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Song Catcher: Life Story
Letter From Frances Densmore to F.W. Hodge,
chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution.

Written while Densmore was working among the Chippewa at Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin.


I returned a few days ago from a very interesting and successful trip to the Menominee reservation in this state where I saw two drums presented to the Menominee Indians by a party of Chippewa from this reservation. I saw the preliminary dances here and photographed the larger of the two drums, I saw the entire ceremony there and took a large number of photographs, and when the party returns the leading singers will sing the ceremonial songs for me and fill out my account of the ceremony. The leader of the Menominees was most courteous in giving me a correct version of his speeches through a competent interpreter. This will enable me to give an accurate, clear, account of the ceremony which is of a religious character and very highly regarded by both tribes.

Inclement weather made the trip a hard one and the dances were held five miles from the nearest town. I took the drive six days in succession, wearing a fur lined overcoat part of the time. All the ceremony was held out of doors. But these discomforts are only incidents of the work. More serious is the handicap placed on my work by the delay in the publication of the Bulletin on Chippewa music, a matter to which I refer with great reluctance. If I could have had that book with me, or if I could have had it here during my recent work I believe it would have had a marked influence upon the Indians and might perhaps have spared me an unpleasant experience which I will describe. These Indians are very primitive and very suspicious.

At this inter-tribal ceremony I stated fully my reasons for being there and for wanting to take photographs. Everything was explained to both tribes by their leaders and I made presents of tobacco, food, and money which were satisfactory to the leaders of both the tribes, but just as the ceremony was about to begin two or three old Chippewa entered a vigorous protest. They were afraid I was "going to make money on the pictures. and were reluctant to believe that I was telling the truth about my work. It is not pleasant to be the center of a disturbance in a gathering of more than a hundred strange Indians with the nearest white person five mile away,-- unless some stray lumber-jack in the woods. They wanted me to pay five dollars. The Menominee chief did not approve the request but the Chippewa insisted. I went into the circle and took my interpreter with me, paying it so that all could see it. The Menominee chief made a long speech about it and slowed the bill to the entire assembly. Then he distributed the tobacco I had brought and, to his credit be it said, the Chippewa who had stirred up the trouble rose and made a long speech which was said to be very favorable to me. The five dollars was used to buy food for the Chippewa camp, about seventy Chippewa going from here to attend the ceremony.

I'm told that the feeling among the Chippewa is most friendly to me but I am far from sure that the more suspicious are convinced regarding my representations. I may encounter the same trouble when the party returns and I resume work here, though I have considerable confidence in the two good singers who are giving me the songs.

In asking for material concerning a religious ceremony I explain that the purpose of the Government in collecting this material is to preserve it in a printed form, and that by this means the old Indian beliefs will be better understood by the white men and will also be preserved to posterity. As the Menominee chief put it,-- what she writes will be put in the great libraries and be there as long as the world lasts. This idea appeals strongly to the Indian but it is a new idea and a large one, and it ought to be backed by some evidence beside a general impression that I appear to be a person who is likely to tell the truth.

Moreover I may not make the assertion with quite the same assurance that I made it to the White Earth Indians a year ago last June. The Indian is very sensitive to the least wavering or uncertainty in the mind of the person who is talking to him. Altogether it is not a pleasant situation in which to find one's self.

On August 2nd Mr. Gurley wrote me that the actual printing of the book had begun and that he was urging the printers to hasten its completion as rapidly as possible. Since then I have heard nothing, my inquiry of September 22nd having received no reply. I am quite at a loss to understand the matter.

On my return from the Menominee reservation I found the draft in payment for my paper submitted September 22nd. I expect to remain here at least a month longer, and to send in more completed work during that time. ,1a I ask that you will kindly send me a box of ordinary type-writer paper, a small quantity of paper for correspondence, and a box of wire clips.

Conditions of weather and other circumstances made it impossible to visit and open the {burial} mound concerning which I wrote you in September. Now a heavy snow has fallen and the ground is frozen so it will be scarcely possible to do it this fall. It would have been interesting but the music is, of course, the principal object at present.

It gives me pleasure to state that I am receiving cordial and valuable assistance from the Indian Office and its employees. I am supplied with a letter of introduction from one of the Commissioners to the Superintendent of any reservation which I may wish to visit, requesting that he place at my disposal whatever facilities the agency affords. This is cheerfully done, which contributes greatly to the success of my work and the convenience with which it is accomplished.

I trust that this account of the drum-ceremony will, with the descriptions, songs and photographs, be new and interesting material.

Yours sincerely,

Frances Densmore

Song Catcher