In May 1903, Natalie Curtis stepped into the Arizona heat for the first time. She was accompanied by her brother George, who’d been working in the region as a ranch hand. They came from a wealthy New York family and like many vaguely unwell Easterners, had been told to head to the dry Southwest for their health. Both recovered, and Natalie found something more: a calling.
She had brought with her a bulky Edison recorder, wax cylinders, a notepad and the hopes of recording Native American song. Thirty years before Alan Lomax set out with his father to make his famous field recordings, Curtis was capturing America’s vanishing native music.
Curtis is one of the “Ladies of the Canyons” profiled in Lesely Poling-Kempes’ new history of the American Southwest. She shares the pages with Mary Cabot Wheelwright, who is remembered for founding the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M.; Carol Stanley, who built the New Mexico ranch that Georgia O’Keeffe would later call home; and Alice Klauber, a wealthy San Diego-based painter and art patron who played an essential role in connecting Santa Fe with the New York art community. To explore what enabled these outliers to make their unconventional choices, Poling-Kempes spends time on their lives as young women as well as their unusual lives in the West.
Curtis had trained to be a classical pianist, but that dream dissipated before she could launch her career. Yet her training and musical talent were essential to what she set out to do at age 28. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs was forcing Native American children to abandon their heritage, language and culture, she won the trust of Hopi leaders and elders who sang her their songs, often connected to religious rituals.
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Curtis is at the hub of much of Poling-Kempes’ story, connecting major figures from ethnography, art, anthropology and politics. She was friends with Klauber, who had studied with and recruited Ashcan School painter Robert Henri, who helped establish an art community in New Mexico. Curtis and Stanley became friends in the West, and Stanley’s love for remote regions of New Mexico paralleled Curtis’ own.
Poling-Kempes has done an admirable job scouring archives for these women, who have been largely left out of the historical record of the West. It’s a kind of prequel to our common history of the Southwest, peopled by women with long skirts and cinched waists in the desert heat, riding cowboy style, trying to do right by the land they all loved.
Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest
By Lesley Poling-Kempes
University of Arizona Press, 384 pages