Native American Indian Poems – Translated by Frances Densmore


Frances Densmore (1867 – 1957) was an American anthropologist and ethnographer born in Red Wing, Minnesota, well known for her studies of Native American music and culture. As a child she developed an appreciation of music by listening to the nearby Dakota Indians. During the early part of the twentieth century, she worked as a music teacher with Native Americans nationwide, while also learning, recording, and transcribing their music, and documenting its use in their culture. She helped preserve their culture in a time when government policy was to encourage Native Americans to adopt Western customs.

Densmore began recording music officially for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1907. In her fifty-plus years of studying and preserving American Indian music, she collected thousands of recordings. Many of these recordings are now are held in the Library of Congress. Some of the tribes she worked with include the Chippewa, the Mandan, Hidatsa, the Sioux, the northern Pawnee of Oklahoma, the Papago of Arizona, Indians of Washington and British Columbia, Winnebago and Menominee of Wisconsin, Pueblo Indians of the southwest, the Seminoles of Florida, and even the Kuna Indians of Panama.

In her introductory comments to her collection Songs of the Chippewa, Frances Densmore described her recording techrecording-indian-songnique,

My first recording equipment was an Edison phonograph which was then the best equipment available. The next summer, it was replaced by a Columbia gramophone with four heavy springs. At that time the Indians were not generally accustomed to phonographs and few, if any, had seen the mak­ing of records. One Chippewa woman, after bearing a record of her own voice, looked at the  phonograph and exclaimed, “How did it learn that song so quick? That is a hard song.”

So, are these songs or poems? Frances Densmore addressed this question in her introduction to her 1917 book, Poems from Sioux and Chippewa Songs

Music and poetry are as closely allied in the Indian race as in our own, and the words of many Indian songs  are characterised by true poetic thought. A literal translation of these words coveys to us the poetic element, but in such a translation we lose the element of rhythm… each poem is in the rhythm of a song. In some instances the words are continuous throughout the song, and in these the poem resembles a rhythmic paraphrase of the literal translation; in others the words were so few that it became necessary to elaborate the idea in order that the words should fill the melody, adding such facts or concepts as are known to be associated with the song; while a third class of song contains no words, and in these instances the poem embodies the statements of Indians concerning the origin or use of the song.




Kenneth Rexroth on the translations

I first came across these translations in The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, chosen and edited by Charles Tomlinson. Later, I happened upon Kenneth Rexroth’s selection of her translations and his essay (including an accompanying selection of poem-songs)  first published in Perspectives USA (1956). Many of his comments are highly illuminating.

Over and above its musical interest, Miss Densmore’s work is also possibly the largest body of primitive lyric poetry in the original language and in translation in existence. As such, it is of tremendous importance to the student of literary origins, to the aesthetician or critic, and especially to the practicing poet. In spite of this her work is almost completely unknown among literary people, and only one American poet of any importance — Yvor Winters — has ever mentioned her in print or shown any sign of her work’s influence.

Since Miss Densmore always roots each song in its social context, much of the Chippewa study is also one of the best studies of a nonaggressive intratribal cult society.

It is very significant that the texts of almost all these songs are not only extremely simple, but that most of them are pure poems of sensibility resembling nothing so much as classical Japanese poetry or Mallarmé and certain other modern French and American poets, notably some of the Imagists at their best. It is possible, of course, to say that Miss Densmore greatly simplifies the poem by cutting out repetitions and nonsense vocables. But the Japanese poetry which we think of as so extremely compact on the printed page is similarly sung in extended fashion. Certainly the Indian singer does not feel that he is dulling the poignancy of the transcendental awareness of reality which he is communicating by musical elaboration, but rather the reverse. And, if the song is sung, or the record is available, it is immediately apparent that this elaboration is insistence, not diffusion.

The resemblance to Japanese poetry is indeed startling, particularly in the Chippewa songs. This is not due to the influence of Amy Lowell and other free-verse translators on Miss Densmore. On the contrary, she worked with the Chippewa many years before such Japanese translations and their imitations in modern American verse came into existence. As the years have gone by she has moved on to tribes which do not show the same kind of resemblances either in music or in lyric, for instance the Papago, and this is made sufficiently obvious in the translations. Still, certain things remain. She has analyzed exhaustively the musical constants and variants of Indian song. Each new work in an appendix sums up and compares all past collections with the one at hand.





Brief Native American Indian Poems

translated by Frances Densmore


Midé Songs

The ground trembles
As I am about to enter.
My heart fails me
As I am about to enter
The spirit lodge.


Now and then there will arise,
Out of the waters,
My Midé brothers,
The otters.


Beautiful as a star,
Hanging in the sky,
Is our Midé lodge.


What are you saying to me?
I am arrayed like the roses,
And beautiful as they.


The Sky Clears

The sky clears
When my Midé drum
For me.
The waters are smooth
When my Midé drum
For me.


(Midé: the Midéwiwin was a medicine society.)


Dream Song of the Thunders

Sometimes I,
I go about pitying
While I am carried by the wind
Across the sky.


My Love Has Departed

A loon,
I thought it was.
But it was
My love’s
Splashing oar.


Love Song

Do not weep.
I am not going to die.


Love Song

You desire vainly
That I seek you.
The reason is,
I come
To see your younger sister.


Death Song

The odor of death,
I discern the odor of death
In front of my body.


War Song

The noise of passing feet
On the prairie.
They are playing a game
As they come,
These men.


Song of the Butterfly

In the coming heat
Of the day
I stood there.




Spring Song

Spring is opening.
I can smell the different perfumes
Of the white weeds used in the dance.


Dream Song 

Beloved, it is good,
He is saying quietly,
The thunder, it is good.


Ghost Dance Song

The yellow star has noticed me.
Furthermore, it gave me
A standing yellow feather,
That yellow star.



Dream Song

In the heavens
A noise,
Like the rustling of the trees.


Love Song

I will keep on courting
Until morning.



Song of an Old Woman in the Cold

No talking, no talking.
The snow is falling.
And the wind seems to be blowing backward.



The water bug is drawing
The shadows of the evening
Toward him on the water.



The deer
Looks at a flower.





The Wikipedia page on Frances Densmore.

Songs of the Chippewa by Frances Densmore.

Poems from Sioux and Chippewa Songs by Francis Densmore (1917)

Poems and Poetics Blog – Kenneth Rexroth writes about American Indian Songs.

Poems and Poetics Blog – Frances Densmore: American Indian Songs (Part One)

Poems and Poetics Blog – Frances Densmore: American Indian Songs (Part Two)

Some of the Best Native American Poems, Proverbs and Sayings by Michael R. Burch on the HyperTexts site.


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