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  • Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music 1879–1934
  • Jeremy J. Strachan
Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music 1879–1934. By John W. Troutman. (New Directions in Native American Studies Series, vol. 3.) Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009. [xvi, 323 p. ISBN 9780806140193. $34.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Indian Blues explores the intersections and collisions of Native American expressive cultural forms and American federal Indian policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. It comes as a timely addition to the library of scholarship dealing with music's crucial impact on indigenous identity and citizenship in early American modernity, and will sit well alongside foundational works such as Michael Pisani's Imagining Native America in Music (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), Tara Browner's Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-Wow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), Judith Vander's Shoshone Ghost Dance Religion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), and Thomas Vennum's recently re-published The Ojibwa Dance Drum: Its History and Construction (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009), to name only a few. Subtitled American Indians and the Politics of Music 1890–1934, historian John Troutman's study looks specifically at how "the deployment of musical practice" (p. 5) by Native Americans, United States government officials, and the non-Indian public shaped the implementation of Indian policy and influenced discourses of citizenship, rather than casting its focus directly on music itself. As such, this illuminating look into one of the most politically volatile periods in United States-Indian relations might also leave some questions unanswered for music scholars who will want to know what actually comprised the soundscape of Native America on- and off-reservation.

The first two chapters are largely concerned with Plains Indian dance complexes such as the Grass Dance, Sun Dance, and Hopi Snake Dance, and the adaptive strategies Native Americans undertook to preserve cultural practices in the face of increasing intolerance and prohibitive legislation by the Office of Indian Affairs. Troutman argues that by realigning tribal ceremonies with holidays on the Christian calendar, Native Americans were able to subvert legislation which sought to suppress "savage" behavior by masquerading dance as a "civilized" activity. Due in large part to agentive and resistant tactics onreservation, and the reinvigoration and transformation of dance forms by young students returning from off-reservation boarding schools who brought with them new skills in language and music, Troutman shows how Indian dance complexes were forums in which hierarchies of class, [End Page 300] race, and citizenship were challenged and contested. But what about the music? We are left wondering how exactly musical components of dance practice might activate, inflect, and dynamize these sites of political engagement which Troutman centrally positions in Native Americans' struggle to maintain cultural identity over the course of three decades.

The next two chapters deal more explicitly with how music, or at least the various practices of music, played a critical role in defining relationships between Native and non-Native Americans. Chapter 3 examines music education in off-reservation boarding schools during the 1920s and 1930s. Troutman positions music practice as a "moral and cultural battlefield" (p. 112), and his research here is both valuable and provocative. For example, we learn how "skin bands" (or brass bands of Native students) served an essential role as an index of the federal assimilation project, but also how struggles of Native identity and citizenship played out in competitive performance regimes. But the author's recurrent gloss on the term "semiclassical" music—the closest we get to any description of sound—will prove vexatious to scholars eager to understand exactly what music was being used in classrooms, and what student bands sounded like in the battle for American citizenship. Furthermore, although Troutman's intent with this book is to return Indianness to Native agency (p. 18), we hear only a few Native voices of boarding school survivors. The author does manage to find lengthy quotes from a few students, such as George White Bull, Luther Standing Bear, and James Garvie, and rightly acknowledges the dearth of extant first-person accounts in written and...


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