Stupid Question ™
Sept. 1, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of the music that is always played in movies when Indians are about to go on the warpath?
—anonymous, Columbus, Ohio
A: The origin of the familiar “warpath” theme is actual Native American music—albeit heavily distorted by white attitudes.
Sometimes identified as a “war dance” theme, the music involves a heavy drumbeat (DUM-dum-dum-dum-DUM-dum-dum-dum) and a descending melody of roughly five notes.
That beat and pentatonic melody are general characteristics of music that accompanied ritual dance across many tribes of the Great Plains and Southwest areas. Navaho and Comanche songs transcribed around 1950 sound very similar to the modern white “warpath” theme (though white tourism may have influenced that).
But there are also huge differences. The white version is a warped product that stereotypes Native Americans as menacing.
While the white “warpath” theme is orchestrated to sound militant and ominous, actual Native American music of the same structure tends to sound by turns mournful, joyous and trance-inducing—not the stuff of pep rallies. Many songs that sound like the “warpath” theme had nothing to do with war.
As Native American music expert William Powers has noted, there was no “war dance” per se; the term was invented by Wild West shows and only recently picked up by Native Americans themselves.
As the actual Wild West faded, Wild West shows featuring staged Native American attacks became extremely popular. The most famous was that established by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. His show included Oglala Lakotas from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation performing their own music, which surely popularized its basic elements.
In 1914-15, Cody folded his show into the Sells Floto Circus. The circus bandleader at the time was Karl King, one of the great marching band composers.
For Cody’s show, and almost certainly inspired by its Native American music, King wrote such pieces as “On the Warpath” and “Indian War Dance”—possibly the first white “warpath” themes. Dan Turkington, a band music collector in Washington State, told me these pieces indeed bear the familiar drumbeat and have a clear kinship with the modern “warpath” theme.
The Wild West shows were an enormous influence on silent-film Westerns, which often included the “warpath” drumbeat in their scores. In the sound era, the “warpath” theme continued as a stereotype for a Native American threat. John Ford’s Westerns are prime examples. But even the liberal, relatively Native American-friendly “Broken Arrow” (1950) used the device.
These various examples were not identical, but shared the heavy drumbeat and descending melody.
The “warpath” theme is more commonly heard today at sporting events—despite protests over its racial stereotype—where marching bands have codified its sound.
The marching band version appears to have been minted at Florida State University (FSU), which calls it “War Chant.” Patrick Dunnigan, director of FSU’s Marching Chiefs band, said “War Chant” appears to have originated among fans in the late 1980s, who chanted part of the existing FSU song “Massacre,” which indeed features that beat and melody.
“Massacre” was reportedly written in the 1960s by the late FSU band arranger Charlie Carter. Dunnigan said the theme “regrettably” owes more to Hollywood than to Native American music.