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Francis La Flesche

Francis La Flesche: American Indian Scholar
Reproduced from Folklife Center News 4:1 (January 1981): 1, 10-11.
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Detail of Ponca Indian sun dance--Ponca reservation, Indian Territory Created/Published 1894 by Thomas Croft. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-100432.

Francis La Flesche was a man with claims to several cultural traditions, whose work has in turn been claimed by several academic disciplines. Son of Iron Eyes, the last Omaha head chief, La Flesche was born on the Omaha reservation in 1857. His father, who was half French, raised the children in a wood frame house in a village known on the Nebraska prairies as the village of "Make Believe White Men"; yet La Flesche did participate in the traditional tribal rituals and pursuits of a maturing Indian youth. Later, he not only interpreted the Omaha culture for Western ethnologists visiting the reservation, but went on to do independent research and documentation himself of the music and rituals of the Osage, one of four tribes, along with the Quapaw, Kansa, and Ponca, closely related to the Omaha. In the course of his research work he was legally adopted in 1891 by ethnologist Alice Fletcher, with whom he collaborated on a major study of the Omaha. During his work with the Osage, Saucy Calf, who recorded extensively with La Flesche, also adopted him in a sense, by becoming his ceremonial father.*

By profession La Flesche was an ethnologist with the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology, which he joined in 1910, retiring in 1929. Anthropologists and linguists have also acclaimed his Osage documentation. Recent work on La Flesche's sound recordings made in Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., carried out by the Center's Federal Cylinder Project team, is now revealing his extraordinary contributions to the field of ethnomusicology as well. Captured in the La Flesche cylinder collection are the last voices raised in the songs of a complicated musical tradition that has largely disappeared.
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Francis La Flesche.
Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4504.

La Flesche met Alice Fletcher, one of the major influences in his life, in Washington, D.C., while he was accompanying the Ponca chief Standing Bear on a political tour in 1879-1880. When Fletcher later visited the Omaha reservation in 1882, she used La Flesche as her interpreter and informant. One of the cylinders in the Alice Fletcher collection, in fact, contains recordings made by both Francis La Flesche and "Francis La Flesche, Sr." (his father). Later, La Flesche became Fletcher's field assistant and, finally, collaborator. Together they collected material for their joint study, The Omaha Tribe, which appeared in 191l. La Flesche's appreciation for the phonograph as a research tool and his technical skill in its use is probably largely attributable to this collaborative venture.

While La Flesche first became acquainted with the techniques of field recording under the tutorship of Alice Fletcher, their individual collecting approaches became very different. Fletcher's approach in recording the Omaha was to identify a broad range of musical genres within different ceremonies and rituals, and then to record representative examples of songs from the genres identified. The resulting collection presents a well-organized overview of the tribe's ceremonial musical expression. La Flesche, in contrast, concentrated on systematically recording the few remaining Osage ceremonies and rites, vanishing in the face of cultural and religious changes, as completely as possible. Socially, the Osage tribe was organized into 21 clans through male descent, and each clan had its own ceremonial duties and its own version of the songs and recitations related to a given ceremony. To document this huge variety of ceremonial music La Flesche had but a handful of singers, representing a limited number of clans. His field recording approach was to have a singer outline the ideal order in which the ceremony of a clan with which he was familiar would be performed, then sing as many of the songs and chants as he could remember.

La Flesche was almost obsessive in the lengths to which he would go to capture the complete version of the disappearing Osage ceremonies. He was always ready to record anyone who knew songs that were related to a ritual in any way. For example, in 1917 he recorded the old woman Wet Moccasins in Oklahoma while she performed the chant sung at the ceremonial weaving of the rush mat used to make the sacred hawk shrine for the Sacred Hawk Bundle Ritual. While recording the Tattooing Rite in May 1918, he used two machines, one alternating with the other. A recorded cylinder was replaced with a blank cylinder on one machine, while the other recorder was operating so the singer could continue without interruptions which might disturb his concentration. La Flesche also recorded mostly on dictaphone cylinders which were six inches long, rather than the standard four-inch size; this allowed his performers up to six minutes of continuous recording time.
Captions for Montage

The result of La Flesche's research on the Osage is 254 cylinder recordings, recently duplicated, and now being documented by the Cylinder Project team. The words and music for the recordings were published in four large volumes of the Bureau of American Ethnology's annual report, appearing in 1915, 1918, 1927, and 1929, under the title The Osage Tribe. In the most complete published format, a particular rite is described sequentially from beginning to end, section by section. First the ritual activities, musical transcriptions, and texts are presented in a free English translation. A second section includes the complete text in a romanized transliteration of the Osage; and a final section presents a literal translation of the Osage into English. La Flesche's Osage study -- the extensive body of written documentation combined with the recordings of the very songs described, recently made fully accessible through the efforts of the Cylinder Project team -- is very probably the most exhaustive documentation of complete Indian ceremonies ever produced.

The final goal of the Federal Cylinder Project is to facilitate the return of the music recorded on the cylinders to the cultural groups from which the songs came. That goal is very much in keeping with the spirit of cultural resurgence evident among many Native American groups today. The response of Osage tribal members, recognized performers of traditional music, was very positive when they learned that the La Flesche recordings will soon be available for them to hear. They have access to La Flesche's published reports in their tribal archive, yet they exclaimed that being able to hear the actual recordings of the ancient rites and ceremonies will be a cultural event for them comparable to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

When Francis La Flesche died in 1932, he had not completed what he felt was truly his life's work -- producing a dictionary of the Omaha language. Yet the many contributions he did make to the various cultures and academic fields within which he lived and worked stand as a lasting testimony to him.

Ronald Walcott

* The author is indebted to Margot Liberty's article "Francis La Flesche: The Osage Odessey," in Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society: Spring 1976, for many of the details of La Flesche's life.

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