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Natalie Curtis Burlin

Natalie Curtis Burlin, an amateur ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, folklorist, and a descendant of the prominent Curtis and Burrill families of Providence, was born in New York City on April 26, 1876. In the early twentieth century, Burlin’s search for original American identity among Native Americans conflicted with government regulations that prohibited Native American cultural practices. Burlin appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt to lift the bans and Roosevelt granted her request and also gave her substantial privileges on Indian reservations. As a result, she studied and recorded the cultural traditions of several Indian tribes. She published Songs of Ancient America (1905)and The Indian’s Book (1907). In 1917, she married artist Paul Burlin. The couple moved to Virginia where Natalie worked at the Hampton Institute researching Native and African American culture. She published Negro Folk Songs (1919) and Songs and Tales from the Dark Continent (1920). In 1921, the Burlin’s moved to Paris and presented Natalie’s research to broader audiences. Unfortunately on October 23, 1921, Natalie Burlin was fatally wounded exiting a streetcar. During her lifetime, Burlin’s work received acclaim in America and France, however many older male anthropologists criticized her abilities and research. Today, Burlin’s work still arouses both criticism and admiration. Some accuse her of racial essentialism; others disapprove of her unempirical approach to folk music analysis. But her work in preserving Native and African American cultural forms influenced the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and increased awareness and respect for Native American cultures. Read More...

Michelle Valletta, M.A. Rhode Island College