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Collection Omaha Indian Music

Omaha Indian Music

Omaha Indian Informant and Alice Fletcher in Macy, NE. Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4500.

In the late 19th century, American Indian music was emerging as a legitimate area of anthropological inquiry. Most fieldworkers noted only the words of ceremonial songs and found Indian music at best difficult to comprehend. In her introduction to A Study of Omaha Indian Music, Alice Fletcher wrote:

I well remember my first experience in listening to Indian music. Although from habit as a student I had endeavored to divest myself of preconceived ideas, and to rise above prejudice and distaste, I found it difficult to penetrate beneath the noise and hear what the people were trying to express. I think I may safely say that I heard little or nothing of Indian music the first three or four times that I attended dances or festivals, beyond a screaming downward movement that was gashed and torn by the vehemently beaten drum. The sound was distressing, and my interest in this music was not aroused until I perceived that this distress was peculiarly my own, every one else was so enjoying himself (I was the only one of my race present) that I felt sure something was eluding my ears . . . I therefore began to listen below this noise, much as one must listen to the phonograph ignoring the sound of the machinery before the registered tones of the voice are caught. I have since watched Indians laboring with a like difficulty when their songs were rendered to them upon the piano; their ears were accustomed to the portamento of the voice in the song, which was broken up by the hammers of the instrument on the strings, producing such confusion of sound that it was hard for the Indians to hear and recognize the tune. My efforts in listening below the noise were rewarded by my hearing the music, and I discovered that there was in these Indian songs matter worth study and record (1893, pp. 237-238).

The cylinder recordings of Omaha Indian music made by Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche between 1895 and 1905 represent an important phase in the study of American Indian music. They were not the first to document the songs of the Omaha people. James Owen Dorsey, in the course of his work on Dhegiha Siouan languages, collected dance, myth, and various society songs from Fred Merrick and Joseph and Francis La Flesche, and published both texts and melodic transcriptions (notated by Professor Szemelenyi) in the first two volumes of the Journal of American Folklore (1888 and 1889). But the Fletcher-La Flesche cylinders were the first ones made on the Omaha reservation, and the completeness of the collection marks their thoroughness as scholars.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923)

Alice Cunningham Fletcher at her writing desk. Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4510.

In many respects, Alice Fletcher was a typical Victorian intellectual--articulate, energetic, and active in a variety of social movements and women's organizations. She began her studies of American Indian life under the private tutelage of Frederick W. Putnam, director of Harvard University's Peabody Museum, and joined the public lecture circuit, as did many intellectuals of her day, championing the new discipline of anthropology. (Nearly 20 years later, Frances Densmore, another student of Indian music, also launched her career by embarking on the lecture circuit and in fact based her early lectures on the work of Alice Fletcher.)

Fletcher's long association with the Omaha people began at an 1880 Boston literary gathering with an introduction to Francis and Susette La Flesche, the son and daughter of Omaha chief Joseph La Flesche, who were touring the East Coast in an effort to raise support for their endangered kinspeople, the Poncas. Until that time she had based her anthropology lectures on library research and a small amount of archaeological fieldwork, but now she wanted to observe Indian culture directly and made arrangements to visit the Omaha reservation the following year. Over the next three decades, she traveled extensively throughout the West, studying not only Omaha traditions but those of the Pawnee, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Oto, Osage, Nez Perce, Ponca, and Winnebago as well. Although she is best known for her work on Omaha music and culture, she also published a study of the Pawnee Hako ceremony with the collaboration of Pawnee ethnologist James R. Murie, as well as articles on a variety of Indian subjects.

By the last decade of the 19th century Fletcher had become a leading figure in scientific circles, dividing her time between the Peabody Museum in Boston and the growing Washington, D. C., anthropological community. Support for her ethnological research came in the form of a $30,000 fellowship established at Peabody exclusively for her by Mrs. William Thaw of Pittsburgh in 1890, and occasional donations and contributions throughout her life. For a while she continued to work closely with the Peabody Museum, but closer ties with the Bureau of American Ethnology and her increasing involvement with negotiations surrounding the establishment of the Archaeological Institute of America at Santa Fe - which later became the School of American Research-bound her both physically and intellectually to Washington.

Fletcher's ethnological researches frequently coincided with active work on behalf of Indian peoples. Her willingness to live on the reservation and her knowledge of Indian culture made her a natural intermediary between the tribes and various government agencies. She was asked to administer the settlements for the controversial land-allotment program on several reservations, and she supported educational and economic projects designed to move Indian people closer to an assimilation with mainstream white culture which she felt would be their only salvation.

Recognizing the crucial role of song in ceremonial, Alice Fletcher began to collect Omaha Indian music early in her fieldwork. Like many accomplished scholars of her day, she was able to render the melodies she heard in standard musical notation, but because Fletcher saw herself as an ethnologist, not a musicologist, she did not feel qualified to comment on their musical characteristics. For this, she relied on the skills of John Comfort Fillmore, a music scholar with whom she shared decided theories on the implicit harmonic nature of Indian music. Fillmore harmonized all of the songs in the monograph, using as his justification Fletcher's observation that "the song played as an unsupported solo did not satisfy my memory of their unison singing, and the music did not 'sound natural' to them, but when I added a simple harmony my ear was content and the Indians were satisfied (1893, p. 240)." Fillmore, incidently, did not trust the cylinder phonograph, preferring to work with transcriptions made in the field.

Francis La Flesche (1857-1932)

Francis La Flesche. Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4504.

The second son of Omaha chief Joseph La Flesche, Francis La Flesche attended the Presbyterian Mission school and participated in tribal ceremonies associated with approaching manhood. His mission education proved useful in his work as an interpreter and research assistant for James Owen Dorsey, who arrived on the Omaha reservation in 1878 to continue his studies in Dhegiha Siouan languages. In 1879 La Flesche accompanied his sister, Susette, and uncle, Ponca chief Standing Bear, on their grueling Eastern crusade for Indian land reform, and took a job a year later as a copyist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working at night to complete two law degrees. He formally transferred to the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1910, although he had been engaged in research for the Bureau for a number of years. During his tenure at the Bureau of American Ethnology he also began his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Alice Fletcher, who became first his employer, then his tutor and colleague, and who eventually adopted him as her son.

Between 1880 and 1910 Fletcher and La Flesche collected extensive data on the Omaha people. La Flesche's status on the reservation, his knowledge of the language, and his early participation in tribal rituals proved invaluable in their research. He was strongly committed to preserving every detail of Omaha life because he wanted non-Indians to understand the spiritual nature of Indian culture. When Fletcher commissioned John Comfort Fillmore to study Omaha songs for the 1893 monograph A Study of Omaha Indian Music, La Flesche worked closely with the musicologist, going over transcriptions and accompanying him on a field trip to the reservation.

Fletcher and La Flesche's most fruitful collaboration resulted in the publication of The Omaha Tribe in 1911, the culmination of nearly 30 years of meticulous gathering, sorting, and synthesizing data on the Omaha Indians. Apart from these joint efforts, La Flesche found time to publish articles on Omaha life and a popular account of his childhood at the mission school (The Middle Five, 1900). But he is best known for his independent research on the cognate Osage people for the Bureau of American Ethnology; his massive study, The Osage Tribe, was published between 1914 and 1928 in four separate volumes of the Bureau's Annual Reports.

The Fletcher-La Flesche Cylinder Collection

The true nature and extent of the Fletcher-La Flesche collaboration on the Omaha recordings has not yet been determined (Mark, 1982). Although Fletcher and La Flesche spent several summers together in the field during the 1880s and 1890s, it seems likely that La Flesche, not Fletcher, recorded most of the Omaha cylinders. The musical examples for the 1893 monograph were reproduced exclusively from Fletcher and Fillmore's painstakingly reworked handwritten transcriptions, but the cylinder phonograph was probably not used in fieldwork on the Omaha reservation until September of 1895, when La Flesche recorded 16 cylinders of ritual songs (Mark, 1982: 505). Over the next ten years Fletcher and La Flesche recorded 90 cylinders of Omaha singers both on the Omaha reservation and in Washington, and the material on these cylinders provided the musical framework around which the detailed descriptions of rituals in the 1911 ethnography were constructed. Both scholars continued to use the cylinder phonograph in their individual research. Fletcher recorded more than 150 additional cylinders from Indian singers in the Plains and other Western tribes, while La Flesche amassed an even larger collection of 254 Osage cylinders for his monograph.

Whatever the extent of the Fletcher-La Flesche partnership, their combined legacy to the study of American Indian music and the later discipline of ethnomusicology is clear. They were, above all, rigorous contextualists, continually stressing the inseparability of music and culture in all of their publications, and, with their rich descriptions of social and ceremonial life providing us a window into the Omaha past.

Reproduced from Dorothy Sara Lee and Maria La Vigna, eds. Omaha Indian Music: Historical Recordings from the Fletcher/La Flesche Collection. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1985

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