A set of wax phonograph cylinders. Photo from the Archives of Traditional Music / Indiana University

YES! Magazine: Recordings help bring Native songs to life

Tribal Elder Hears Grandfather’s Voice in Archived Songs
Researchers at Indiana University have been digitally preserving recordings of Native American songs made on fragile wax cylinders more than 100 years ago.
YES! Magazine

Alvin Schuster could scarcely believe his ears. He was hearing the voice of an ancestor whom he’d never met but whose legacy was a constant guiding presence in his life.

Schuster, 75, listened with wonder to the restored recording of his grandfather, Louis Mann—made more than 100 years ago.

And although his grandfather died before he was born, Schuster was raised hearing stories of his courage as a fighter for the rights of the Yakama people. That legacy influenced and guided Schuster’s life as a leader in local and national Native education. “It made me so happy to hear his voice; growing up, I knew him only by word of mouth,” Schuster says.

The recording was originally made in 1909 by photographer Edward Curtis. Although well-known for his photographs of Native Americans, Curtis also created several recordings of Native people on wax cylinders.

His recordings were recently restored as part of Indiana University’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, whose researchers are beginning to consider how to repatriate the sacred and controversial recordings, like those of Louis Mann.

In 2013, the university allocated $15 million, including funds from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, to digitally preserve recordings made on now fragile wax cylinders.

Curtis’ work is part of Indiana University’s extensive Archives of Traditional Music that includes 7,000 wax cylinders. According to Archive Director Alan Burdette, more than three-quarters of the cylinders held recordings of Native Americans made by Curtis, Franz Boas, who was considered the grandfather of modern anthropology, and others.

“In inheriting the wax cylinders, we inherited the colonial legacies that influenced those who collected the recordings,” he says. “We’re aware that we have recordings of sensitive, sacred things so we don’t allow general access to them.”

Schuster learned of his grandfather’s recordings this year after Yakama Nation scholar and educator Emily Washines called his attention to exhibits and shows commemorating Curtis’ 150 birthday at the Seattle Art Museum in 2018.

Recordings of Mann singing two traditional Yakama songs were included in the series. Although Schuster is gratified for the opportunity to hear his grandfather’s voice and reflect on his influential life, he expressed a note of ambivalence. “It is bittersweet,” he says. “The songs he recorded are Yakama medicine songs that some people feel are sacred and shouldn’t be shared publicly.”

Indeed, Schuster’s experience is a microcosm of colonial, settler hegemony over depictions and stories of Native American history. Schuster’s story reflects the disparity of power over who has the greatest authority over and access to Native American history, which stories and people are elevated over others, as well as deeper conceptual differences imbedded in language and culture.

In the English language, for instance, the written word dominates historical record-keeping. Most indigenous languages rely instead on oral traditions in which knowledge is transmitted over generations from speaker to listener. Moreover, Schuster’s experience reveals finer shades of ethical and moral differences between Native and European settler world view. Songs and spoken words can have great power for Indigenous peoples, their sanctity and energy can be compromised by randomly making them available to the public.

According to Ojibwe linguist and scholar Anton Treuer, culture, world view, and spirituality are embedded in indigenous languages. “In the Ojibwe language, there is no conceptual way to separate our physical and spiritual forms,” he says.

Songs and prayers in the Ojibwe language are thought of as living entities emerging from the soul. “Although we might successfully record those songs or prayers, they would be stripped of their healing power and energy,” he says.

Seattle Art Museum: Klickitat Medicine Dance Song sung by Louis Mann. Recorded May 30, 1909, on Yakima Indian Reservation, Washington

After generations of physical and cultural destruction wrought by misguided federal policies and actions, Indigenous peoples are reclaiming the much-needed healing power of their traditions to recover and survive. The restored Curtis recordings are igniting discussions among Native Americans and academics about who holds provenance over newly available history.

“It really pulled at my heartstrings when I realized that Louis Mann’s own descendants didn’t have access to his recordings,” Washines says.

Although curators at the Seattle Art Museum included Native people in planning the Edward Curtis commemoration, Washines says there remains a significant digital divide excluding Native people who may not have access to the internet or may not feel comfortable venturing into traditionally non-Native spaces such as a big city museum.

Knowing the significance of Mann’s legacy among the Yakama, she contacted researchers at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music, purchased digital copies of the songs and repatriated them to Mann’s descendants.

Self-educated and fluent in both English and the Yakama language, Mann served as an interpreter in treaty and policy negotiations between the tribe and state and federal governments. He publicly railed against business and government schemes to appropriate valuable Yakama water rights for use in large irrigation projects. Born in 1863, Mann died in 1928.

“How can we be brought into civilization by looking at our superiors who rob us as they do? Is this what you white men call civilization?” he wrote to U.S. Sen. Miles Poindexter in 1916.

Seattle Art Museum: Yakima Cleansing Song sung by Louis Mann. Recorded May 30, 1909, on Yakima Indian Reservation, Washington

In one of the few photographs of Mann, he is seen in the background among Natives dressed in regalia and headdresses. He is dressed in a suit.

This may be why Curtis overlooked Mann as a subject of his photography. Curtis is the author of the massive 20-volume collection of stunning photographs called “The North American Indian,” depicting the cultures of more than 80 tribes. He collected thousands of photographs and recordings between 1895 and 1930.

Driven by the then-commonly held belief that Native peoples and cultures were destined for extinction, he focused his attention on people who exemplified his vision of primitive cultures yet untouched by civilization. Although Curtis’ photographs are beautiful character studies of early Native people, he was known to alter reality by paying subjects to dress in regalia of other tribes, stage reenactments of ceremonies and battles and use other artifice to forward his romanticized vision.

Widely known and collected by museums, historians, anthropologists and the general public, his photographs continue to have enormous influence over mainstream America’s view and knowledge of Native peoples.

“Everyone loves the Edward Curtis Indians,” wrote noted Lakota scholar, Vine Deloria, who cautioned that Curtis’ images resembled stills from Hollywood westerns, a far cry from the realities faced by Native peoples living on reservations.

“American history is a foreign place, especially for Native peoples,” says Heather Hull, program manager for the Yakama Nation Museum.

Although the separation of church and state is foundational to public life in the U.S. and informs how historical artifacts are treated, spirituality is part of life for Yakama people, Hull says.

In the mainstream mindset, historical information and artifacts should be accessible to everybody.

“We are careful and protective of the sacred,” Hull says. “In the outside world, it seems few people are careful or have anything sacred in their lives. Our ways are difficult for them to understand.”

Careful to note that she’s only speaking for herself rather than the tribe, Hull says, “There are not a lot of clear-cut guidelines regarding treatment of the sacred; some of our members are more sensitive than others.”

Although she disagrees with many of Curtis’ methods, Hull noted that were it not for his work, Mann’s voice would have been lost forever and contemporary Yakama people would have no examples of the clothing and faces of their ancestors.

Until recently, staff at the archives have focused primarily on restoring the recordings. “Work with involving tribes has been more of a passive process as individuals and organizations contact us after hearing we have restored the collection,” IU archive director Burdette says, adding that the archives are hoping to secure funds to help ensure Native communities are involved in caring for the collection. He says tribes can contact the archives for a listing of the recordings.

In the meantime, Schuster and his family are still working through their feelings about the restored recordings.

Driving over the roads of the Yakama Nation, Schuster listens to the reedy voice of his grandfather singing the old medicine songs. “I listen to the CD when I’m alone; it’s a private thing,” he says.

“Maybe he agreed to record the songs because he believed it when they told him our ways wouldn’t survive. Maybe he was thinking of us and wanted to be sure we knew those songs,” Schuster says.

Although Schuster had never heard his grandfather’s voice, he recognized the songs. The prayer songs live on for Yakama people.

“I feel kind of mixed,” he says. “The songs have been hidden this long, maybe we should keep them private. Our family hasn’t decided yet,” he says.

Hearing his grandfather’s recording and learning more about his history, however, make him feel proud. He says, “Just hearing his voice tickles my heart.”


Mary Annette Pember is an award-winning journalist, photographer, and member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. She writes about Native issues, people, and culture for Rewire News..

Note: This article originally appeared on YES! Magazine. It is published under a Creative Commons license.

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