How can recordings of indigenous languages be made accessible to the communities they represent? In this episode of Material Memory, we talk to experts about the ethical considerations and complexities of providing broad access to recordings that may be culturally sensitive—sacred sounds, songs and language—and why it’s important to reconnect people to their own content. One lesson? The story doesn’t end once something is digitized.
Joy Banks: Hello and welcome. I’m Joy Banks and I’ll be your host on this first season of CLIR’s new podcast, Material Memory. For those of you unfamiliar with CLIR, we are an independent nonprofit organization that for the last 65 years or so has helped to support the work of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations through things like programs, promotion, and publications. On this season, we’re celebrating the U.N.-declared International Year of Indigenous Languages. In each of our six episodes, we’ll be speaking with people involved in the work of restoring audio and audiovisual recordings of indigenous languages and their sometimes Herculean efforts to make these recordings accessible to the communities they represent. In this episode, I’ll be sharing pieces of several conversations I had on the complexities of providing broad access to recordings containing material that may be culturally sensitive. You’ll be hearing from a few speakers on this episode.
Chris Aplin: Chris Aplin, I’m an independent scholar and archival consultant with the Fort Sill Apache tribe with their digital sound archives.
Lylliam Posadas: My name is Lylliam Posadas and I am the I’m the repatriation and community research manager for the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
Josh Garrett Davis: My name is Josh Garrett Davis. I’m an associate curator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
Joy Banks: Most of today’s episode will be filled with the conversation I had with Chris. We’ll hear more from both Lylliam and Josh on a later episode in the season when they’ll talk more about their digitization project with some other colleagues from the Autry Museum. For the last 20 years or so Chris has been working with the Fort Sill Apache tribe in Oklahoma to inventory, digitize, and describe their archival materials. I just wanted to start a little bit by describing having you describe for us a little bit about the work that you’ve done with languages—indigenous languages. What’s your background?
Chris Aplin: I’m an ethnomusicologist so I actually start musically is where I begin. I’ve been working with the Fort Sill Apache tribe for a period of about 20 years and we’ve built a relationship across that time dealing with ethnomusicology, music, how music is put together, and the way that music carries history. Over time I’ve kind of become well versed in the general historical documentation of the tribe. I’ve done research at the National Archives, Library of Congress, regional archives like Oklahoma Historical Society and Museum of the Great Plains. So there is a musical aspect to it. There’s an anthropological aspect too, because I’ve been doing a lot of research on Morris Opler, who wrote the book on Apache and ethnography and a subset of that would be Harry Hoijer’s work, which was linguistic you know. So I’ve kind of worked my way through the literature surrounding this particular tribe, this particular history, and after 20 years I was able to begin a inventory of their audio collections, which at first I thought were mostly going to be cassettes and reels but I soon discovered they actually had a number of fragile discs—instantaneous discs—and so it’s really been kind of a project of discovery that began with music but also spread it out to include history, anthropology, and language too.
Joy Banks: It seems to me like working on a project like this comes with a lot of different complications; it’s not just even the material formats but some of the subject materials that might be encountered with any sort of tribal recordings. Did you find that to be true?
Chris Aplin: Yes. There are a lot of issues in terms of privacy, in terms of fears of appropriation and misuse of material, or another way to think about it is transgressions or desecration of sacred sounds, sacred songs, sacred language, and things like that.
Joy Banks: You might find yourself wondering, how is it that institutions assure appropriate access to materials, especially when dealing with a variety of cultural or ethical restrictions. In Lylliam’s position at the Autry Museum, her entire job is centered around the process of repatriation of items and I imagine that term may be new to some of our listeners. In the field of libraries, archives, and museums, repatriation is really about the thoughtful and careful return of objects and other items in collections that may be tied to communities and people groups. In some cases, these items may have been acquired through less than desirable means by either individuals or perhaps by institutions. So Lylliam shares a little about the work they are doing to assure that access is achieved in a respectful manner.
Lylliam Posadas: We, because we had already been working together in addressing questions about not just repatriation but also questions about access, like how do we ensure that tribes are involved in the decisions that are made about how their things are used, how they’re accessed, how they’re researched, how they’re cared for, and recognizing that these are their things. They may be in the control of the Autry, may be in the possession of the Autry, but this is content that’s coming from the tribes, and for a long time people have been separated from these things. And so in our efforts to do something like digitize these recordings, it’s just taking those very first steps to reconnecting people to those, the content in those recordings and allowing people to decide what they want to do with them.
Joy Banks: A lot of this work is dependent on relationships filled with trust. Chris shares a bit more about forming relationships with and among tribes.
Chris Aplin: Yeah I’d say working with any native tribe you have to establish a good relationship. I would say that it’s a very long-term game. Building trust is a matter of time.
There’s a lot of advice and consent, I think, that goes that’s interwoven in a project like ours. So far with our own digitization project, we’ve gone through a process of inventory, of grant writing, of digitization, and now we’re in a process of processing cataloging and trying to determine contents that are acceptable for possible public access. I think that we’ve really knocked out some very important work. I think that we have had a lot of fun doing it, and also been really set on fire by the contents of the collections that we’re dealing with, you know, and it takes a lot of time for people to understand that, I guess. Even yesterday I was trying to deal with some administrative notes for the tribe and it kind of struck me how at one point they were like, they looked at me and they were like, how much work still needs to be done on this? And the truth is any librarian archivist knows I mean it’s, there’s a lot of work that goes into the cataloging of it and particularly noting the hesitations that people in the community have about sharing it outside the tribe. You know, it really is a very detailed process that’s going to take a considerable amount of time to do correctly. We dealt with—I’m trying to remember how many we—I think we had 373 hours of recordings, which is not the biggest in the world but it really is hard to walk through people who aren’t part of that archival/academic/scholarly world with the details of what it means to maintain a collection like this.
Joy Banks: Beyond description of newly digitized items, those working with these materials often also have to address issues with older or legacy descriptions that may be inaccurate or just plain wrong. Josh talks about how he has encountered this in some of his research work.
Josh Garrett Davis: It is an ongoing conversation in terms of thinking how to document when we realize that whoever created the metadata was wrong or potentially that they—that it’s something that shouldn’t have been shared in a kind of semi-public archival sense. It took 100 years to create a lot of these archives and probably take 100 years to get through all of it in a sense because it just kind of comes up as these interactions happen. We don’t even know how something ended up here or we may it may be listed as from the wrong tribe or it may… So it’ll take us a lot of time probably to figure out some of those cases but in any case, the community is really the only source where we can find information. Otherwise it’s just sort of sitting in limbo here, where we kind of aren’t sure what we have and aren’t sure what’s the right thing to do with it.
Joy Banks: Lylliam shared a little about how digitization is really only the first step in finding out what they have.
Lylliam Posadas: But the thing is we don’t actually know fully what’s in the collection until we start having those conversations with the tribal representatives. We may know that something sounds like a song, but we don’t really know what it is, or the value of that song, or the cultural importance and meaning of that song and how it needs to be cared for—who should be listening or not listening to it. And once we have those conversations then we’ll have a better grasp of how to restrict them or how to make them available. And that could mean that a culturally sensitive song, for example, may be restricted to researchers and may only be available to tribes—to the tribal community that is connected to that song. It may also mean that the tribe may request that we only make it available to very specific individuals in the tribe, or it may mean that even though it’s a culturally sensitive or a sacred song that the tribe may be completely comfortable with it being available to the general public so it really really depends. And so when we as we create this infrastructure to move us forward—because we’re hoping to continue to do this this kind of work with a variety of different materials—having that flexibility built into the infrastructure to allow us to meet a variety of different needs is really critical and, for me, I don’t think of it so much as establishing a kind of best practice, but more about asking the right questions or learning to know … trying to to understand what are the right questions to ask that can lead us to making the right choices.
Joy Banks: Chris describes how access can allow rediscovery of material that may have been passed between community members for generations.
Chris Aplin: For the community, too, they are just discovering these materials again. It’s interesting because going through these recordings there are actually a lot of previously migrated recordings so they’ve made the rounds in the community for a number of decades; not all of them but there are some materials, you know, that you find in different collections and people have been sharing this. You know it’s kind of an intimate gift giving you know that people do to share history. But you know you’re just kind of picking through all the different layers of this. But beyond that, the tribe has not had access to this full breadth of material, and they’re not quite sure how to use it. And since we’ve started going through the process, as I’ve said my interest is in music. I want to set music as priority number one. When I asked the tribe what they want, they want to prioritize language, oral histories, then music. I think that’s probably fairly common, especially for a lot of tribes that are dealing with endangered languages. And I think that even in the sphere of music, I think that regaining some sort of knowledge about the language is one of the key things that that music can provide for communities.
Joy Banks: Yeah, because I think even just in general language as we all learn to speak, music is often used as a tool for reinforcement and education.
Chris Aplin: Yeah, I think it’s the sweetest pill for people to try to begin re-acquiring language. And when I deal with—I’ve given lectures at Comanche Nation College, Riverside Indian School, and a lot of times, and at the tribe, and typically people are lit up by the music itself. You know there is just something celebratory and joyous about it. So we do prioritize some of that music for translation and possible inclusion in a song book. But they are also of a particular type: they tend to be more social, or Christian hymns, or songs that are, you know, deemed more appropriate for circulation in the community and with strategic contacts outside the community too.
Joy Banks: I would guess music is woven a lot through very personal cultural ceremonial and religious aspects of different tribes, so you really have to be aware of that as you’re looking at these things.
Chris Aplin: You do have to be very aware of the sacred in terms of the music. Sacred also spreads for some tribes; some tribes will extend it to other things. You know there may be certain forms of speech and some people even argue language might be sacred. But for the most part, in terms of what I’m dealing with it tends to be sacred musics. They carry prayers. They’re really only supposed be handled by skilled practitioners—you know, people who are trained in their use. And so you do have to be very aware of that. And I consider it, I consider it a primary responsibility to try to identify as best as possible and to protect those types of materials.
Joy Banks: Lylliam reflected a bit on creating a flexible and respectful infrastructure for description as well as their own hopeful use of the traditional knowledge or T.K. labels.
Lylliam Posadas: Well, when we started working on this particular project, we had this background sort of established and so we just drove into questions about how do we— knowing that we need to involve tribes and knowing that we need to ask questions about access and research restrictions or care and stewardship—how do we create a system and an infrastructure that allows us to work with tribes in a manner that’s effective and productive and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of different needs and interests, because we may be working with tribes from all over the country. And in order to—and it’s so important to have that infrastructure in place so that if there are staff changes, or if there’s funding changes, or there’s … we have a structure that someone can come in and follow and the work isn’t lost. And then the data is captured somewhere: like we also don’t want to waste anyone’s time. When we’re working with a tribal representative or community member and they’re sharing stories about a song or something that’s captured in a recording, that information—if we have permission to keep record of that—needs to be respectfully stored and not lost in a way that then you know 5, 10, 20 years from now someone in … a new staff person is revisiting this recording and then needing to again request information from the tribe when they’ve already provided it. So we don’t want to overburden anyone, and we want to be responsible in how we gather information, enrich what we know about what’s in our collections, and ensure that we are we’re not moving backwards and doing the same things over and over again.
Lylliam Posadas: The other thing I’m really excited about is that we are going to start using traditional knowledge labels in our database and in how we share these recordings. So that’s going to be great, testing that out, and it’s also spurred conversations about how we not only think about how these songs are shared with the public or not shared with the public but how staff internally interact with these with these recordings and how staff are interacting with these recordings through the database, and how even having these traditional knowledge labels visible to staff is an important education tool. It’s also an important means to which staff can make an active choice to view a record or to not view a record if they’re confronted with a label that says this is culturally sensitive or this song should only be listened to in the winter and these sorts of things.
Joy Banks: Chris picks up with handling the complexities of rights when donors make special requests.
Chris Aplin: One of the people who donated their materials at one point said that once we receive the digitized materials that individual was clear—clearly stated that they wanted me to put everything under copyright in her name. And my response was that you can’t copyright those kinds of materials, and even if you do those terms run out. And so what I was largely resting on was that this is for an educational project for use within the community, and that we’re having a lot of determinations and deliberations on appropriate access and use of those materials.
Joy Banks: It seems as though a lot of people are having this discussion, especially as it relates to cultural heritage materials. And I would be interested to see how the conversation progresses because I think you’re right that there’s not an answer right now. But you know you apply these labels, you apply restrictions, but what is the enforcement and then what does that mean for the future?
Chris Aplin: Right. Right. So I you know I’m open to them and understanding them and it’s a … again, you know protecting these materials I consider to be the most important thing that I can do trying to usher this project through. And so we prioritize it a certain way. It makes it a lot easier actually having music as a third priority, because then those sacred songs are protected. So really what we’re focusing on are oral histories and on languages. The language to me seems the most non-controversial. You can take this language you can chop them up into bits. I think the truth is the tribe should have a first right of review and access.
Chris Aplin: And they are having this as we’re going through the process of trying to learn what’s in the tapes and figure out how to use them. They are getting a sense of that. I would also say, though, that they’re … that even when meeting last time there was still some hesitation about the wrong people getting their hands on some of this knowledge. I do feel like it starts in the community. Once the community has it, perhaps we create a, you know, we help revise and edit their language book, we provide digital copies or even CDs—it’s still common in the community, you know—to the tribe. They are able to have access to their language again which they actually have not since the early 80s. And so they can, so they can access that that language and they can sort of internalize it for themselves.
Joy Banks: Josh shared a firsthand encounter illustrating why this access is so important.
Josh Garrett Davis: Actually just yesterday—this isn’t related exactly to sound recording but it is—I was meeting with some native community members about another project, and they had been part of a cultural revitalization in the past 25 or 30 years of some various parts of cultural practice, and this guy who was in his 60s say was saying, “You know I had to kind of go to anthropologists and archaeologists and museums to learn all this stuff, and I want my grandkids to be able to put in a disc and hear it from me.”
Joy Banks: Once access to language is restored, Chris shares how partnerships start to form.
Chris Aplin: At that point, it would be a natural space to start cooperating and collaborating with other communities who have a similar language. I’m not a linguist. It’s hard for me to get a sense of how distant these different groups are. I’m working with Fort Sill Apaches, or Mescalero Apaches, San Carlos Apaches, different types of Western Apaches, and the Navajo is related to Jicarilla and Kiowa-Apache you know, and it’s just trying to figure out, after we get it in the tribe, we get it cut up so that they have audio support for the linguistic text, which I think is hugely important. And you can use these recordings to do that kind of work. But once the community has had that, they’ve been able to digest it within the community, it’s trying to get those out and get those materials out and partnerships in a strategic and intelligent way. So, again, a long-term process.
Joy Banks: One of the questions I’ve sort of been asking is: Why? Why bother? What’s the point of all of this work? What’s the point of establishing these relationships? What’s the point of working to migrate and sometimes re-migrate these audio materials?
Why are we doing this?
Chris Aplin: Well because there’s a deep undercurrent of history that’s been overlooked. But the truth is, if you change your frame of reference just a little bit off this, you know, there’s been operating in history, “the great men,” “the great leaders” right? Since, you know, the mid-19th century people have been in a pursuit of the great changers in our society. But if you take the camera focus just a little bit off that and start looking at another subject that you can … another individual that you can really start putting together biographical data on, start understanding them in terms of language, start understanding them as, instead of the common thing, which is as warriors or as victims—and that’s a characterization used by Philip Deloria, which I think is a good characterization for the way that they talk about it in the Apache historiography. But if you can move the focus from warriors and victims to, for example, musicians and artists, youths, you get a totally different take on it. And it opens up a whole different world, and eventually you look at those great men and you’re like, “Wait is that the right great man to focus on?” because there are actually—if you go into any Apache community—there are other great men, and I would say actually given their times, they can be really riveting subjects for understanding what was going on back then.
Joy Banks: The appearance of true humanity and historical recordings also has a significant impact on Josh and his research and collections.
Josh Garrett Davis: In one of our collections, the Southwest museum’s founder, Charles Lummis, went with his phonograph recorder out to the Sherman Indian School or Sherman Institute, which is out in Riverside, California, about 60 miles east of here, and he recorded something like 60 recordings of students singing, and in one of those a group of three boys were singing and they kind of laughed. There’s a little laugh in the middle of the song, so I don’t know if one of them made a mistake, or if they were looking at each other or something like that. But there’s this sort of moment where their youth and their humanity kind of really comes through in its way, and so you can kind of forget about for a moment maybe Lummis’s perspective that he’s kind of thinks he’s documenting traditions that are dying out in his view, right? That that’s the kind of constant thing with anthropology, especially in the early 20th century, as if they are trying to salvage scraps of these cultures before they’re … before they vanish. But you kind of, if you’re sort of thinking about the context of these young teenager students and they’re singing with their friends and they’re, they kind of laugh in the middle there is this this moment of—that Lummis’s perspective and how he may have been wrong about the fact that more of these traditions are dying out. You kind of forget that and you’re just thinking about these adolescents kind of singing. It’s really clear that their human experience comes through.
Joy Banks: The theme of disappearing people came up in many conversations. Lylliam shares her response when she encounters this mindset even today.
Lylliam Posadas: That’s actually a question I’ve been asked a few times, and I’ve been in situations with other materials in the collection—other objects where I’ve had to request that maybe a researcher or a scholar who is interested in using a collection item—I’ve asked that they seek permission from the tribe or to show some kind of proof of engagement and consent from the tribe that they are working together or that they can access this item and write about it and do something with it and research it and in some cases have gotten replies that, for example, say something like, “Well no one is connected to these objects anymore.” You know, “All of these people are gone now,” or “All of these people have since migrated to Canada or Mexico,” and those, they don’t have a tribal government that’s structured in a way that the researcher can ask permission of a particular individual so it’s … and really that’s nonsense. I hate to be frank, it is. When I talked to you know to the people I work with, tribal representatives I work with, there’s always a connection. There’s always a connection somewhere. And oftentimes that means educating that researcher and saying that, you know, people don’t go extinct. People are still here. And those those ties are still very much alive. And sometimes it’s not hard to find that information out. But if you already are coming from a place of thinking that you know a culture has disappeared or people have disappeared, then you’re not going to look for for those connections.
Joy Banks: Chris picks back up with his own personal connection to these materials.
Chris Aplin: I’m a musician. The music’s great. I love the music. I mean, I grew up playing in bands and orchestras, mariachis, Indonesian gamelans, but for the past 15 years now I’ve really mostly listened to Apache tunes. I like them. They’re good tunes—they’re catchy, they’re hooky, but they’re also vehicles for language and for understanding some parts of their history. It’s also good for understanding the way people celebrate their joy, their families, which is a different way to write Native American histories because it’s not all about violence and, you know, clashes of civilizations. So, you know, you learn a lot more there, and then the linguistic piece I think is kind of interesting, you know, because there might have been a certain point where I’m like, “oh, sky is falling proclamations,” you know, which are kind of common. You know these recordings will not last. They’ll disappear. These languages, they will disappear. You know, why why should we care? I mean to me, tied to the language—sorry, tied to the history—language just becomes more meaningful, because at this point I am invested in the community. I know those histories. I know those families. I know the joy. And I’ve also heard the language and the distinctiveness of it.
And actually, there was a common sort of thing that I use to sort of, you know, explain what I think is so beautiful about Southwest Oklahoma, where the Fort Sill Apaches are from is there was an anthropologist, M. R. Harrington (Mark Raymond Harrington), who was doing field research there—in 1911-1912, somewhere between 1909 and 1912 is what I’d say—and he was in what they call a fire dance, which is a masked ceremonial common for poor Apaches. And he was describing the social scene at one of these dances, which were performed by Apache prisoners of war. The whole community were prisoners of war. And he was describing the scene and basically to sort of paraphrase it he says, “There among the sheeted visitors,” which is to say is the Southern Plains context. That’s a very different type of Indian than other types of Indians, those Eastern Woodlands, those civilized tribes. They’re among the sheeted visitors as blanket Indians. You could hear the singsong, drawling tones of the Kiowa, which is I think a very good descriptor of that Kiowa language. Then the matter-of-fact sounds of the Comanche language, and the Apache language, which is one of the most difficult phonetics that my ear has ever heard. It’s something along those lines; it’s been a while since I’ve referred to that quote. But when I think about it, the way that that language speaks so clearly about those different groups—and it’s not just linguistic, but it’s political, it’s historical, it’s cultural. But it’s also describing a cosmopolitan world which I think most people don’t think about in terms of Indian histories.
Joy Banks: Yeah. Well, so much of this culture was captured in an oral tradition. I know many of these languages didn’t have written versions until even into the 20th century. So Western culture sort of struggles with that a little I think.
Chris Aplin: Yeah.
Joy Banks: Another theme when talking about Indigenous language was adoption of technology. Josh describes some misconceptions about North American tribes.
Josh Garrett Davis: I think it’s sort of astonishingly widespread how many people think that Native people aren’t here anymore and that there’s a sort of popular conception that Indigenous people are fundamentally opposed to technology and one of the things that I hope that this project does is to say, no, that these Indigenous people have been for a long time very willing to appropriate non-native technologies of various kinds, and indigenize them and use them for their own ends.
Joy Banks: I asked Chris if he had encountered similar misperceptions about a native aversion to technology when, in a lot of ways, some of these tribes and communities seem to be embracing technology to help them make these recordings.
Chris Aplin: Yeah, I guess that’s true and they seem to emphasize what they value too, which—music is a key component of that. At the beginning they probably had very short song selections, as far as my information shows possibly as far back as the cylinder. So maybe they did like small little three- to five-minute recordings on cylinder; over time on disc they might be able to do five to 10 maybe 12 if it’s instantaneous. My numbers are a little hazy there but like when you get into reel-to-reel, though, people kind of get into longer full, live performances; they start telling much longer histories or giving us much longer sections of, you know, Apache language recordings where they are relaying life experiences and things of that sort. So yeah, they knew how to use those technologies. And music, to me—recording— is a very traditional space, I feel like, for native people to pass on heritage through the oral tradition.
Joy Banks: Do you think—and this is like purely speculative—that as ancestors were making these recordings, I mean clearly they valued saving these, but do you think that there was some concern that these would be lost? That they were seeing changes in a younger generation that were maybe not as interested in the oral traditions and languages of their tribe?
Chris Aplin: Yeah I think there’s some of that. You know, older generations did see change. There was a lot of talk about the disappearance of native people, of native cultures, native history; there was a lot of prioritizing of learning English in order to be able to compete, survive. There is kind of an interesting thing though, too, because I think that it’s not uncommon—it was not uncommon—for children and youth to tell their parents, “Hey I think this is actually important. Can we sit down and record?” I don’t think that that was uncommon, you know, which is another interesting thing to think about you know, the importance of youth and saying, “This is a value we should hold onto it.” You know and there are some, a lot of things didn’t make it here but the people that I work with have been often doing this since they were late teens, maybe early 20s, or something like that. The recordings I listen to: that’s not uncommon either. And people were really interested and they actively discuss. Yes, a sense of loss but an importance on documenting it.
Joy Banks: Are you seeing that still today?
Chris Aplin: Am I seeing that still today? Yeah, I think so. I mean, like I said, I’ve given lectures, you know, at Indian and Indian schools, university tribe, university presentations, and people come up and shake my hand after because getting access to that kind of intellectual heritage, that is a very real thing, or getting access to those musical sounds or those historical meanings. When people encounter it they’re lit up by it. And you can have good long conversations like the one we’re having today. I mean, seriously, I spent three days with the tribe this month and three days with the tribe in April, and we mostly sit around and talk hard culture or listen to music and work through materials. I don’t eat a lot during those sessions. They’re very good. You know I think people are lit up by it. You know being able to make these things available to communities matters.
Joy Banks: Community engagement is truly the key to these projects. As part of Lylliam’s job at the Autry Museum, she handles the institution’s compliance with the US’s NAGPRA laws. That’s N A G P R A. I asked Lylliam to explain this.
Lylliam Posadas: Yes of course. NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and it was passed in 1990. It’s a federal law, and any institution that receives federal funding is required to comply with NAGPRA. And so what NAGPRA really is it establishes a process for repatriation. So items that are considered sacred or ceremonial—and there’s specific definitions within NAGPRA for what those things are—or ancestral human remains, burial associated objects, funerary items—those are all things that are eligible for repatriation to the culturally affiliated tribe under NAGPRA. And we are also exploring really creative options for how we share ownership of materials like this. And, although legally under NAGPRA, we might not be able to repatriate some of these songs, there are still ways that we can partner with tribes to own them or there may be ways that we can still return things and maybe even transfer ownership completely outside of NAGPRA. And if we find items that can meet the legal definition for repatriation under NAGPRA then we will pursue that.
Joy Banks: Lylliam goes on to explain how a number of questions have to be asked during the repatriation efforts.
Lylliam Posadas: Repatriation questions are … get broader and broader where it’s not just about, you know, is something sacred or ceremonial (yes or no), is it eligible for repatriation under NAGPRA (yes or no). How do we move forward? There’s also questions about how can we get digital copies of the archival materials related to these objects? How do we, how can people be involved in the process of granting or denying access to researchers? How can people be involved in the conservation efforts surrounding restoration projects, or repairs, or pesticide analysis and detection? And are there different things that tribes would want us to do and how can we accommodate that? I think that when we engage in consultation efforts—and consultation is so important—tribes need to come to the institution to view collections, or …. But we also have to consider as we invite people to these spaces: are we inviting them to spaces that are welcoming? Are we inviting them to spaces that are supportive? Or are we inviting them to spaces where we can just ask more questions and check some boxes and repatriate some things, but then it’s just this horrific experience for everyone, which is not what we want. And so it also, it means that we all have to, in our own worlds and our own departments, think about the spaces that we are creating to welcome and accommodate and build relationships with a variety of different people.
Joy Banks: As institutions continue this work, establishing trust will be essential.
Chris shares a little about what he’s learned in the last 20 years moving forward on a project of preservation.
Chris Aplin: OK, first you have to get the tribe on board in compiling their information and doing an inventory. The long-term preservation plan’s a little bit the next big trick. So, if you can get the tribe coordinated, get it digitized, that’s one thing, but it it’s really hard, I think, for people to give up the keys to an archivist at a local university for example.
Joy Banks: Chris went on to share about work that happened to build a relationship with an external service provider that had expressed interest in working with the tribe’s archives but then had closed down before the project got off the ground. Chris goes on to say how stability is important for preservation but often very challenging to achieve.
Chris Aplin: But the truth is, for those digital dark archives—again going back to the word sovereignty—that you know it’s like that would’ve been a third … an outside third party kind of vendor. They could have maintained materials; you would have known there would have been an existing copy, and you could have assured that preservation while you had a good window for advice and consent regarding overall collections; you really kind of need that window. But I do still wonder if there is a logical sort of digital sovereignty based route for tribes doing that kind of work.
Joy Banks: With all of these considerations. It’s clear to many people working with collections that digitization is really just one step in the right direction. Lylliam offered some great insight for this and finishes out our conversation.
Joy Banks: So many people have an impression that you digitize something and that’s the end and everybody has access forever. And we all know that’s not the case at all. And, in particular, when dealing with languages from different cultures, there is an entirely other level of consideration that has to take place. That it’s not just simple; nothing is simple.
Lylliam Posadas: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Which I hope means that people then understand that there are so many other steps that need support like financial and otherwise that like you’re saying it doesn’t end with just digitizing something and then it’s available and then the project is over you can tie it all up neatly but there’s a lot of these things cost money and staff time and lots of other stuff. Yeah I mean I’m excited for what what will become of this. I think there’s a there’s … I meet people more in the last couple of years that have been really interested in these sort of, you know, ethical questions about museums—like people in the general public—and I think that, you know, we don’t necessarily make those conversations accessible to the general public. There are conversations that happen in conferences amongst professionals but things like this—like a podcast that people can access—I think would I hope it would be very successful.
Joy Banks: We hope so, too.
Joy Banks: Thanks for listening to our episode. We hope that you’ll join us on Episode Two when we’ll talk to staff at the Amistad Research Center who are working to digitize the audio field recordings of African-American academic and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, and stick around for the full season of Material Memory. More information on today’s episode including information on our guests and links to their projects can be found online at material dash memory dot clir dot org. And if you like our podcast, we hope you’ll rate, review, and subscribe.
CLIR is an independent nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. Learn more about us at c l i r dot org.
To learn more about preservation efforts happening in your area and ways you can contribute, visit your local library, archive, museum, or historical society.
Material Memory is produced by CLIR, with the assistance of Ernesto Gluecksmann, Christa Williford, Kathlin Smith, and Lizzi Albert. Our audio engineer is Benjamin Green. Our theme music is by Poddington Bear.
I’m Joy and I’ll see you next time on Material Memory.
Behind The Mic
Joy Banks is program officer for CLIR’s grant team. She helps manage communications, outreach, and assessment activities for the Recordings at Risk, Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, and Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives programs. She is the author of The Foundations of Discovery: A Report on the Assessment of the Impacts of the Cataloging Hidden Collections Program, 2008-2019, published in 2019.
T. Christopher Aplin (UCLA) is a recorded sound collection consultant who helps build sustainable digital collections that reinforce tribal community library, language, and history programs. He is currently working with the Fort Sill Apache Tribe to earn grant funding and secure long-term preservation for oral histories, language, and songs recorded on analog instantaneous discs (“records”), reel-to-reels, and cassettes for future generations. A 20-year colleague and friend of the Fort Sill Apache community, he is also writing a book about the music of the Apache prisoners of war taken with Geronimo in 1886.
Josh Garrett-Davis is the Gamble Associate Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. He is also a PhD candidate in U.S. history at Princeton University, researching Native American engagements with sound technology in the early 20th century. His article “The Intertribal Drum of Radio: The Indians for Indians Hour and Native American Media, 1941-1951” appeared in Western Historical Quarterly in 2018. He is the author of two books about the American West.
Lylliam Posadas is the repatriation and community research manager at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. She joined the Autry in 2016 after working as assistant curator of archaeological collections at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Lylliam holds an MSc in the Technology and Analysis of Archaeological Materials from University College London and a BA in Anthropology and Psychology from UCLA. She is interested in the processes of developing and maintaining culturally responsive research practices and the use of non-destructive and non-invasive methods of investigating community-driven research questions.