Welcome to DU! The truly grassroots left-of-center political community where regular people, not algorithms, drive the discussions and set the standards. Join the community: Create a free account Support DU (and get rid of ads!): Become a Star Member Latest Breaking News Editorials & Other Articles General Discussion The DU Lounge All Forums Issue Forums Culture Forums Alliance Forums Region Forums Support Forums Help & Search

Judi Lynn

(161,382 posts)
Sun Nov 6, 2022, 01:34 AM Nov 2022

The Woman Who Saved Native Song

“We understand the people better if we know their music, and we appreciate the music better if we understand the people themselves.”


Tucked into a corner of the Library of Congress is the Densmore Collection of cylinder phonographs — a bygone medium containing the living songs of an ancient culture.

In the early twentieth century, the U.S. government continued its assault on Native Americans by demanding they relinquish their tribal languages and belief systems, teach their children English, and enter the American mainstream. As a result of this concerted erasure campaign, the average American came to see indigenous peoples as living fossils on the brink of cultural extinction.

Frances Densmore (May 21, 1867–June 5, 1957) — a young music teacher from Red Wing, Minnesota — was appalled. In consonance with the eternal truth that the best way to complain is to create, she set out to singlehandedly preserve a vital aspect of indigenous culture, the one art that is the heartbeat of every culture: music.

Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph — a mechanical means of recording and reproducing sound, using a wax-coated cardboard cylinder and a cutting stylus — when Frances was ten. Around that time, listening to the songs of the Dakota Indians near her home, she fell in love with music. In an era when higher education was closed to women with only limited exceptions, she spent three years studying music at Oberlin College — the first university to admit women, and the first to admit students of ethnic minorities — then devoted herself to teaching Western music to Native Americans (the academic term for whom was then “American Indians”) and learning their own traditional songs as they taught her in turn.

Latest Discussions»Culture Forums»Anthropology»The Woman Who Saved Nativ...