Dorothy Sara Lee

Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Dorothy Sara Lee Speaks During Presentation of Wax Cylinder Recordings. United States Nebraska Macy, 1983. Photograph.

African American, Archives, Folklore, Ethnomusicology

Dorothy Sara Lee


Dorothy Sara Lee was an African American folklorist, ethnomusicologist, archivist, and consummate scholar and ethnographer of Native American and Fijian musics and cultures. Born in Brooklyn, New York, as the only child of Frederick Needham and Dorothy Bond Lee, she grew up in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens. She was raised by the women in her family, after her father’s death in her youth. She graduated with a BA in Music (1972) at Wilson College, a small women’s school in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and earned her MA (1974) and her PhD (1984) in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Her dissertation, “Musical Performances and the Negotiation of Identity in Viti Levu, Fiji,” opened new perspectives in scholarship on Fijian music.   

Lee’s passion for studying Native American musics began in high school and became the cornerstone of her career.  From 1981 to 1986, Lee worked as an archivist and ethnomusicologist on projects for the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, including directing the Federal Cylinder Project, beginning in 1982. Through this project, she studied, transcribed, and rerecorded early wax cylinder recordings of Native American music onto modern media, thus preserving, cataloging, and contextualizing the collection, and worked with collections recorded collaboratively by Alice Fletcher and Frances La Flesche, among others. Enacting her belief in reciprocity and accountability, Lee facilitated the return of these recordings back to Native American communities such as the Omaha Nation, which contributed to the revitalization of their musical and cultural practices. She also built a long-term relationship with the Omahas, through which she contextualized Fletcher’s and La Flesche’s prior collaborative work through researching the rituals that generated the music that they recorded; and both documented contemporary performances of the community’s pow wow, and collaboratively built a community-based project with the Omaha Nation so that youth could learn how to conduct and archive their own cultural research. 

From1986 to 1993, Lee worked as assistant professor in Indiana University’s Folklore and Ethnomusicology Institute, teaching one course per year. She also simultaneously ran the day-to-day operations of the Archives of Traditional Music as its Associate Director. In this position, she provided professional development for archive professionals and particularly reached out to Native archivists.  

Leaving IU in 1993, Lee earned a M Div. from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in California (1996), and in 1997 was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood serving in churches in Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana, and in Colorado. Lee also volunteered as a chaplain counseling firefighters, police, and other workers at Ground Zero at New York’s St. Paul’s Church after September 11. In 2003 she accepted a position as rector of a small church in Wisconsin, where she served until her untimely death.

Among her major archival projects are several recordings and:

Native North American Music and Oral Data: A Catalogue of Sound Recordings (1979)

Federal Cylinder Project: A guide to Field Cylinder Projects in Federal Agencies, vol. 8: Early Anthologies (1984)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)