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Celebrating National Native American History Month - 5 Composers & Artists to Know

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Get to Know Five Artists of Native American Heritage

Two Guns Arikara, 1974–77. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Anne Aberbach and Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona  Estate of T. C. Cannon.
From T. C. Cannon's "Two Guns Arikara" 1974–77. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Anne Aberbach and Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona Estate of T. C. Cannon

In our last post, we learned Five Ways to Celebrate National Native American History Month, and in this post, we are going to continue the celebration by elaborating on the last of those on our list, appreciate the art and music of Native American composers and artists of yesterday and today. We are going to do just that by learning the stories of individual composers and artists from the Native American community.

The five artists included in today' post are not by any means the most significant or the only Native American artists whose art is worth studying, they are simply five different artists each with a different story. We go from the orchestral composer and academic Louis Wayne Ballard to cornet player and attorney Dennison Wheelock to hymn tune writer Thomas Commuck to ballerina Maria Tallcheif, and we finish with visual artist T.C. Cannon. These artists lived in different times and had unique life experiences and all of them created art that in some way shaped by their cultural heritage and have a lasting legacy in the art community.

Louis Wayne Ballard

(July 8, 1931 - Feb. 9, 2007)

Ballard with Percussion Instruments
Ballard with Percussion Instruments

Often Native American artists find themselves oscillating between two worlds—the world of Native American arts and the world of Western arts. Composer and music educator, Louis Wayne Ballard, was best known for doing just that. Ballard's Quapaw name was Honganózhe, meaning “Grand Eagle” or “Stands With Eagles.” He combined elements of Western music along with Native American music. Ballard's earliest music education included attending Powwows with his Cherokee father and learning native songs at the piano with his Quapaw mother. Ballard's parents divorced when he was a young child, and he grew up in the care of his grandmother who sent him to an Indian Boarding School which he described as "brainwashing" and where students were not supposed to speak their languages or dance traditionally, however, Ballard never stopped practicing his culture and breaking apart stereotypes.

During an extended academic career he served as director of music and performing arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe from its founding in 1962 until 1970. In 1970, the Bureau of Indian Affairs selected him as the director of music curricula for its nationwide school system. Ballard composed many works for Western style orchestras that incorporate Native American instruments and musical material. His notable works include Katcina Dances (suite for cello and piano, 1970), Ritmo Indio (for woodwind quintet, 1969). The Maid of the Mist and the Thunderbeings (orchestral suite, 1991), and Portrait of Will Rogers (choral cantata 1972). Ritmo Indio is featured in the video below performed by members of the Minnesota Orchestra.

“The expressiveness in art and in language of the American Indian has a universality possessing the power to touch and speak to every one of us in America, and everyone in the world. It can make a magnificent contribution to the mainstream of…world literature, music, education, architecture, design. The list is endless. The possibilities are unlimited.” -Louis Wayne Ballard

Dennison Wheelock

(June 14, 1871 – March 10, 1927)

Wheelock's Bandstand, Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, PA, 1901
Wheelock's Bandstand, Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, PA, 1901

Dennison Wheelock was a well-known Oneida band conductor, composer and cornetist who went on to become an Americna Indian rights activist and attorney who argued cases on behalf of Indian nations before the United State Court of Claims and the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 28, 1900, Wheelock and his U.S. Indian Band performed at Carnegie Hall and debuted his three part symphony, Suite Aboriginal. Carnegie Hall, NYC.

Wheelock attended the Carlisle Indian School where students were instructed in music. He later went on to be the Native American bandmaster at Carlisl The Carlisle Indian School Marching Band was one of many Native American marching bands that took the Western music style of marching band and made it their own by adding in elements of their musical culture. While leadership of the school and its donors initially sought to assimilate the Native American students into Western society with music, students took the marching band music and Western instruments and integrated with their traditional art forms. Wheelock composed the Carlisle Indian School March for the school's band. The style of music that emerged was uniquely theirs. Watch the video below from Indian Country Today to learn more about Native American Marching Bands.

Thomas Commuck

(Jan. 18, 1804 – Nov. 25, 1855)

One of the Hymns from Commuck's Indian Melodies
One of the Hymns from Commuck's Indian Melodies

Thomas Commuck was a Narragansett composer and historian born in Rhode Island who lived as part of the Brotherton, WI community.He is credited as the first Native American composers to publish a musical work, his 1845 collection Indian Melodies.

The collection is of Christian religious hymns with titles inspired by the names of Indian chiefs, tribes, and places. However, none of the people or places have any relationship to the tunes named after them. Commuck did this to honor their memories, as he states in his introduction to his collection: "[t]his has been done merely as a tribute of respect to the memory of some tribes that are now nearly if not quite extinct; also a mark of courtesy to some tribes with whom the author is acquainted." Besides music, Commuck held a number of other positions including postmaster, historian, and justice of the peace. He was even nominated as a Whig party candidate for the Wisconsin House of Representatives. An ongoing project to digitize the scores and encourage performance of the music.

Tallchief in a 1955 promotion for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo
Tallchief in a 1955 promotion for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

Maria Tallchief

(January 24, 1925 – April 11, 2013)

Elizabeth Marie Tallchief was an American ballerina. She was considered America's first major prima ballerina and was the most significant American ballerina from the 1940s until the 1960s. Talcheif's Osage family name was Ki He Kah Stah Tsa. She was of Osage and Irish-Scottish descent. Tallcheif is credited with breaking down "ethnic barriers in the world of dance." She was also the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. Also, she danced as a guest performer with the American Ballet Theatre.

After graduating high school in 1942, Tallchief landed a role dancing with the famed Ballet Russe. There was much tension between her and the Russian dancers.Two years later, George Balanchine was named one of the leaders and coaches of the Ballet Russe. Tallchief was impressed by Balanchine and his choreography from the very beginning and the two later married and relocated to New York where he founded the group that became the New York City Ballet. In her autobiography she wrote, “When I saw what he had done, I was astonished. Everything seemed so simple yet perfect: An elegant ballet fell into place before my eyes. The musicality of the man was magical.” Though the two's professional collaborations were lauded; critic John Martin wrote that Balanchine “has asked her to do everything except spin on her head, and she does it with complete and incomparable brilliance.” Their marriage ended in 1952. She continued to dance with the New York City ballet until she retired in 1965.

After she retired as a performer in 1965, she became a ballet instructor and served as artistic director for the Lyric Opera Ballet. She later founded and was the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet in 1980. In 1996, Tallchief was one of only five artists to receive the Kennedy Center Honors for their artistic contributions in the United States.

Following her death, her daughter Elise said, "My mother was a ballet legend who was proud of her Osage heritage. Her dynamic presence lit up the room. I will miss her passion, commitment to her art and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did."

Tallchief danced for President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Watch her performance below.

T.C. Cannon

(Sept. 27,1946 - May 8. 1978)

Self Portrait in the Studio by T. C. Cannon (Private Collection)
Self Portrait in the Studio by T. C. Cannon (Private Collection)

Tommy Wayne "T.C." Cannon was an American artist of Caddo-Kiowa heritage. Along with fellow artists Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) and Oscar Howe (Lakota), he began a new style of Native American painting that went from a flat, two-dimensional style to a three-dimensional style. Cannon studied art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. with Scholder. While a student, he ventured into many intellectual areas and read philosophy, world literature, poetry, and art history, and he was interested in music. He completed his bachelor of arts degree at Central State University (now the University of Central Oklahoma) in Edmond in 1972. Cannon served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army 101st Air Cavalry.

Cannon's style incorporated European and American painting styles with those of Native American culture. His unique style that was influenced by painters like Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse as well as by the musical style of folk and rock singers, particularly Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie. Cannon's military experience directly affected his work. Although he earned several military medals, including two Bronze Stars, his poetry, music and drawings showed his conflicted feelings about the war. A 1975 self-portrait shows him standing, wearing part of his army uniform with his arm draped casually over the shoulders of a skeleton while an atomic bomb explodes in the background.

T. C. Cannon is known for both his canvas painting and his murals as well as his printmaking and poetry. His works are held by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, OK, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, as well as in private collections. Unfortunately, Cannon's promising career was cur short when he died in an automobile accident on May 8, 1978, near Santa Fe. In 2019, his work was featured at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

T. C. Cannon "Two Guns Arikara" 1974–77. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Anne Aberbach and Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona  Estate of T. C. Cannon
T. C. Cannon "Two Guns Arikara" 1974–77. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Anne Aberbach and Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona Estate of T. C. Cannon


Further Reading and Resources

“Ballard, Louis Wayne: The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.” 2021. Ballard, Louis Wayne | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Accessed November 22.

“Ballerina Maria Tallchief Performs for President John F. Kennedy (1962): Kennedy Center.” 2021. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Accessed November 24.

Bennett-Begaye, Jourdan. 2019. “The Music of Colonizers Becomes 'a Powerful Source of Resistance'.” Indian Country Today. Indian Country Today. August 2.

Bolen, Anne. 2021. “An Art Revolution: T.C. Cannon Shows Native Life at the Edge of America.” NMAI Magazine. Accessed November 24.

“Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.” 1970. "Suite Aboriginal," by Dennison Wheelock | Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. January 1. .

“Commuck, Thomas, 1804 - 1855.” 2021. Commuck, Thomas, 1804 - 1855 | Native Northeast Portal. Accessed November 24.

Contreras, Felix. 2009. “American Indian Composers Go Classical.” NPR. NPR. January 1.

Croegaert, Ana. 2021. “Reimagining Native North America at The Field Museum.” Home Field. Accessed November 24.

Halzack, Sarah. 2013. “Maria Tallchief, Ballet Star Who Was Inspiration for Balanchine, Dies at 88.” The Washington Post. WP Company. April 12.

Hauptman, Laurence M., and L. Gordon McLester. 2006. The Oneida Indians in the Age of Allotment, 1860-1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

“Indian Melodies by Thomas Commuck, a Narragansett Indian | Princeton Collections of the American West.” 2021. Princeton University. The Trustees of Princeton University. Accessed November 24.

KaleidoMusArt. 2021. “Louis Wayne Ballard.” Kaleidoscope MusArt. January 26.

Kiel, D. 2014. “Competing Visions of Empowerment: Oneida Progressive-Era Politics and Writing Tribal Histories.” Ethnohistory 61 (3): 419–44. doi:10.1215/00141801-2681723.

“Maria Tallchief.” 2021. A&E Networks Television. May 21.

Mills, Selena. 2019. “What Are Land Acknowledgements and Why Do They Matter?” Locallove. September 18.

Norwood, Arlisha R. 2021. “Maria Tallchief.” National Women's History Museum. Accessed November 24.

SmithsonianNMAI. 2019. “Sousa on the Rez: Native American Brass Bands and Beyond.” YouTube. YouTube. July 19.

“T.C. Cannon: At The Edge of America.” 2021. T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America | National Museum of the American Indian. Accessed November 24.

“Thomas Commuck's ‘Indian Melodies’ Brings Brothertown Indian Nation to Campus.” 2018. Thomas Commuck's "Indian Melodies" Brings Brothertown Indian Nation to Campus | Yale Group for the Study of Native America. June 19.

Thomas, Lisa Cheryl. 2021. “Native American Elements in Piano ... - UNT Digital Library.” Accessed November 24.

Watson, Mary Jo. 2021. “Cannon, Tommy Wayne: The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.” Cannon, Tommy Wayne | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Accessed November 24.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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