Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007)

Louis William Ballard (1931-2007), Quapaw name Honganózhe (meaning “Stands with Eagles”), was an Indigenous author, educator, and composer of Western art music. Ballard advocated for Indigenous American communities throughout his lengthy career, writing educational materials for school music programs and serving as director of curriculum for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As one of the first Indigenous composers to gain popular acclaim, Ballard’s work shifted paradigms about the presence and significance of Indigenous voices in the classical music canon, music education programs, and beyond.

Ballard was born in 1931 in Oklahoma to a Cherokee father and Quapaw mother. His first brush with the forced assimilation of Indigenous people and culture into the United States came upon enrolling in the Seneca Indian Training School at age six. Ballard actively strove to speak Quapaw and participate in tribal dances and ceremonies, for which he was punished by the school. Before entering high school, his parents divorced, leading him to live intermittently with his grandmother on Quapaw tribal territory and with his mother and non-Indigenous stepfather in Michigan. Moving along this cultural divide was difficult for Ballard, because while life with his mother was largely distanced from Indigenous cultural or spiritual practices, Ballard was able to actively participate in powwows and other cultural ceremonies when living with his grandmother. 

Despite the cultural dissonance that comes in living both experiences, Ballard thrived in school and quickly became a gifted pianist. He went on to study music education and theory,  graduating from the University of Tulsa with degrees in the aforementioned studies in 1954 and with a master’s degree in composition in 1962, becoming the first Indigenous person to do so. Following graduation, Ballard became music director at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA), where he directed predominantly Indigenous music and ensembles. He also composed profusely during this time, spending summers studying with French composer Darius Milhaud and writing music that combined Western art music forms and Indigenous colors and themes, including his ballet Koshare (1965), which draws material from a Hopi creation song.

After leaving his position at the IAIA in 1970, Ballard was appointed as Director of Music Curriculum Programs for the United States’ Bureau of Indian Affairs and their national system of schools (see related post on Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Carlisle Indian School). Working with over 350 schools and quickly learning about the diverse cultural backgrounds of Indigenous communities nationwide was a massive challenge. While the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 had formally allowed for Indigenous cultures to be reintroduced and taught in schools, the 35 years prior to Ballard’s appointment saw little change towards reinvigorating Indigenous voices and musical cultures in said schools, and the upholding of the law largely differed depending on where a given school was. Nonetheless, Ballard succeeded in vastly updating the curriculum for music programs across the country, involving historic and modern Indigenous materials and compositions while introducing children to the music and instruments of Indigenous communities across the country. Ballard’s publications also extended into the educational, with writings including 1970’s Oklahoma Indian Chants for the Classroom and 2004’s Native American Songs. Both of these innovative works featured not only transcriptions but lesson plans, color photographs, dance diagrams, cultural bibliography, and even CDs with supplementary recordings.

Ballard’s lifelong commitment to the celebration and prioritization of Indigenous cultures has garnered him international acclaim. His 1971 ballet Desert Trilogy was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Ballard was the first American musician to have a concert dedicated to his works at the Beethoven-Haus Chamber Music Hall in Bonn in 2000. Ballard has received numerous other accolades, including four National Indian Achievement Awards, the Distinguished Service Award from the U.S. Central Office of Education, a Lifetime Musical Achievement award by the First Americans in the Arts, and the Cherokee Medal of Honor. Ballard passed away in 2007 due to cancer, leaving behind a credo: 

“It is not enough to acknowledge that Native American Indian music is merely different from other music. What is needed in America is an awakening and reorienting of our total spiritual and cultural perspectives to embrace, understand, and learn from the Aboriginal American and what motivates his musical and artistic impulses.”

Ballard, Louis W. “Louis Ballard”, 2004.
Ballard, Louis W. “The Music of Louis W. Ballard”, concert program notes. The University of Oklahoma, Holmberg Hall, April 11, 1997.
Crappell, Courtney J. “Native American Influence in the Piano Music of Louis W. Ballard,” 2009.

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