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Francis La Flesche, Who Preserved the Culture

Francis La Flesche
Gill, De Lancey W.
National Anthropological Archives
Francis La Flesche

When Francis La Flesche was a young boy, he wanted to hunt buffalo for his tribe. As a man, he preserved his people in a different way.

The ancient indigenous singers in this bit of song were born at the time of the Civil War. I'm not making this up. That we have such a recording is flat-out astonishing, as is the life story of Francis La Flesche, the Omaha anthropologist who recorded it way back when. As a boy living on the Omaha reservation in northeast Nebraska, he killed his first buffalo on a summer hunt and told himself--he was just a kid--he could never do any better than to become a great hunter for his people.

But all that changed. By the 1880s the buffalo had disappeared, and Francis La Flesche traveled east with his sister Susette and a very famous cousin, the Ponca chief Standing Bear, to argue for the Ponca's return to their homeland and expanded rights for all Native people. During that six-month visit, Francis met Dr. Alice Fletcher, a Harvard anthropologist whose professional interests were in preserving Native cultures in danger of disappearing.

Frank went to Washington D. C., to be a clerk in the Office of Indian Affairs, to begin a life-long professional relationship with Fletcher, whose scholarly expertise teamed up with his knowledge of his own Omaha people. He knew the men and women she wanted to understand. He was versed in the unique culture she wanted to document. He knew what she needed to know.

So when, one sunny afternoon, somewhere on the Omaha reservation, Francis La Flesche set up his wax cylinders, when those elderly singers were persuaded to offer him songs they'd known forever, Prof. Fletcher was there too.

In his book, The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe, a collection of stories from his own boarding school experience on the Omaha reservation, Francis La Flesche remembers the day that school officials came to measure student learning. "Do your people like to sing?" one of them asks the kids. "Yes," they tell him, and he asks them to do so. Here's what happens.

A loud clear voice closer to me broke into a Victory song; before a bar was sung another voice took up the song from the beginning, as is the custom among the Indians, then the whole school fell in, and we made the room ring. We understood the song and knew the motion of which it was the expression. We felt, as we sang, the patriotic thrill of a victorious people who had vanquished their enemies.

But the school officials, white men, heard something different. "That's savage," they said, then again, "that's savage." They turned to the teacher. "They must be taught music." Meaning, of course, the European style of music.

So every afternoon, Francis writes, they were taught music that was not their own.

Francis La Flesche earned graduate degrees and honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Nebraska. Francis La Flesche, who once wanted to be the greatest Omaha buffalo hunter ever, became instead the Omaha's greatest historian.

You can't help but wonder whether during a music lesson one morning in school, little Francis LaFlesche, ten years old maybe, didn't pick up the scent of a trail he wanted to follow, and that day began to see, in outline, what he wanted to be and to do for his people.

Really, that story is what's recorded on the wax cylinders being stored carefully at the Library of Congress. You can listen to them yourself sometime. They're on-line.

For them and so much more, we have Francis La Flesche to thank.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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