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Densmore's Attitude Toward Indians

FRANCES DENSMORE spent her adult life working among Native Americans, but not with them. She erected an imposing, patronizing personal barrier that permitted few - if any - Indians to get past.

Densmore's posture now seems like an utter contradiction: she sacrificed the pleasures of a conventional life to preserve a musical tradition few whites cared about; she also regarded Indians as a childish race that should grow up, assimilate with white society and let the traditions she labored to record fade into memory.

Early in her career, Densmore admired Native Americans for what she saw as their noble, elemental qualities. Some samples of her views:

1899: On our own prairie a dark face - impassive as though carved from rock…[is] the Sphinx of America. …We have placed the Indian on reservations and [his] children in schools but the race is dying today with a stoicism that is pathetic. …He holds his head high and walks with the old dignity, but the barbed arrow is in his heart.1

1904: [The Indian] no longer teaches his children the weird jungle songs, but he sings them to himself when the night is full of witchery that the wild creatures know. He comes…ignorant of the ethics of clothes, with the pitiful childish decorations in his hair, but in his heart the strength of Nature's noblemen.2

1909: The music of civilized man is an art. It conforms to known laws. The music of uncivilized man is spontaneous. Its form is determined by instinct, habit and a sense of pleasure….The canons of musical art are well known. The natural laws which govern primitive musical expression are unknown.3

Over time, Densmore's attitudes about Indian character hardened. As she grew more scientific and less romantic in her analysis of Indian music, her view of contemporary Indians grew astringent.

1. Densmore, Frances: Lecture on the Music of the American Indian, typescript of lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, 21 February 1899, Frances Densmore Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
2. Densmore: "The Indian Problem of Today," in Holiday Magazine, September, 1904.
3. Densmore: The Music of the American Indians, typescript for lecture before the Anthropological Society of Washington, 26 April 1909, Densmore Papers, National Anthropological Archives.

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