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American Indian Rhapsody


Frances Densmore, born in 1867 in Red Wing, MN, was an amateur anthropologist who traveled around the United States, collecting Indian songs for the for the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. After she recorded these songs on her phonograph, she sent them on wax cylinders to the Smithsonian Institute, along with manuscripts of the songs.

Amidst her travels, she recorded songs from several tribes in North Dakota, with stops at Berthold and Standing Rock. Among her recordings was the Sun Dance, performed by the Standing Rock Sioux. The dance involved many different and variant rites, and could last for days; the major part of the ceremony included dancing around a pole, with the dancers sometimes attached to the pole via a leather thong that was pushed through a piercing in their chests. Obtaining a recording of the music was big news, as the Sun Dance was a ceremony that had been banned by missionaries and the US and Canadian governments - though some spiritual leaders continued to conduct the dance in secret. In the US, it was outlawed until passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act in 1978.

Nevertheless, the song, as Densmore had recorded it, was a hit in Washington, D.C. In fact, it caught the ear of Heinrich Hammer, a German-born violinist, composer and oOrchestra director who was living there. Inspired, Hammer created an American Rhapsody-Sioux Indian Sun Dance, and it was then featured in a concert.

On this date, as people in Washington D.C. listened to the sounds inspired by people of the plains of North Dakota, reports about the song and how it was received were trickling back here. After the concert, The Washington Post had this to say about the song:

"The very heart of an oppressed people is struck in the dignity of the opening minor phrase. This rhapsody is based on the folklore of the Indians of America, and is told in scenic incidents, full of weird, characteristic strains, yet abounding in dignity, solemnity and awe."

Hammer was presented with a laurel wreath from the Brotherhood of North American Indians as a "token of their appreciation and esteem." He would go on to write more music, including a total of three American Indian rhapsodies for orchestra.

Francis Densmore also continued to record Indian songs. And just as the haunting sounds of the prairies continued to be saved, they continued to inspire.

Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker


The Bismarck Daily Tribune, Sunday, April 20, 1913, p.3





Dakota Datebook, "Frances Densmore," Friday, September 4, 2009, by Carol Wilson