Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education (part 3): Assimilation

This is the third of a seven part series about Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education. Many of the ideas and themes here build on past pieces of this series, so reading them is suggested (for series overview, visit this link. part one: Intro; part 2: Postcolonialism). As this piece follows up on ideas brought up in the previous two posts it’s suggested you read those first. Part three focuses on how the U.S. has used forced assimilation within a Eurocentric Music model on Indigenous populations and how that legacy has been incorporated into contemporary music ecosystems extending even in music education. This will be contrasted by looking at other concurrently emerging music ecosystems formed in communities of recent immigrants.

String Students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1890), one of hundreds of Boarding Schools in the United States used in the forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples.

“listening to the classics FORCES you to be white”

In a recent VAN Magazine piece, Zack Ferriday talks about how white-supremacists seem to love Classical Music.1 The quote in the heading above summarizes why that’s the case. The view could be easily dismissed if it weren’t for the fact that historically, the United States literally did use Classical Music as tool for forced assimilation of Native Americans2 from the mid 1800s and into the mid 1900s–and a very effective one at that. As an extension of the Civilization Fund Act3 the trauma experienced by generations, still very little documented, is slowly coming to light from the last generations that attended the schools.4

While the abductions, violent punishment, and sexual abuse were the most obvious traumas experienced at the Boarding Schools, deaths to diseases due to the close quartering of the children with few natural immunities5 to them were seen as validation of the view of Indians as an “inferior race.” This reinforced the “Kill the Indian, and save the man” trope familiar to any who understand the mission civilisatrice of Imperialist European nations towards non-European cultures.

The United States’ continuation of that mission in North America through its treatment of Native Americans and other Indigenous Peoples, African slaves, and most ethnic minority groups was just an extension of that European practice. Being a former colony itself, the U.S. understood and applied it to the Indigenous Peoples of North America and the Boarding Schools were simply a natural extension of first stage of violence of genocide and forced relocations. The U.S. hoped that Native Americans could be “trained” to become good Americans and part of that training involved learning Euro-American music.

Zitkála-Šá (1876–1938) was a Yankton Lakota Sioux activist, author, violinist, and composer.6 She was also one of tens of thousands of Native American children who were forced or coerced into attending a boarding school. After attending Josiah White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana not once, but twice7 she eventually attended Earlham College and then New England Conservatory (NEC) to study violin. It was at White’s school that she first learned to play the piano and violin.

Music education at boarding schools are familiar to those of us who have gone through this training as Classical Musicians in the U.S. Formal lessons and recitals were the norm and the music rooms of, for example, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School were “decorated with photographs and busts of famous white composers to inspire the students’ learning.”8 Zitkála-Šá would eventually teach violin and music at the Carlisle School in 1899 after her training at NEC.

The “March of Miles Standish” (1870) by George Henry Boughton. Miles Standish is the subject of one of the colonialist operas (“The Captain of Plymout”) that children at the Indian boarding schools were forced to perform at the Carlisle School.

In contrast to many types of Western Art or Pop musics, especially classical music, the traditional music of many Native Americans served purposes outside of entertainment, art, or extracurricular activity. Music is an essential part of rituals and ceremonies, many of which are a part of daily life, for them.9 Because of the significantly differing role of many Western musics as essentially a leisure activity supplanting Western music education for Indigenous music would prove to be an effective way to force assimilation.

Since the Native American children were not allowed to practice any of the cultural activities from their tribes, including speaking in tribal languages, cultural practices from White America could more easily fill the void. They were even forced to adopt “White American” names in place of their tribal names. This is the stage of Imperialism that Postcolonialists refer to as Cultural Imperialism. After the violence of war, genocide, displacement comes the “soft violence” of re-education, new cultural practices, and a new language (of the colonizer). What better way to turn colonial subjects into good citizens of the Empire and in the case of Indian Boarding schools, into good White Americans.10

Cast of The Captain of Plymouth. This is from the 1909 (March 29-31) Commencement performances.

As an example of this performative whiteness, or CosPlaying of White European Classical Music Culture we can look at the opera, The Captain of Plymouth,11 which was performed on multiple occasions at the Carlisle School commencement ceremonies. The Captain of Plymouth is set in the Plymouth Colony, specifically during the Pequot War, and is based on the Longfellow poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish.

Louellyn White12 critiques the opera and its usage of language to whitewash Indian history and their claims to land. Only two of the principal characters are Indian, and in one of the first performances of the Opera by students of the Carlisle School, the chorus included “twelve Indian Men” and “twelve Squaws.” The opera was essentially used as a way to reaffirm a White American version of an historical event–while having Native American students playing the roles of both the colonizers and the colonized.13

“It’s not the fault of classical music in the 21st century that its past can so easily be co-opted by nationalism or white supremacism. But sitting in the concert halls of Europe and America’s cosmopolitan cities in a usually very white audience listening to a usually very white orchestra, we don’t seem uncomfortable enough.”

Jack Ferriday (2018) “White Noise: Classical Music on Stormfront” VAN Magazine

While having colored bodies in an opera, or the usage of a drum kit in an orchestra (for the opera) in a school production might be disqualifying for the White-Supremacists discussed in Ferriday’s article, it’s undeniable that White Supremacy and Racism has long been a part of the field. As mentioned in the previous post (and Note 10. below), this attitude was pretty endemic in U.S. culture. We can find complaints similar to what Ferriday recounts regarding “a crisis of culture” that’s leading to “degeneracy” by the rising popularity of music by Blacks.

This can be counterpoised with the emerging Third Wave of Immigrants to the U.S. during the heyday of Indian Boarding Schools (1870-1930) and the exotification or relative isolation16 of their music ecosystems, allowing White systems of power to dominate the discourse of what music in America should be as it slowly appropriates the music of ethnic minorities to present sanitized and whitewashed versions more appealing to a White majority.

Peter Kuper’s “A Brief History of Music” from the back cover of Mad Magazine #375 perfectly illustrates the point!

Third Wave of Immigration to the United States

Initially this installment was going to also focus on the third wave of immigration14 and look at how immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe assimilated into U.S. culture and relate that to how this was happening simultaneously with the forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples. I’ve decided to expand the series15 to explore that issue, as well as the formation of hundreds of Mandolin Orchestras and Tamburitza Orchestras in the U.S. during this period that coincided with the rising Italian and Croatian immigrant populations.

Until the next installment in the series, enjoy this wonderful story by Native American Ethnobotanist and herbalist, Julie Cordero-Lamb, about her pushback against the erasure of Indigenous religions during a Symposium on UCSB Diasporic Religious Communities in the US. Keep in mind how White Culture systematically reproduces this erasure in practically all fields, including Classical Music. As I’ve been claiming, until we see classical music as simply one ethnic music tradition amongst many, we’ll never fully get beyond its dominance as a supposedly neutral and universal music ecosystem.

I put together a YouTube playlist of the only recent complete performance of Zitkála-Šá’s The Sun Dance Opera. The quality is poor but may be viewed below. EDIT: Sadly, with no identifying composer attribution in the videos, this was erroneously assumed to be Zitkála-Šá’s Sun Dance Opera but is in fact, Matthew Walton’s (2005) Sundance Opera. Apologies for the error. The playlist for Walton’s opera is linked below and below the link are excerpts from a recital with some arias from Zitkála-Šá’s Sun Dance Opera.



  1. See Ferriday (2018). A recent tweet by VAN Magazine (2020) posted the article with text that reads: “The less diverse classical music is, the more white supremacists think they own it.”
  2. Abigail Winston (2019) actually makes this case by examining the music education system, and contrasting it with the Athletics and other extracurricular programs, at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one of the first of the Boarding Schools for Indigenous Peoples.
  3. Last year was the biennial of The Civilization Act Fund, passed in 1819. The Boarding Schools lasted from 1860-1978 though the majority of the the forced schooling happened in the decades from 1870-1930. It wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978 that Native American parents had the legal right to prevent the forced placement of their children in off-reservation schools.
  4. Mary Annette Pember’s (2019) poignantly beautiful and tragic story about her mother’s experience at Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School and her journey to find historical records to show her that her mother’s stories were true giving her some resolution. Many families never saw their children again.
  5. Sometimes the selection process for children would be those that are healthy, leaving the sick on the reservations (Vecchioli et. al. 1998), which historically and to this day still have poorer medical facilities and medical funding which is in violation of several treaties with First Nations (Warne and Frizzel 2014). There is even a long term culture of morbid health “advice” passed on Reservations; sayings such as “Don’t get sick after June,” which is when Federal money runs out annually (Jalonick 2009) in many of the poorer Reservations.
  6. Emily E. Hogstad wrote a wonderfully concise biography of Zitkála-Šá at Song of the Lark (2018).
  7. Zitkála-Šá had returned home to the Yankton Reservation for three years to live with her mother but felt disconnected from the culture already and returned to White’s school.
  8. The music curriculum was overall similar to what we find in the United States at the time, and continuing to today. Orchestra, Band (usually military style in keeping with style of schooling), and Choir (see section IV of Winston 2019; pp. 109-113).
  9. There are a number of educators, researchers, and ethnomusicologists and musicologists who make this distinction especially when tackling the difficult project of integrating Indigenous Peoples’ music into the classroom and ownership rights of the music (see Boyea 1999, Heimonen and Herbert 2010, Prest 2016, Zakariah 2019).
  10. The quote following the first header above from Ferriday’s (2018) piece is “promotes a deep inner feeling when you listen to it rather than discord (as ‘rap’ does).” We’ll see this echoed in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs literature where a focus on “good music” (i.e. Classical Music) will help check the “degeneracy in our modern public music into rag time” and help against “evil songs and jazz music” (see Blair 1994, pp. 52-53). The next post will take a look at the GFWC and Women’s Music Clubs and Amateur Music Societies and their contribution to creating a White Supremacists view of Classical Music between 1890 and 1930.
  11. The Captain of Plymouth (1904) can also be contrasted with the reception and … The Sun Dance Opera (1913) libretto by Zitkála-Šá, music by Zitkála-Šá and William F. Hanson and Shanewis (1918) libretto by Tsianina Redfeather Blackstone and Nelle Richmond Eberhart; music by Charles Wakefield Cadman, both of which had Native American women involvement. A wonderful artistic tribute to Zitkála-Šá, and synopsis of The Sun Dance Opera, can be found at the website of Native American artist, Marlena Myles. It should also be noted that Shanewis was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. Cadman was one of many “Indianist” composers (see Perison 1982) that flourished during that time period, all while Native American musics were being supressed in the Boarding Schools. How these works and music of Indigenous populations are recieved in a decolonialized world is something we’re all still trying to navigate. See Nakano (2018) for a disucssion that could easily apply in contexts surrounding music of minorities–this is exactly something I’ve struggled with and have experienced in practice over the decades of performing at “ethnic festivals.”
  12. Mohawk author, Louellyn White (2016) talks specifically about the assimilation and White Power at Lincoln Institute and Carlisle Indian School which I hadn’t read until after I’d drafted this installment of my series. Given my own experience with assimilation into the American culture and the Classical Music world, I’m sometimes saddened that it had taken me this long to work out the specific implications of performative Whiteness and how the Classical Music field relies on tropes of Universality and Neutrality to maintain the predominantly White Euro-American institution. See also Bohlmann 2017.
  13. Ferriday’s (2018) piece stated that “some opera performances aren’t posted because there’s a non-white face somewhere in the chorus” so likely these performances at the Carlisle School wouldn’t have counted as being “White enough” for today’s White Supremacists.
  14. See Martin 2014 for the various waves of immigration to the United States.
  15. This will make it the third time that I’ve expanded this series. Undoubtedly I could easily write a multi-part series on any one of the individual installments. My wife tells me that I probably have several dissertations in my head ready to write!
  16. The exotification and isolation of musical ecosystems happened simultaneously to both new immigrants and Native Americans.

The featured image above are a collage of two portraits of Zitkála-Šá.


Blair, Karen J. (1994) The Torchbearers: Women and Their Amateur Arts Associations in America, 1890-1930, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, <<https://iupress.org/9780253112538/the-torchbearers/>>

Bohlmann, Rachel (2017) “Playing Indian, Playing White” Rare Books & Special Collections, University of Notre Dame, <<https://sites.nd.edu/rbsc/playing-indian-playing-white/>>

Boyea, Andrea (1999) “Native American Music and Curriculum: Controversies and Cultural Issues” Philosophy of Music Education Review, v7 n2 p105-17 Fall <<https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ633736>>

Capaldi, Gina and Q.L. Pearce (2011) “Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkála-Šá, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist” CarolRhoda Books, <<https://lernerbooks.com/shop/show/11993>>

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (nd) “Program for “The Captain of Plymouth,” 1909″ , <<http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/documents/program-captain-plymouth-1909>>

Cordero-Lamb, Julie (2020) “I want to tell you a story about an invisible elephant” Facebook, <<https://www.facebook.com/corderolamb/posts/10158223632713904>>

Ferriday, Zack (2018) “White Noise: Classical Music on Stormfront” VAN Magazine, <<https://van-us.atavist.com/white-noise>>

Heimonen, Marja and David G. Hebert (2010) “Pluralism and Minority Rights in Music Education:Implications of the Legal and Social Philosophical Dimension” Visions of Research in Music Education, Vol 15 <<http://www-usr.rider.edu/~vrme/v15n1/visions/Pluralism%20and%20Minority%20Rights%20in%20Music%20Education.Heimonen%20and%20Hebert.pdf.pdf>>

Hogstad, Emily H. (2018) “Zitkála-Šá: Musician, Author, Activist” Song of the Lark, <<https://songofthelarkblog.com/2018/03/21/zitkala-sa-musician-author-activist/>>

Jalonick, Mary Clare (2009) “American Indian health care’s victims” HeraldNet, Associated Press, <<https://www.heraldnet.com/news/american-indian-health-cares-victims/>>

Kuper, Peter (1998) “A Brief History of Music” Mad Magazine, November, No. 375 <<https://www.madcoversite.com/mad375.html>>

Martin, Philip (2014) “Trends in Migration to the U.S.” PRB, <<https://www.prb.org/us-migration-trends/>>

Myles, Marlena (nd) “Zitkála-Šá and The Sun Dance Opera” The Art of Marlena Myles, <<https://marlenamyl.es/project/zitkala-sa-the-sun-dance-opera/>>

Nakano, Teiana (2018) “(Mis)representation: The Westernization of Native American Music” Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American MusicStudent Blogs and Library Exhibit Companion, <<https://pages.stolaf.edu/americanmusic/2018/02/19/misrepresentation-the-westernization-of-native-american-music/>>

Northern Plains Reservation Aid (nd) “History and Culture: Boarding Schools” <<http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=airc_hist_boardingschools>>

Opera America (nd) “The Robin Woman: Shanewis” North American Works Directory <<https://www.operaamerica.org/applications/nawd/newworks/details.aspx?id=1052>>

Pember, Mary Annette (2019) “Death by Civilization: Thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture. My mother was one of them.” The Atlantic, <<https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/traumatic-legacy-indian-boarding-schools/584293/>>

Perison, Harry D. (1982) “The “Indian” Operas of Charles Wakefield Cadman” College Music Symposium Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 20-48 <<https://symposium.music.org/index.php/22/item/1911-the-indian-operas-of-charles-wakefield-cadman>>

Prest, Anita (2016) “Mandatory Culturally Responsive Music Education in British Columbia, Canada: Possibilities and Considerations” In Hung-Pai Chen, & Patrick Schmidt (Eds.), Proceedings of the 18th Biennial International Seminar Commission on Music Policy: Culture, Education, and Media. International Society for Music Education (pp. 383–412). Birmingham, UK: Birmingham City University, <<https://www.isme.org/sites/default/files/documents/2016%20ISME%20Commission%20on%20Music%20Policy%20Proceedings.pdf>>

Tribal Court Clearing House (nd) “Indian Child Welfare Act” <<http://www.tribal-institute.org/lists/icwa.htm>>

@vanmusicmag (2020) “The less diverse classical music is, the more white supremacists think they own it. From 2018, by Zack Ferriday:” Twitter, <<https://twitter.com/vanmusicmag/status/1269992566986100737>>

Vecchioli, D., Elizabeth Tunis, David Harding, and R. P. C. Rodgers (1998) “Indian School Hospitals Under theOffice of Indian Affairs (c.1883-c.1916)” “If you knew the conditions…” : Health Care to Native Americans <<https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/if_you_knew/ifyouknew_05.html>>

Warne, Donald MD, MPH, and Linda Bane Frizzell, PhD (2014) “American Indian Health Policy: Historical Trends and Contemporary Issues” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, Supp 3, <<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4035886/>>

White, Louellyn (2016) “White Power and the Performance of Assimilation: Lincoln Institute and Carlisle Indian School” in Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations, Eds. Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, <<https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9780803278912/>>

Winston, Abigail C. (2019) “The Role of Music in Assimilation of Students atthe Carlisle Indian Industrial School” The Gettysburg Historical Journal, Vol. 18, Iss. 1, <<https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/ghj/vol18/iss1/9/>>

Zakaria, Rachel B. (2019) “American Indian Ways of Teaching for the Music Classroom:
An Ethnographic and Action Research Approach” <<https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334331155_American_Indian_Ways_of_Teaching_for_the_Music_Classroom_An_Ethnographic_and_Action_Research_Approach>>

Zitkála-Šá (2001) Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera, ed. by P. Jane Hafen, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London


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