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Song Catcher: Life Story
The Densmore-Hofmann Letters
Part 1: Working with Indians


FOLLOWING ARE EXCERPTS from Frances Densmore's fourteen-year correspondence with aspiring ethnomusicologist Charles Hofmann. The letters are from Hofmann's personal collection. They offer a rare, candid glimpse at some of Densmore's opinions. She had no opportunity to sanitize them for the historical record.

Excerpts are in two groups:
Working with Indians (this document) and Indian Character.
WORKING WITH INDIANS
September 21, 1942:
My aim is to keep the Indians free from self-consciousness and I always have the idea to combat that I am "going to make money" on their songs.

November 11-13, 1943:
I make it a practice, before stopping work, to decide what I will do first when I resume work.

I have cultivated what might be called a "registering memory," - to store away unconsciously many details that it would be a burden to carry in the mind. I do not know how they are registered, but it gives me confidence that data I want will come to me when I need it - a sort of "mental index."

Another useful thing to cultivate is the ability to see a great deal at a glance without seeming to take it all in. This is very useful on a reservation, when one cannot scrutinize and must gain impressions en masse and quickly. This can be cultivated by such means as seeing all there is on a page of a newspaper at one look. Or by looking in a store window and counting up the things you recall. It is such an old trick that I do it all unconsciously, but it is the old game of going into a room, or looking at a table, and seeing how many items you can remember. It's good to cultivate.

Another very important thing if you are to go among real Indians is the ability to sit still, avoiding every unnecessary motion. I found this especially when admitted to Pawnee ceremonies, and found that I could relax one arm or one limb at a time, without any visible motion. This makes it possible to be inconspicuous - to obliterate one's self physically, if circumstances make it desirable.

Directness in everything counts strongly with real Indians - directness in speech and even in every otion, such as setting up the phonograph, changing cylinders, etc. "Waste motion" is anathema to Indians, and the same with talk, - except, of course, in oratory which is another matter. But if an Indian's singing does not suit me, I can say, "Your voice is not good enough for me" and he is not offended, while he might be "mixed up" by hollow excuses, etc.

One must always remember they are being watched, whether Indians seem to be watching or not, they take in every detail. I was told that, early in my work, by one of the persons experienced in such matters who advised me in many things. Also, an old missionary - Dr. Gilfillan - said "Never try to deceive an Indian for, in the first place, you can't do it. You may think you do, but you don't." Old Indians had a sort of sixth sense that was wordless but accurate, just as they read weather signs or "felt' things a white man would not notice.

Once I said to such a person something to this effect - "I try not to let the Indians see that I don't quite like them" and the reply was to the effect - "That isn't enough. You must really like them. They will know the difference even if they don't show it."

It is never a good plan to "live down" to Indians. I saw a man who was a on a field expedition and ate all his food in one cup - a horrible, messy way to eat - and he dressed "to fit the part of an explorer." The Indian who took me cross country to the train got confidential and laughed at that "Dr.," who had worn a green-lined helmet. The Indian said - "Dr. - All dressed up! Had on a blue hat. All dressed up to go camping!"

It is very hard to learn to "draw the line" and be chummy and cordial and friendly with Indians and not let them ever overstep. There has to be an invisible line that you know is there and keep your eye on every minute. I have seen people, in the field, who "camped with the Indians" but didn't get anywhere with them. It is not "sharing their daily lives" that makes them "open up." I have found out things easily that people who have lived near them for decades have not been able to get out of them, or have not realized was there. In work with real Indians, as in everything else, there is a definite technique which is not needed in such work as excavating, in archaeology. The stone either is or isn't there, and no crafty Indian can conceal it - though, of course, I know that an archaeologist has to manage his native workmen. But, believe me, the real Indian is as evasive as the traditional gazelle…

I always put importance on quick work. Often I get my heaviest work done in about four days, before the inevitable opposition has time to organize. It means terrific work and study when one is tired from a long journey, but after those four days, or a week, one can let things rest a bit and settle. But - if that first impression is not made strongly and successfully, showing them that a person is fully master of the situation, the same set-up does not come back for a long time - it might take three or four weeks to get the same chance again. You can bank on curiosity at first, and on a certain pride in being among the first to "subscribe." There is a lot of psychology in the business.

It is always important to find out the peculiarities of a tribe and "cater to them."

I always make myself solid with the Agent, the missionary and the trader as soon as I arrive. The Indians know this, and as these are the highest people at the agency, they naturally want to stand well with them, which is an incentive to stand well with me. I have seen "researchers" disregard that contact with the Agent and go nowhere with the Indians. It is also a good plan to tell quite a bit about material collected elsewhere - as a traveler might give information about places he has visited. I always take records from other places for them to hear, being careful to take only "secular songs," well recorded. In the old days some Indians were sure to "sound me out" to see how much help they could get for some project against the Indian Office and when they found out that I was absolutely not interested, and I assured them that I never did anything against the Indian Office, they saw that that was settled and backed off. Another thing, I seldom fail to go to church on Sunday. I remember one Sunday when I attended a "heathen" ceremony Saturday evening, went to the Roman Catholic church Sunday morning and played the organ for a Methodist missionary on Sunday afternoon. I always fit in with any sort of church service, which is good for the Indians and for whoever is struggling along to help them.

About the "invisible line" mentioned in par. 9 - it is a queer feeling but I once knew a man who knew all about it. He was Mr. Blackburn who was in charge of the "big cat" family of animals at the Rock Creek Zoo. I used to do quite a bit of study out there. One day, after rather a hard experience with the Utes, I said to Mr. Blackburn, "With those Indians I had a strange feeling that I must always keep my back against the wall and never let them get behind me." He said, very feelingly, "I know that feeling." He had worked with the "cats" in their cages, in some sort of exhibition work. It is not exactly fear, but an instant and constant awareness. Mentally, I had that desire for a solid wall behind me. I hope you never get into that sort of work.

With these young, educated Indians the approach would be different, for their whole psychology is so different. Often it is a "man-to-man" approach, to find out what they have got in their mind that is worthwhile. They are more inclined to "put their cards on the table" than the old fellows and you can see whether they are any good. Such a man can be sized up in a very short time because, with experience, you can "take his stock" quickly. They stand quite a bit of flattery, even if one knows they are not to be of much use in the work. That is because they usually have a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of the white people.

April 5, 1945:
I never let down on the ground that I was a white person and they were Indians. There was always an invisible line that I never let them cross. I never let them criticize the government nor the white race, nor come across with any sob-stuff about the way they had been treated, as a race. That was simply out.


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