Autry National Center

Opera Collection Spotlight: American Indian Themes in Music

Interest in American Indian themes and melodies started in the 1700s, carrying through to performing groups in the late 1800s in the circus, Wild West shows and the various World’s Fairs. In the late 1800s ethnographers, folklorists and others interested in American Indian culture began to publish on their melodies. One of the earliest publications was Alice Fletcher’s A Study of Omaha Indian Music (1893). By the beginning of the 20th century musical themes were more about the “romantic notion” of the American Indians and noble savage.

In his book Imagining Native America in Music, Michael Pisani argues that there was no such thing as an "Indianist" movement in American music, but that the borrowing by American composers of melodies from native America (beginning around 1890) was simply one part of a larger interest in the use of folk music of all ethnicities on American soil. (A similar interest can be found in the work of several classical composers of Central and South America at this time as well.)

Additional information: Indianist movement | American Indian Opera

Poia: Blackfoot Indian Legend, a Grand Opera in Three Acts

Walter McClintock (1870-1949)– recorded the legend
Arthur Nevin (1871-1943) – Music
Randolph Hartley (1870-1930) – Libretto


Poia: Blackfoot Indian Legend, a Grand Opera in Three Acts


Photograph from Berlin Royal Opera Premiere of  “Poia: Oper in Drei Akten (Opera in Three Acts)” April 23, 1910. “Act I.
An Indian camp at the base of a high range of mountains. In the distance stretch the plains. Principal singers in the picture. Sumatsi and Natoya (left) standing together in front of tipi – Herr Kirschoff and Madame Florence Eastman. Nenahu, the medicine-woman, seated in center foreground. Fräulein Ober. Poia standing in center foreground, Herr Kirschoff and chorus.”

Gift of Walter McClintock, Braun Research Library
Folio 970.692; N48p; 1910


Poia: Blackfoot Indian Legend, a Grand Opera in Three Acts


Photograph from Berlin Royal Opera Premiere of  “Poia: Oper in Drei Akten (Opera in Three Acts)” April 23, 1910. Act III:
“An Indian camp at the edge of a forest, plains in the distance. The Sun God is seen through an opening in the clouds. The principal singers are – Poia, Herr Bischoff, standing in foreground, Natoya, Madeame Florence Kaston, kneelting in front foreground, Naenahu, Fräulein Ober, as the medicine-woman, also kneeling. Also chorus – primitive weapons scattered around. The Royal Museum Völkerkunde had a fine Blackfoot collection and loaned many costumes and weapons for the occasion.”

Gift of Walter McClintock, Braun Research Library
Folio 970.692; N48p; 1910


Walter McClintock was an ethnographer and photographer of the Blackfeet Indian. McClintock was first introduced to the West in 1896. His interest was in the region continued as he returned to the Blackfeet reservation in Montana from 1898 until about 1912. He was adopted into the tribe by Mad Wolf, an influential leader. McClintock recorded his observations through photographs, sound recordings, film and notes. He became interested in the legend of Poia (Scareface) who is the son of Morning Star and the Sun God that tells of the origin of the Sun Dance

Arthur Nevin (April 27, 1871 - July 10, 1943) was an American composer, conductor, teacher and musicologist. Along with Charles Wakefield Cadman, Blair Fairchild, Charles Sanford Skilton, and Arthur Farwell, among others, he was one of the leading Indianist composers of the early twentieth century. Nevin received musical instruction from his father before enrolling in the New England Conservatory in 1889. After he completed his classes, in 1893 he traveled to Europe where he studied piano with Karl Klindworth and Ernst Jedliczka, and composition with Oits Boise and Engelbert Humperdinck. During the summer of 1903, Walter McClintock invited Nevin to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana where Nevin studied Blackfeet music and folklore. He soon became recognized as an expert on Indian culture. Walter McClintock commissioned Nevin to compose an opera in 1903. The result is Nevin’s three-act opera “Poia,” for which he is best known. The opera is based on a Blackfoot legend. Randolph Hartley who composed on the libretto.

Poia Book: MS_533_folder17

    Poia Book: MS.533 folder 17

“Poia” was first heard in concert in Pittsburgh in 1907 and received good reviews. That same year, Theodore Roosevelt invited Nevin to the White House to give an illustrated talk on his work, but further interest from the American musical establishment was not forthcoming although during this time Hartley and Nevin tried to interest the Metropolitan Opera to perform the opera. Nevin and McClintock travelled to Germany to see if they could raise interest in the opera.  Nevin studied and worked with Humperdinck during his three year stay in Germany. He re-wrote the music and “Poia” was given its stage premiere in April 23, 1910 at the Royal Opera House in Berlin, in a German translation. The opera only remained open for four performances and Kaiser Wilhelm and his wife attended the second performance. From there it fell into obscurity; a group in Great Falls, Montana performed it in 2005.

Nevin went on to compose numerous other works. He worked with Hartley on a one-act opera, initially titled “Twilight,” which was said to have been accepted for performance at the Metropolitan Opera, but never saw the stage there. It was performed as “A Daughter of the Forest in Chicago” in 1918. Nevin's other output includes a number of dramatic works, some pieces for chorus, and some chamber music, as well as four works for orchestra.



Randolph Hartley was a dramatist, librettist and theatrical agent. He wrote librettos for several operas beginning in 1895 with a romantic opera “The Juggler.” He seemed to fall quickly into obscurity and died in Montreal in 1931.
Montreal Gazette April 1931

“POEM SPEEDS HOME COMPOSER OF "POIA"; Librettist Hartley Wires Metrical Comfort to Arthur Nevin, Leaving Critical Berlin.
New York Times, May 8, 1910

Poia: Blackfoot Indian Legend, a Grand Opera in Three Acts

Scrapbook about the opera in Germany Walter McClintock Manuscript Collection, Braun Research Library, Autry National Center MS.533

Natosi (Sun God) in costume

Photograph from Berlin Royal Opera Premiere of “Poia: Oper in Drei Akten (Opera in Three Acts)” April 23, 1910.” Natosi (Sun God) in costume, Putnam Griswold. He wore a war bonnet of magnificent eagle feathers and had a beaded disc on his breast for the sun; he carried a staff with buffalo horns on top.”

Gift of Walter McClintock, Braun Research Library
Folio 970.692; N48p; 1910


Poia, tenor, Herr Kirschoff in costume

Photograph from Berlin Royal Opera Premiere of “Poia: Oper in Drei Akten (Opera in Three Acts)” April 23, 1910.” “Poia, tenor, Herr Kirschoff in costume. War bonnet of eagle feathers and decorated with ermine tails. Suit of soft-tanned deerskin, decorated with bands of colored quill work, long finge hanging down and a breastplate of deer bones. His leggings with painted war signs which were characteristic of Blackfoot war costumes.”

Gift of Walter McClintock, Braun Research Library
Folio 970.692; N48p; 1910


Poia: Blackfoot Indian Legend, a Grand Opera in Three Acts


Photograph from Berlin Royal Opera Premiere of  “Poia: Oper in Drei Akten (Opera in Three Acts)” April 23, 1910. “Act II.
Home of the Sun God. Cliffs of a rocky mountain peak. Natosi (sun God), Putnam Griswold, in center background with his court gathered round . Poia, the Prophet, standing in foreground. The Sun God wore a war bonnet of large eagle feathers with golden tips that produced the effect of a sun-burst and made the singer appear enormous stature. The Sun God rose from the stage with the rising sun; he appeared to come forth from the great disc of the sun itself – from the center of its bright rays.”

Gift of Walter McClintock, Braun Research Library
Folio 970.692; N48p; 1910


Next Page: Wax Cylinder Recordings in the Braun Research Library


Materials in the Braun Research Library, Autry Library and Museum of the American West document performances in the West, operas about the West, and the interest in and influence of peoples and cultures in the West on operatic music, particularly Native American music. The collection also includes rare wax cylinder recordings. We welcome inquiries about these and other Autry collections at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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