The 2015 Charles Seeger Lecture will be delivered by Philip J. Deloria, Carol Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor in History, American Culture, and Native American Studies at the University of Michigan.
Although he received his Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies, it is worth noting here that Deloria began his collegiate career in music, earning a B.M.E. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. In addition to being an academic, Deloria is a musician and, like the many ethnomusicologists who have embodied music through years of praxis, he understands music’s ontological dimensions and its power and utility as an expression of culture. In his two impactful single-authored books, Deloria highlights the ways in which music has been integral to the ongoing colonial project in North America. Playing Indian (1998) begins by examining the appropriation of perceived Indianness by colonists in the years leading up to the American Revolution. By wearing faux Indian clothing and singing pseudo Native American songs, Deloria convincingly argues that colonists were simultaneously performing a new American identity while “imagining themselves as a legitimate part of the continent’s ancient history,” both of which were enacted to displace, and to the extent possible, erase the continent’s original inhabitants.
In his landmark monograph Indians in Unexpected Places (2004), Deloria dedicates the final chapter to the “sound of Indian,” exploring music as the primary tool to tweak settler colonial expectations of Native Americans. “Music,” Deloria observes, “has been a primary way of evoking, not simply sounds, or even images, but complete worlds of expectation concerning Indian people, rich with narratives and symbolic meanings. Indian sounds signify those expectations—primitivism and social evolution, violent conflict, indigenous nationalism, Indian disappearance, the romance of the forbidden exotic, the haunted American landscape, and a host of other anxieties, fears, and expectations.” As Deloria points out, this sonic imprinting of Native Americans began with the notational renderings of Alice Fletcher, John Comfort Fillmore, and Francis La Flesche, who despite efforts to capture the essence of their Indianness, stripped Native songs of their cultural nuance. Such notated collections, assembled by them and other ethnomusicological forebears (Theodore Baker, Natalie Curtis, and Frances Densmore) provided “grist” for Indianist composers and the “nationalist music mill,” establishing the “sound of Indian that would call up imagery and expectation for most of the twentieth century.” Deloria shows how these sounds continue to reside within the recesses of our collective cultural memory, resurfacing every time one encounters a John Wayne Indian-killing classic or the implied violence of the “tomahawk chop” on ESPN.
It is his examination of these and other cultural mediums that sets Deloria’s work apart from the multitude of other American Indian histories, which tendentiously privilege the relationship between tribes and the federal government. He turns over the stone of appropriation, revealing the complex history of negotiation and adaptive agency on the part of Native communities who quickly adopted and absorbed what the dominant (and dominating) settler society had to offer in the realms of art, education, religion, and sports. Deloria’s insights as a cultural historian will be tremendously valuable to our members, who occupy the “musical edges” to create comprehensive ethnography that leaves no musical, cultural, or historical stone unturned.
- Chad Stephen Hamill