Natalie Curtis Burlin: A Controversial Legacy



natalie curtis burlin

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Natalie Curtis Burlin is one of the more interesting figures in the field of Native American ethnographers. She studied both Native and African American figures. While she did a great deal of work and preserved a good amount of Native and African American music, she also maintained some dated ideals on racial equality. That is what makes her work particularly controversial. She was often applauded for her work because she approached it from a different vantage point than most male ethnographers.


Curtis was born in New York City to an upper-class family in 1875. She was a pianist and composer. After a visit to the Southwest in 1900 she became fascinated with Native American music. She ended up collecting over two hundred musical works across 18 different tribes. Her work on Native Americans eventually led her to Hampton Institute where she developed the same fascination with African Americans.


Though she helped to preserve the culture and folklife of these two marginalized populations, she is rarely remembered in modern history, which is particularly interesting. Often she is dismissed for being too sentimental or unscientific. However, she is also disregarded because of her views on race. She died at the age of forty six in a car accident which also prevented her from having the opportunity to refine her research.

I am interested in how all of these details worked together to keep her out of the history books, generally speaking. Her status as a woman was crucial, but her own personally held views assisted in delegitimizing her work. Moving forward I hope to identify the most important aspects of her life that led to her relative disappearance in modern history. There are very few sources written solely about Natalie Curtis, so I will have to look through general histories to find mention of her. This work on Natalie Curtis will help me to establish some methodology as to how to research female ethnomusicologists for my Honors Thesis. Researching figures like Natalie Curtis is my ultimate goal for my senior project!


Patterson, Michelle Wick. Natalie Curtis Burlin a Life in Native and African American Music /

            Michelle Wick Patterson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.


  1. Maddie Hamborg says:

    You mention that “she is also disregarded because of her views on race.” It would be interesting to find out where she learned her views on race/who her mentors were.

  2. Sarah Rodriguez says:

    Hi! Very interesting story. You mentioned that her work was delegitimized because it was viewed as too informal for recognized research. As someone who is doing oral history research this summer, I can relate to that sentiment because for a long time oral history was disregarded as informal historical research because it was not viewed as scientific enough to put legitimate clout in, but it is good to see these less codified modes of historical research being given value, especially for what they can reveal about human experience, particularly of marginalized groups, across time. I am interested though in how her status as an upper class white woman might influence her research, and what kind of research did she do besides simply collecting music, or is that what she did for the most part? Best of luck as you continue looking into this important figure!