September 26th, 2023 • Music Education
5 American Indian Composers
Drawing inspiration from the stories of their ancestors, so many American Indian composers have contributed to the world of classical music. Using their talents, they have conserved melodies passed down through generations while perpetuating the tradition of composing indigenous music. Learn more about a select few of these inspiring composers below and listen to our curated Spotify playlist!
If you want to do more research about the Native land you are on, head over to Native Land Digital. It’s an interactive website that lays out the boundaries, languages and treaties of indigenous populations on an international scale.
Dr. Louis W. Ballard | Member of the Quapaw and Cherokee Nations (July 8, 1931 – February 9, 2007)
Known as the father of Native American composition, Ballard studied music theory at Oklahoma University and Tulsa University. He was the first American Indian to receive a graduate degree in music composition. As a founding member of the Native American Composers Apprentice Project, an outreach program of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, Ballard was dedicated to the teaching of Native American young people to compose concert music. As a pivotal member within classical music, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2004.
Zitkála-Šá | Member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux (February 22, 1876 – January 26, 1938)
This Indigenous composer and musician was also a writer, editor, translator, educator and political activist. Zitkála-Šá co-composed the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance which is based on Sioux and Ute cultural themes. As the president and founder of the National Council of American Indians, she tirelessly advocated for Native American rights and representation within the U.S. government. Following her death, the National Council of American Indians was replaced with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), an organization that continues her work today. She will be an honoree on an American Women quarter in 2024, becoming the second Indigenous American woman to be honored in this way.
Dawn Avery | Descendant of the Mohawk Tribe, Turtle Clan (1961 – )
Dawn Avery is a Grammy-nominated composer, cellist and vocalist who creates scores for film and theatre productions. She currently tours with the North American Indian Cello Project which premieres contemporary classical works by Native composers. Through her work, she is an advocate of Indigenous cultural preservation and education. Avery is a full professor at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland and teaches courses in world music and American popular music.
Brent Michael Davids | Member of the Mohican and Munsee-Lenape Nations (June 4, 1959 – )
Davids is primarily known for his work as a composer and flautist, but is also a master performer of American Indian instruments and style. In addition to concert music, he has also written music for film scores. Along with Dr. Louis W. Ballard, Davids co-founded Arizona’s renowned Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP). For his performances, the composer has created his own instruments including soprano and bass quartz crystal flutes.
Joanne Shenandoah | Member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation, Iroquois Confederacy (June 23, 1957 – November 22, 2021)
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Joanne Shenandoah was a two-time-Grammy-nominated artist in the Best Native American Music Album category. Playing piano, guitar, flute and cello, Shenandoah blended traditional and contemporary styles in addition to English, Mohawk and other Iroquois languages. she received a total of 14 Native American Music Awards, more than any other Native artist.