‘Travels with Frances Densmore’ edited by Jensen and Patterson

Joan M. Jensen and Michelle Wick Patterson (Editors). Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies. 464 pp., illus., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. $75 (hardcover)

Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies draws together a biography of the twentieth century anthropologist with a compilation of both new and previously published works on Densmore’s professional heritage. Although both parts of the book span much of Densmore’s career, Joan M. Jensen and Michelle Wick Patterson contend that the book is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, they ask the reader to consider Travels with Frances Densmore a “travel guide” through the anthropologist’s remarkably productive career as well as the broader professional, social, and political contexts in which she worked.

Frances Densmore (1867-1957) was a self-taught ethnomusicologist practicing in the United States through a period of great changes in federal Indian policy, women’s professionalization, and disciplinary shifts in the field of anthropology. After pursuing self-financed fieldwork among Ojibwe and Dakota communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Densmore was hired by the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) in 1907 and contracted with them until she lost her contract during the Great Depression. During both her time with the BAE as well as her later career, Densmore published prolifically on expressive culture, recording music and collecting material culture from a range of Native nations. Although Densmore labored to position herself as an authority on American Indian ethnomusicology, her work went unrecognized by her discipline, in part because of the nature of her work and in part because she—like many other female anthropologists of the early-twentieth century—was not ensconced in the university structure.[1] Densmore’s legacy has been further complicated by the significance of her work to the communities from which she took material, sometimes without asking. While some of her work has assisted Native nations in their quest for cultural sovereignty, her collection practices (what she collected, and continuing issues over access and control) have caused frustration and anger among those with whom she worked and their surviving communities.[2]

Part 1 of the book, “Frances Densmore’s Life and Work,” is Densmore’s biography, the chapters split between the two editors of the volume. Jensen and Patterson contextualize their biographies of Densmore with sensitivity to her gender, professional status, and non-native identities. In chapter one, Patterson describes Densmore’s early professional development. A trained musician, Densmore followed and then built upon the lead of Alice Fletcher to position herself as an authority on American Indian music. By 1907, Densmore had obtained funding from the BAE for her work. In chapter two, Patterson discusses Densmore’s early work with Lakota and Dakota communities as well as her work with the Northern Ute. The focus of the chapter is on Densmore’s relationships with Native community members. While Densmore changed her techniques to accord with community needs, pressures, and norms, the authors argue that the impetus for these modifications was to obtain the material she sought. In chapter three, Jensen follows Densmore’s work with Makah, i.laponathi, and Wisconsin Ho-Chunk communities during the 1920s-1940s. During this period of intensive fieldwork and protracted publication, Densmore’s relationships with Native individuals and exposure to a wider range of expressive traditions resulted in her partial abandonment of strictly “salvage anthropology” toward the recognition and admiration of Native “persistence.” In turn, Jensen describes how Native community members worked to protect and pass on expressive culture. Chapter four discusses in greater depth Densmore’s work through the Great Depression, during which time she lost her support from the BAE but patched together funding from speaking engagements, the Works Progress Administration, and the Southwest Museum in California, continuing her fieldwork and assembling a professional archive of her work.

The second half of Part 1 delves into Densmore’s legacy. In chapter five, Patterson describes how Densmore, in the last twenty years of her life, assembled, edited, and carefully dispersed the materials of her professional life for their historical preservation and, in effect, her own professional identity and legacy. Critical to her success were networks of supporters as well as her own determination. Jensen discusses Densmore’s legacy following her death in chapter six. Though her passing initially received little scholarly or professional attention, communities of anthropologists created and re-created an “afterlife” for her work. Musicologists noted the scope of her wax cylinder recordings, which began to be repatriated to their home communities beginning in the mid-1970s through the Federal Cylinder Project. Women anthropologists in the 1950s through 1970s situated her as a part of an often-unrecognized cohort of early-twentieth century women anthropologists. During the later part of the century, American Indian activists increasingly situated Densmore’s work within their own projects of survivance, reclamation, and cultural sovereignty. Densmore’s work, in particular her at times coercive recordings of American Indian songs, became a flash point for frustration within Native communities over what she had recorded and, importantly, access and control over those recordings.

Part 2, “Conversations,” compiles a range of unpublished and previously published material on Densmore’s life and legacy. Much of this work centers on Densmore’s work with Ojibwe communities.[3] Archaeologist Nancy L. Woolworth presents further details of Densmore’s work among Ojibwe communities, in particular the Grand Portage community. Anthropologist Bruce White describes Densmore’s use of photography among the Minnesota Ojibwe communities as a collaborative effort between Densmore and the “skilled cultural interpreters” whom she photographed. White describes carefully the social and political context of these communities during the times in which Densmore was working in them. Carolyn Gilman, previously a special projects curator at the Minnesota Historical Society, presents some of the problematic collecting practices behind the materials collected by Densmore from the Grand Portage Ojibwe community. Ethnomusicologist Thomas J. Vennum Jr. contextualizes and problematizes Densmore’s Chippewa Music in a piece previously published as an introduction to the work.

The other two pieces in Part 2 delve into particularities of Densmore’s legacy that may be especially applicable for contemporary Native communities. Judith Gray of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress explains the delays that prevented Densore’s recordings from being made available to Native communities until the 1970s. Musicologist Stephanie Thorne analyzes Densmore’s work on the intersections of music and healing and especially her study of Lakota peoples’ sacred stone songs. Using the framework of “medical ethnomusicology” (304), Thorne explores the healing music in Densmore’s books and offers suggestions about how contemporary practitioners can integrate attention to a patient’s cosmological cultural context within music therapy practice.

As a whole, these chapters exhibit how scholars across different generations and disciplines have engaged with Densmore’s work. They provide a road map of sorts for the possibilities in her archival collections and the scholarship that has already been done on them. The second part of the book is particularly useful to those interested in her work on Ojibwe communities or who would like to position themselves within the work already done on Densmore. Because the selections in “Conversations” are not clearly in conversation with each other, this section is best dipped into rather than consumed wholesale. A Densmore historiography is, in effect, presented, yet Part 2 may have benefited from a response from the editors. As they stand, the pieces fill in the portions of Densmore’s working life that she spent within Ojibwe communities that are missing from Part 1. Overall, this volume is a solid introduction to the work and legacy of an often-overlooked female anthropologist, and throughout the contributors pay close attention to Densmore’s political, social, and colonial contexts. The authors themselves argue that this work is intended as an introduction, not a conclusion: “We envisioned this book as a chronicle of our travels with Frances Densmore, but the journey does not end here. Go travel father along the road with Densmore” (419).

[1] For a broad historiographic overview on gender and the American social sciences, see Helene Silverberg, ed., Gender and American Social Science: The Formative Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). See also Nancy J. Parezo, ed., Hidden Scholars: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

[2] For more on the controversy over Densmore’s collection practices, see John W. Troutman, Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009).

[3] For more on nineteenth and twentieth century Ojibwe social and political context, see Melissa L. Meyer, The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).


Margaret Flood: contributions / floo0020@umn.edu / Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Minnesota

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed this thorough review, and anticipate the book will further my understanding of Densmore and her legacy.

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