordinary mismanagement of resources and economic policies.

The situation quickly deteriorated. Beginning in 1878, when the Lakotas had been forced onto ever-diminishing reservation lands at gunpoint, the U.S. government, fearful of and concerned about their cultural and communal activities, mounted a massive surveillance apparatus over practically every aspect of Lakota life. Where OIA agents and missionaries did not dwell, the government assigned non-Indian farmers to conduct reconnaissance on their Lakota neighbors. Additionally, the Indian police force served at the beck and call of the agency superintendents and conducted raids on Lakota homes when the OIA deemed it necessary. Many of these agency superintendents even withheld treaty-guaranteed rations to bend Lakota families to their will. Indeed, the distribution and withholding of rations by the OIA became a mechanism that, as Tom Biolsi has argued, further restricted the movements, activities, and social organization of the Lakotas. OIA agents often withheld rations from individuals that they considered troublemakers: specifically, those who moved about on or between the reservations, and also dancers. Because of the loss of land and limited mobility, the Lakotas became increasingly destitute throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century. Starvation due to lack of rations, through either their being withheld or the inability of the local agents to secure proper amounts, was partially responsible for encouraging the cultural revitalization that culminated in the so-called Ghost Dance movement and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. The Lakotas by necessity became dangerously dependent on an exceedingly undependable distribution of rations.

On top of these adverse circumstances, the OIA promulgated allotment and assimilation policies that irrevocably transformed all aspects of American Indian people's lives, cultures, and economies. The results of the General Allotment Act, combined with the citizenship agenda of the OIA, were nothing less than catastrophic for Native peoples, and the Lakotas were no exception. Designed to train Indians to become proper American citizens, assimilation efforts provided little aid for the Lakotas, who by this point simply struggled to survive. Many of the Lakotas were too young, too old, or too sick and disabled to cultivate the allotted farms as designated and parceled out by the OIA, and the OIA did not provide enough tools or supplies to farm. To make things worse, what land remained in the hands of Native people, particularly the Lakotas, was practically untenable for farming. As Biolsi observed, "Western South Dakota, as everyone knew, could not sustain commercial dry farming for long: rainfall was unpredictable and often insufficient (even subsistence gardening was unreliable in this climate), soils were poor, and local markets or nearby shipping points were not always available. What is more, the Lakota could not compete with the better-capitalized white commercial farmers." The OIA officials felt that ranching and seasonal wage labor could supplement income derived from individually owned farms and further induce what they considered a suitable work ethic, but again, the OIA's plan to deliver "civilization" through such labor failed before it could even begin: ranching required more capital than the Lakotas could raise, and the amount of land allotted to individuals was vastly insufficient for the enterprise. Even when some Lakotas gained success in stock raising in the first decade of the twentieth century, this too came to an abrupt end in 1916, when cattle prices soared due to the war in Europe and OIA agents convinced the ranchers to sell the entirety of their herds. According to Edward Lazarus, "White cattlemen (who also had incited Sioux enthusiasm for cashing in) moved onto the empty Indian lands, leasing huge tracts to support their continuing war boom business. As the profits were spent, the Lakotas found themselves in as destitute a position as they had yet faced. Beyond farming and stock raising, jobs were in very short supply around the reservations. Lakota relief measures such as giveaway dances, which had pooled resources such as tools, seeds, and food for those in need, were typically forbidden because of their communal nature. The assimilation policy's emphasis on independence, self-reliance, and private property was utterly incompatible with the communal way of life cultivated by the Lakotas.

Lakota dependence—a dependence created by the federal government's theft of Lakota lands as well as by its allotment and assimilation policies—grew throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century. During these years the OIA continued to foist an economic and cultural agenda on all of the reservations while intensifying its coercion and efforts to monitor and otherwise control every aspect of Native people's lives, leaving them with no effective means in the legal system to defend themselves or articulate their opposition. The OIA consistently responded to the dire economic circumstances by insisting that only by fulfilling its conception of the cultural requirements for American citizenship could the crises of the reservations be resolved, the crises that the very policies of allotment and assimilation had exacerbated if not in some cases entirely created. Within this context of economic crisis, pervasive surveillance, and implementation of the assimilation campaign, the Lakotas and the U.S. government engaged in several battles over the practice of music—battles over power, executed through dance.


Excerpted from Indian Blues by John W. Troutman. Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
1. The Citizenship of Dance: Politics of Music in the Reservation Environment,
2. The "Dance Evil": Cultural Performance, the Press, and Federal Indian Policy,
3. The Sounds of "Civilization": Music and the Assimilation Campaign in Federal Indian Boarding Schools,
4. Learning the Music of Indianness,
5. Hitting the Road: Professional Native Musicians in the Early Twentieth Century,
Archives and Abbreviations,

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