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! MagazineLouis 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 The recording was originally made in 1909 by photographer Edward Curtis.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.
*Highlights of Native Research— Emily Washines (@EmilyWashines) June 30, 2019
Me: Have you heard your grandpa’s voice?
Yakama elder: No
Me: Here it is
* And he let me share it with you 🤗. “1909 Yakama Songs: Louis Mann as recorded by Edward S Curtis.” https://t.co/6NOn1rcHJP
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.
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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