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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)