Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies

Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies

Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies

Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies


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Over the first half of the twentieth century, scientist and scholar Frances Densmore (1867–1957) visited thirty-five Native American tribes, recorded more than twenty-five hundred songs, amassed hundreds of artifacts and Native-crafted objects, and transcribed information about Native cultures. Her visits to indigenous groups included meetings with the Ojibwes, Lakotas, Dakotas, Northern Utes, Ho-chunks, Seminoles, and Makahs. A “New Woman” and a self-trained anthropologist, she not only influenced government attitudes toward indigenous cultures but also helped mold the field of anthropology.  Densmore remains an intriguing historical figure. Although researchers use her vast collections at the Smithsonian and Minnesota Historical Society, as well as her many publications, some scholars critique her methods of “salvage anthropology” and concepts of the “vanishing” Native American. Travels with Frances Densmore is the first detailed study of her life and work. Through narrative descriptions of her life paired with critical essays about her work, this book is an essential guide for understanding how Densmore formed her collections and the lasting importance they have had for researchers in a variety of fields.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803274945
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 496
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Joan M. Jensen is a professor emerita of history at New Mexico State University. She is the author of several books, including Calling This Place Home: Women on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1850–1925. Michelle Wick Patterson is an associate professor of history at Mount St. Mary’s University. She is the author of Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music (Nebraska, 2010).  

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Travels with Frances Densmore

Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies

By Joan M. Jensen, Michelle Wick Patterson


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7494-5


She Always Said, "I Heard an Indian Drum"Michelle Wick Patterson

Unsurprisingly for a woman who devoted more than fifty years of her life to the study of Native American music, Frances Densmore was often asked how and why she was drawn to the study of Indian music and cultures. Her reply, given to journalists, fellow scholars, and used in her own unpublished autobiographies, was nearly always the same: "I heard an Indian drum." Densmore would then relate the story of how as a young girl she often fell asleep to the distant sound of the drumming of her Dakota neighbors on an island near her hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota. These sounds, she contended, somehow became a part of her, constantly calling her back home and reminding her of some larger work that she was called to do. "Others have heard the same drum and the sound was soon forgotten but I have followed it all these years," she wrote. "Unconsciously it has called me, and I have followed it across the continent." A different child might have grown fearful of the Dakota drumming, but Densmore's mother refused to scare her with stories of "war dances and scalps." Instead she told her daughter, "Those Indians are interesting people with customs that are different from ours but they will not hurt you." Densmore claimed that many nights she drifted off to sleep dreaming of these "interesting people" and their music.

This oft-told story explaining Densmore's interest in Native music, one that had a ring of truth to it, served as a useful trope to explain her work as a female ethnomusicologist to others. It also serves as an example of the way she constructed her own image as a serious, scientific professional student of Native American music. The story, with its implication that Densmore had observed actual western Native communities to which few other whites had access, gave her an aura of authenticity, and her mother's part in the story—her admonition that Indians were people worthy of respect and curiosity—helped explain why a young woman might initially be attracted to Native Americans and their music.

In fact, Densmore's explanation reflected one well-accepted role for late nineteenth-century, white, middle-class women when Densmore first began her study of Indian music and cultures. It grounded her work in the sentiment of sympathy and philanthropy. As her work progressed, however, she refashioned herself from a philanthropic humanitarian into a serious professional analyst of Native music. As Densmore remade herself into a professional anthropologist, particularly after gaining employment with the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), she recognized the need to explain and justify her transition from a world largely acceptable to women into one that was only slowly opening its doors to female scholars. As part of this self-fashioning, Densmore stressed five interconnected themes that help to explain her interest in Indian music far more completely than her charming story of hearing an Indian drum as a young girl: she began her career within the realm of accepted women's philanthropic work, stressed her adherence to scientific objectivity, capitalized on the authenticity that her work as a "lone white person" afforded her, lessened gender concerns with her theme of "exciting but not dangerous," and consistently stressed her hard work as a student of Indian music.

Densmore began her career in Native American music in the second half of the 1890s as a lecturer, relying heavily on Alice Fletcher's important studies of Indian music for her talks to local music, church, and women's groups. By 1900 as her enthusiasm for the topic grew,Densmore embarked on her own fieldwork among neighboring tribes and in 1904 researched the music of so-called primitive peoples at the world's fair in St. Louis. In 1907 Densmore secured funding for her research among the Ojibwes through the BAE. By the end of the decade, after additional field trips, addresses to professional organizations, and publications in the American Anthropologist and the bulletins of the BAE, Densmore understood and presented herself as a professional anthropologist.

Women's Work—Humanitarianism

Born in the small river town of Red Wing, Minnesota, in 1867, Frances Densmore did grow up hearing the drums of her Dakota neighbors, but she did not express much interest in Native American music until decades later. She grew up in a successful family. One grandfather who settled in Red Wing in 1857 became a judge. Her father, after graduating in civil engineering from Beloit College, established a successful iron works. Her mother was immersed in home, church, and community affairs. Western European musical traditions were crucial to Frances's upbringing. She recalled, "All the old Densmores were musical and did a lot of singing ... there was an orchestra within the family. They were great singers of the old-country songs."

In contrast to her mother, Frances, as a musically inclined woman, followed a path accepted, or even expected, of young women of her upper middle-class, small-town status. From 1884 to 1887 she studied piano, organ, and harmony at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Oberlin College, one of the first to accept African American students, was an institution noted for its support of women's education and racial inclusiveness. To opt for study at Oberlin suggests Densmore's commitment to a career as a professional musician and her identification as a new woman of the late nineteenth century. After a brief sojourn in Minnesota, Densmore went to Boston and studied piano with Carl Baermann and Leopold Godowsky and counterpoint with John Knowles Paine of Harvard from 1888 to 1889. She returned to Red Wing in 1890. There and in the Twin Cities, Densmore gave piano lessons, served as a churchorganist, directed choirs of boys and adults, and lectured on musical topics, such as Wagnerian opera, to local music clubs for women. She recalled her early musical work as "very exacting—Bach and Beethoven, over and over, but with a great deal of Schubert and Liszt."

During her time in Boston, Densmore became acquainted with Alice Fletcher's A Study of Omaha Indian Music (1893), a book that rekindled Densmore's early interest in the sounds of Indian drumming. Fletcher traveled to Native communities in the West in the late nineteenth century as an ethnologist and reformer. Her research sparked widespread interest in Native American music in anthropological and artistic circles. Classically trained musicians saw the potential to use these songs as a basis for a national American music. John Comfort Fillmore, a professor at the Milwaukee School of Music, used Fletcher's work to compose Indian Fantasia No. 1 in 1890 and developed theories on how to explore and use Native songs in Western musical settings. Other composers followed suit in the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. Intrigued by these possibilities, Densmore arranged a meeting with Fillmore in Milwaukee on her way to the Chicago's world fair, and they discussed his views of Native song and his ideas about the notation of Indian music and the harmonization for the songs Fletcher had collected.

Fillmore and Fletcher planned to attend the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where they were scheduled to give demonstrations on Native American music. Although Densmore originally went to pursue her Western musical interests at the fair, their demonstrations and the music performed by other non-Western groups increased her interest in the music of these people, especially that of Native Americans. The fair, as Michael Pisani argues, served as an "unparalleled historical opportunity" for those interested in Native music. From the Indian delegation in the opening ceremonies to their presence on the midway and to the many lectures and exhibitions on Native American cultures, there was much to impress a young Densmore. She had the opportunity to see non-Native scholars interpret Indian music for their audiences. Fillmore performed harmonized versions of Kwakiutl songs. Fletcher gave three lectures on her research. Although constrained to a more subordinate position in the ethnological exhibitions than she would have liked or deserved, Fletcher received public recognition for her study in the emerging field of anthropology and what later came to be called ethnomusicology. Densmore recalled the fair as a place "where I saw Indians dancing and heard them singing—that was my start on this subject." Soon afterward Densmore began a correspondence with Fletcher and added "The Music of the American Indians" to her repertoire of lectures.

Through these early lectures, Densmore asserted her identity as a professional woman. In addressing female organizations, she joined other middle-class women who found these associations a means to escape the confines of domesticity and to develop professional experiences and identities. Clubs provided an audience and an outlet for professional women musicians as well. As Christine Ammer notes, "Local music clubs had sprung up all over America during the second half of the nineteenth century." Clubs offered professional musicians such as Densmore opportunities for performance and education on subjects their audiences might not have normally encountered in standard music curricula.

Lecturing meant leaving the privacy of the domestic sphere for the public realm that had been, according to nineteenth-century gender ideology, reserved for men. By the end of the century, white middle-class women increasingly used their talents as musicians to carve niches for themselves in this space as Densmore had. Although still limited by gendered notions about women's proper role, female musicians slowly pushed for greater opportunities. Many of these women justified their entrance into the public realm by reassuring audiences that their work was simply an extension of their femininity. A commentator in The Etude remarked in 1900, "The best type of woman musician is, indeed, a woman still. Her heart throbs with passion; her soul cries out for sympathy, but she puts her shoulder to the wheel and goes into her profession with all the bravery of a man." While professional female performers continued to find limited access to audiences, these notions of female qualities in music opened doors to musicians such as Densmore.

By speaking mainly to women's groups and student audiences and by often adopting a humanitarian approach to her topic, Densmore occupied an increasingly accepted and still expanding public role for women. The audiences for her lectures between 1895 and 1907 (when she first received funding from the BAE) tended to be women's musical clubs, such as the Schubert Club in St. Paul whose members were the first to hear Densmore's address on American Indian music. She also spoke to teachers' organizations, educational associations in Minnesota, and student audiences, such as those at nearby Carleton College and at Indian and non-Indian schools.

"The Music of the American Indians" became Densmore's most popular lecture, one that she modified slightly to suit her various audiences. The lecture opened with an image of the Indian as an "American sphinx," an inscrutable puzzle for the American people to solve. She implied that a better understanding of their "dark brother" would help solve the Indian problem and that knowing the Indians' view of their music might aid in this task. Giving credit to Alice Fletcher, who Densmore contended had "penetrated the mystery of Indian music," Densmore's task was simply to share and interpret Fletcher's insights through her lectures. She interspersed Omaha songs (either sung solo or played on the piano) as she spoke about the general characteristics of Indian music and the different types of songs tribes sang. The talk concluded with a reference to the popular notion of the "vanishing American," a widely held idea that Native people would inevitably disappear in the near future. In what passed as concerned sympathy at the time, Densmore remarked that Native Americans were condemned to "slow torture of degeneracy and final extinction," but they retained their "captive song." This music, which non-Indians had captured, now belonged to all and, she implied, must be studied and understood before it was too late.

This concern for the well-being of Native people also derived from Densmore's church-related work with Indians in Minnesota. She drew on her connections with the Episcopal Church and the acceptance of women's philanthropic activities to justify her entrance into the public sphere. Prior to her study of Native American music, Densmore wrote the "primary Sunday school paper used in the Episcopal Church." She recalled her passion for writing poetry for children: "My work for children was entirely literary. I never had anything to do with actual children but am an intense follower of poetry and believe it is the dearest, sweetest thinking of which the human race is capable." She contended that this work for the church—her nine years of "thinking as a child in my approach to everything"—prepared the way for her study of Indian cultures by giving her greater insights into Native stories and connections to nature and by allowing her to see the poetry in their music.

The Episcopal Church had been a presence among Native Americans in Minnesota from the mid-nineteenth century. Although open to critiques for its treatment of Native people, the church and its leadership contrasted to a marked degree with other non-Indian institutions in Minnesota, such as the timber interests, that sought more explicitly to exploit Native Americans. Under the leadership of Bishop Henry Whipple, the church took an active interest in meeting the perceived spiritual and physical needs of tribal members. Although Whipple advocated assimilationist policies, the church's willingness to train Native clergy allowed male Ojibwe ministers to rise to leadership positions on reservations such as White Earth.15 The Episcopal mission allowed non-Native women of their churches to expand their role as missionaries (but not as ministers) and become "brokers of power" in their own ways. For example, Sybil Carter began a lace-making project among Ojibwe women at White Earth, a project that Densmore discussed in an article for Minnesota History later in her career. Episcopalian women entered into these fields, according to Michael McNally, as their own agents, and "they extended their sphere and the moral criticism associated with it far beyond the Victorian home to become power brokers in the communities they served."

Densmore's earliest contacts with Ojibwe people undoubtedly began through her participation in church activities, particularly ones that used the arts as a starting point for cross-cultural understanding. In the 1890s she corresponded with Native American Episcopal missionaries Rev. Edward Coley Kahosed of Faribault and Rev. Charles H. Beaulieu of White Earth and expressed her growing interest in Indian music. Densmore later claimed that a "personal acquaintance" with Bishop Whipple led her to Rev. Joseph Gilfillan at White Earth. Their "pleasant personal friendship" opened the way to meeting other Ojibwe people. For example, during a 1906 visit for the annual June 14 celebration at White Earth, Densmore visited the Episcopalian rectory and met Ojibwe clergy in person, including Kahosed, who escorted her to the celebration and introduced her to older leaders in the community. At the schools in their jurisdiction these clergy and other missionaries allowed Densmore, under the auspices of the church, to give talks on Indian music that were similar to the ones she had given to non-Indian audiences. As she began her own study of Native American music, these clergy helped her secure reliable interpreters and assisted her with translations of Ojibwe songs.

These early contacts through the church pushed Densmore to understand and justify her work in philanthropic terms. A 1905 article in a local newspaper, for example, noted the efforts of the Women's Auxiliary of Christ Church to reach out to Native women. As president of the auxiliary, Densmore invited twenty-five Ojibwe women to a meeting to discuss the sewing society that raised funds for the church. The meeting, the article concluded, showed these Indians to be "as civilized and as much at home as anyone." Like other white female reformers, Densmore's early lectures and writing focused on women's spheres (like the sewing society) and particularly on education. Densmore wrote letters to the editor of local newspapers supporting the current federal Indian schooling system, which sought "improvement not transformation" of Native students. In one letter she went so far as to argue her preference for separating children from their mothers, contending that "to see her child grow up a lazy, shiftless, ignorant Indian would ultimately cause the dark skinned mother more pain than to part with the child." She concluded (in culturally insensitive language commonly used by reformers to justify their assimilationist policies toward Native people) that even former Indian "warriors" now demanded "We wantum edjcate." Her support of Indian schools led to a handful of publications in journals such as Primary Education, Children's Magazine, and Indian School Journal.


Excerpted from Travels with Frances Densmore by Joan M. Jensen, Michelle Wick Patterson. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
Introduction: Traveling with Frances Densmore    
Joan M. Jensen and Michelle Wick Patterson
Part 1. Frances Densmore’s Life and Work
1. She Always Said, “I Heard an Indian Drum”    
Michelle Wick Patterson
2. Becoming Two White Buffalo Woman    
Michelle Wick Patterson
3. By Train, by Boat, by Model T    
Joan M. Jensen
4. Getting the Depression Blues    
Joan M. Jensen
5. Cut, Paste, Delete, Preserve    
Michelle Wick Patterson
6. Gone but Not Quite Forgotten    
Joan M. Jensen
Part 2. Conversations
7. Miss Densmore Meets the Ojibwes: Frances Densmore’s Ethnomusicology Studies among the Grand Portage Ojibwes in 1905    
Nancy L. Woolworth
8. Songs of Healing: Music Therapy of Native America, a Medical Ethnomusicology Study    
Stephanie Thorne
9. Familiar Faces: Densmore’s Minnesota Photographs    
Bruce White
10. Collection with a Mission: Frances Densmore’s Chippewa Artifacts    
Carolyn Gilman
11. An Archival Dilemma: The Densmore Cylinder Recording Speeds    
Judith Gray
12. Frances Densmore’s Chippewa Music    
Thomas J. Vennum Jr.
Conclusion: A Picture Is Worth Deconstructing    
Joan M. Jensen and Michelle Wick Patterson
Note on Sources: How to Continue Traveling with Densmore    

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