In 2008, the Bangladeshi folk song tradition known as Baul gaan was among the first forms of intangible cultural heritage to be listed by UNESCO as endangered. Intangible or “living” cultural heritage includes language, food, folk arts, festivals, and other traditions handed down between generations, and often requires a different approach to preservation than artifacts or historic sites. In this episode, host Nicole Kang Ferraiolo talks to media and culture scholar Saiful Alam Chowdhury about living heritage in Bangladesh, the urgency of preservation in a country vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels, and the role of media in getting people to take action.
Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director at the Arctic Institute, speaks with host Nicole Kang Ferraiolo about climate change and forced displacement in the US and what it means for different communities and their cultural heritage. Drawing on her own history as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Victoria makes the case that the documentation and preservation of culture helps build resilience, and that cultural heritage should be at the forefront of climate policy.
Natural hazards are among the biggest threats climate change poses to cultural heritage. In this episode, Dr. Crystal Felima talks to host Nicole Kang Ferraiolo about her path from academia to FEMA and how her identity informs her work as a disaster anthropologist and emergency manager. Tune in to hear about Crystal’s work in Haiti and Puerto Rico, and her thoughts on the relationship between culture and resilience, models of collaboration, and why it matters how we tell the story of disaster.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by Crystal Felima in this interview are hers alone and do not necessarily represent those of FEMA.
98.8%: that’s the percentage of American archives likely to encounter at least one climate risk factor by the year 2100, according to a 2018 article by Eira Tansey and Ben Goldman. In this episode, Nicole speaks with the archivists whose work SAA described as “tireless and… critical to addressing the impact of climate change on the archival profession.” Eira and Ben discuss their approaches to climate activism and the superpowers librarians can bring to the fight for environmental justice, both within and outside of their employer institutions.
Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity. It stands to disrupt every aspect of our lives, including our cultural heritage. But how much do records, buildings, artifacts, or even traditions matter in the face of extreme weather and massive human displacement? Join this season’s host, Nicole Kang Ferraiolo, as she speaks to all seven of this season’s guests about the risks climate change poses to our cultural memory and why we should care. We’ll also get a sneak peak at the topics covered this season and what’s to come in the episodes ahead.
In this episode of Material Memory, we return to the Autry Museum of the American West in southern California, where a project is underway to preserve audiovisual materials documenting Native American voice and song.
We’ll learn about the vital process of community-building and the relationships forged along the way.
Joy Banks Narration: Hello and welcome! I’m Joy Banks, your host on this season of Material Memory. We’ve reached our last episode of this season. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about the different people and projects working to preserve indigenous language audio and audiovisual materials for future generations. On this episode, we are hearing more from the staff at The Autry Museum of the American West in Southern California:
Liza Posas: I am Liza Posas and I’m head of research services and archives at the Autry Museum of the American West.
Yuri Shimoda: I am Yuri Shimoda. I am the Recordings at Risk student intern for the CLIR grant project.
Lylliam Posadas: My name is Lylliam Posadas and 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.
Joy Banks Narration: You may recall our introduction to Lylliam and Josh from Episode 1, but now we’ll hear more about the work at the Autry to preserve A/V materials documenting Native voice and song. Much of the work they will discuss is from a project funded through a Recordings at Risk grant awarded in 2018. This episode will be driven by the conversation I had with Liza and Yuri, interspersed with clips from the separate conversations I had with Lylliam and Josh. Let’s get started.
Joy Banks: Why don’t you just start by telling us a little bit about the project that you’re working on.
Liza Posas: Yeah—so this is Liza. The grant project is a pretty straightforward digitization project and I think what makes it a bit different is that it is recorded sound and audiovisual material related to Native communities and songs and lectures and oral histories. The museum, you know, has been collecting all types of materials since 1907 due to the merger of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. It’s the oldest museum in Los Angeles. And then it merged with the Autry Museum in 2003. I say all of that to give an idea of the breadth of the time span of the recordings. And the various types of documentation, in regards to their provenance and their acquisitions, run the gamut as well as much as the medium format. So what this project had us do is centralize that information as best we could, digitize the material, and then enhance the catalog and descriptive metadata records as best we could, based on what we know. And this leads us up to the next step of working with different tribal communities to get more contextual information for each of the recordings.
Yuri Shimoda: And, and I think that you know, previous preservation efforts have been made to perhaps transfer disks to open-reel tape. But this is the first, I think, really comprehensive project where everything is being digitized together under the theme of Native voice and song. And it really just speaks to the beauty of Recordings at Risk and, and allowing an institution to you know, really dig into its collections to find these hidden gems that maybe haven’t been exposed to their fullest. And as Liza touched on, the formats in the collection are really unique and, kind of what drew me to the project since my specialization is audio archiving—getting to work with wire recordings, aluminum disks, lacquer disks and open reel tape, cassette tape and then into the audio visual formats, which are mainly VHS tape, DV Cam, and mini DV. It’s, been a really great experience just getting to handle all of those different formats and to get to bring them to light.
Joy Banks: Were you able to find just one vendor that could handle all of those?
Liza Posas: No. So, because we had those various mediums, I had to look at whatever audio engineer that had come with good references, worked with aluminum disks and wire recording since those were the most hard to find, then we would give them the whole collection to digitize if they could handle all that medium. And partly is because the way in which we work with vendors as a museum, there’s a process to approve them. So it was just easiest to approve two vendors, for instance, as opposed to four. Through my investigations, I was only able to find two vendors that could do aluminum discs that, that I was told do have the capacity for wire recordings. Audio visual was a little bit easier. We are in Los Angeles where film is made and Burbank is one of the places where there are a lot of production houses. So that was a little easier and that came down to references as well as expense.
Joy Banks: So were you looking nationally or just sort of closer to home?
Liza Posas: Closer to home. We follow the guidelines as if the tape recordings were going to an exhibit or a conservator out of the Autry campus. So if we were to fly it, we would have to escort it. So that was out of the question.
Joy Banks: Can you talk a little bit about some of the known places that these recordings come from?
Yuri Shimoda: Sure. The recordings can actually be divided into three specific groupings. All of the recordings span about 40 tribal groups. But the three groups are 1) the Native Voices at the Autry theatrical group which was formed in 1994. It’s the only Equity theatrical company in the United States that’s dedicated to performing productions that are written and produced by Native American playwrights. And then they became the resident theater company in 1999
Liza Posas: Yes.
Yuri Shimoda: I believe. So at that time all of their archives were absorbed into the Autry’s collections. And they luckily videotaped a lot of their readings you know, play blocking. Every year they would do a playwrights’ retreat where they would invite playwrights to workshop a new play that they were working on and they’d have readings of those works and then question and answer sessions with the audience afterwards. All of that is captured in the audio visual materials that are in this project.
Joy Banks Narration: After our conversation, Yuri shared two brief video clips from the Native Voices at the Autry theatre troupe. The clips feature a stage reading of the play “Distant Thunder” written by Lynne and Shaun Taylor-Corbett. As with many works produced by Native Voices, this play features a mix of languages. The production is a musical set in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. The story follows attorney Darrell Walters, a mixed-raced Native American who was removed from the reservation by his white mother as a child and then raised in Chicago. After his mother dies, he returns to the tribe to seek reconciliation with his father. In the first clip we hear the teacher, played by Marisa Quinn, communicating with her students in the Blackfeet language. One of the students, played by Spencer Battiest, attempts to reply back to her in the Blackfeet language, but he gives up mid-sentence and reverts back to English.
Clip 1 [mix of English and Blackfeet languages]
Voice2: Yo, Kemosabe, you suck, man.
Teacher: [Blackfeet language]
Voice2: Um, [Blackfeet language]. Whatever! I didn’t disrespect him. He sucks at basketball.
Teacher: [Blackfeet language]
Voice2: Our tribe? I don’t think so.
Teacher: Well, he is. And you should be ashamed of yourselves.
Joy Banks Narration: This second clip features two members of the Blackfoot tribe arguing about the importance of teaching their language to the younger members of the community. The first speaker, played by Sammy Espinoza, wants to sell the land the tribe’s school is on. We then hear an emphatic response from the teacher, played by Marisa Quinn
Clip 2 [English language]
Voice1: We really don’t need to learn an outdated language.
Teacher: Without the language, our culture will die. Come on, Sam, your own great grandfather was taken from his parents and sent hundreds of miles away to a Christian boarding school. You told me that yourself. And Old Man’s
grandfather, beaten if he spoke his own language.
Voice1: That was a long time ago.
Teacher: It was not that long ago. Sherman, say something.
Joy Banks Narration: We’ll pick back up with Yuri and Liza as they talk about the second grouping of material included in their digitization project.
Yuri Shimoda: The second group, Liza, if you want to talk about California Indian Arts Association…
Liza Posas: Yeah. So the California Indian Arts Association is our newest collection, I would say. It was, was acquired by the founder of the California Indian Arts Association, Justin Farmer.
Yuri Shimoda: Yeah, he donated it in 2017. So, they were active from 1994 through 2000.
Liza Posas: Okay. Yeah, it was founded in 1994 and all of their meetings, so they would hold I guess, monthly meetings, would you say?
Yuri Shimoda: Mmhmm
Liza Posas: … were also tape recorded. They provided a forum to discuss Native arts, artifacts, and culture, in particular, the Indians of Southern California. And we received all the newsletters, some archival notes as well as the master and access copies of the recordings. What’s, great about these recordings that they were meant for distribution and anything that wasn’t supposed to be recorded was not recorded. So there might be maybe a description in the newsletter, but it wasn’t recorded. So we know that at the very least this is information that is meant to go out into a wider community. In fact, they sold the access copies in various museums and libraries. So in 1994, I believe, there was most likely a blanket statement or agreement amongst the members and those that were discussing or giving the lecture that, you know, if you’re coming to this meeting, you’re agreeing to be tape recorded. If you’re agreeing to be tape recorded, you’re agreeing that we make copies of these recordings and distribute them for sale to support the organization. Now, we need a little bit more, a better, more solid type of releases or permissions from the various people involved in the recordings as well, of course, Justin Farmer, just to make sure that we can more openly provide these recordings in more accessible streaming possibilities. But they’ll always be open for research and research purposes, but we also would like clearance for some of the recordings to be able to be posted so it can be accessible remotely.
Yuri Shimoda: And these, these are so great, you know, they would invite archeologists or scholars, but also private collectors to come and share the collections that they’ve been gathering for like decades. And then they’d also go on site visits, so they’d go to different museums around the area and kind of get a behind-the-scenes look at, like, a basket collection. So they’re really fun. And educational as well. The third kind of group of the project are the audio sound recordings. And these are, you know, the most varied; it’s not just one group of field recordings. It’s maybe 10 or 12. And then in addition to those field recordings, there’s also radio broadcasts, oral histories, interviews, and also other lectures relating to Native American culture or performances of Native song by actual tribal members. So this is where the, the wide variety is really seen in terms of all of the different groups that are captured in these recordings and will be the major challenge for Lylliam as we move into the next phase in terms of all of the different groups that she will be establishing contact with.
Joy Banks Narration: During our separate conversation, Lylliam Posadas, the Repatriation and Community Research Manager at the Autry, shared a bit more about her involvement in the project and the importance of relationship building with the various tribes.
Lylliam Posadas: Liza approached me about this project. And in the past we had discussed the digitization of some of our sound recordings here at the Autry and what we might be able to do with them, how we should care for them, what are the ethics behind how we apply care and how we manage access to these recordings. So my role in this project, as someone who works in repatriation, and who, who was interested in how we work together with communities on research initiatives or research interests, research questions, was to take a look at how we could make sure that as we digitize these recordings, that tribes were the primary point of access, that these recordings would be shared with tribes first, so that we can get feedback not only on what the content of the recordings might be, whether or not it is culturally sensitive and should be restricted from being accessed by your general researcher, or whether it’s completely fine and that we can make it available to the general public. But all of that requires extensive consultation that really begins with digitizing these recordings so that they can be accessible so that we can share them with tribes from all over the country and start to have those conversations. So, my role is really about following through with those processes once all of the recordings are digitized and all the data’s been gathered. I’m working with Yuri, who is going to be helping me tremendously by compiling these reports that I’m going to use to share information about the recordings with the tribes to really supplement our conversations. And it’s really going to be very open ended. Whatever decisions we make about access are really going to be dictated by the tribe and what their needs are, what their concerns are, what their priorities are. And that’s all stuff that we find out after many, many conversations and building relationships with everyone.
Joy Banks Narration: As Lylliam implies, the post-digitization work will take time and involve many different communities of people. But this isn’t new for the Autry Museum. Liza explains the winding path that led to the collections of today.
Liza Posas: Basically our sound recordings started with the Southwest Museum. And earlier I’d said the Southwest Museum of the American Indian was started in 1907 by Charles Fletcher Lummis. And in 1904, he was funded by the Archeological Institute of America to go out and make wax cylinder recordings of Spanish folk songs as well as Native songs. He was interested in recorded sound. He was particularly enamored with the new technology of wax cylinder recordings. So he made about 600 recordings of Spanish language and Native language songs. And, it sort of paved the way for other donations related to Native recordings. So given the Southwest Museum’s founding and its association with the Archeological Institute of America, that’s where the field recordings, the oral histories, the ethnomusicology studies came in—that type of recording—and it just followed suit that it also moved into recordings that were done artistically, mostly songs. So within our batch, it is mostly noncommercial recordings. But there are a few, a handful of commercial recordings that are very rare.
Joy Banks Narration: Josh Garrett Davis, an Associate Curator at the Autry, provided more information about the museum’s unique commercial recordings that were included in this digitization project.
Josh Garrett Davis: One of the interesting things about this project was we, we included some commercial records because what we realized was that some of the Native commercial records that exist from even the early really early 20th century onward, we may have the only copy or there might be two copies, at least in institutions. There may be private collectors that have copies somewhere. What I think are the earliest commercial recordings by a Native performer are of a guy named Jesse Lyons who is Onondaga, one of the five Iroquois tribes or Haudenosaunee tribes in upstate New York and Wisconsin and elsewhere. And he recorded around 1904 at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey. He recorded seven discs. I’ve found one on Ebay a few years ago for $15 and bought it for the museum’s collection. But I haven’t come across any in any other music archives or museum collections. And then there are very early Native owned record labels beginning in the forties. Some of those early disks, there aren’t that many copies of either. There’s a guy named Linn Pauahty in, that was originally in Oklahoma, but moved around quite a bit because he was a Methodist minister. Kiowa guy. And he started a record label originally called American Indian Sound Masters and later called American Indian Soundchiefs. They recorded a lot of different tribal music and he had a huge catalog, but it’s unclear, especially with his earlier disks, how many copies of some of those survived. So even commercial recordings were produced on a small enough scale in terms of Native American music that there may only be a couple of copies around. You would think that a commercial recording might not have the cultural sensitivities that some other recordings have, but we’re not totally sure that that will be the case as we speak to people. It may be that in that time and place, it felt like the right thing to do to record that, but the, the community may not want it to be like on Youtube or whatever. So even those, I think at least in some cases will require some consultation with communities.
Joy Banks Narration: As Liza and Yuri have touched on, the history of the Autry Museum is complex. The current museum is the result of a 2003 merger of three museums: the historic Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the well-known Autry Museum, and the Women of the West, a virtual museum. The merger of museums also included related library collections. Liza explains that, while everything is merged, the collections are still unique.
Liza Posas: With that merger came the Braun Research Library, which supported the research functions and object collections of the Southwest Museum, and the Autry Library, which supported the research functions and the scholarship and study of the object collection of the Autry Museum. Usually museum libraries are there to support the scholarship of what’s in the object collection of the museum. Whereas the Braun Research Library collection started its own distinct collection and had its own presence and identity. And even though the names have changed, the handoff of the different custodianship remained consistent.
Joy Banks: Is there some history? Like why is it called the Autry Museum?
Liza Posas: The Autry Museum was founded by four people, Monte Hale, Joanne Hale, Gene Autry, and Jackie Autry.
Joy Banks: I was wondering if Gene Autry was involved.
Liza Posas: Yeah, that was the four. Using the Autry name brought popularity as well as better exposure when it opened in 1988, but it really wasn’t supposed to be a museum about Gene Autry. It was meant to always be a museum about the American West and the myth and reality involved in telling the stories of the West or the American West, which makes it pretty exciting ‘cause it has different components that involve art as well as Hollywood cowboy as well as cowboy culture. The expansion of the West, and the stories of just whatever that, that connotation of what is the wild West, what exploring new territory is. So it’s also this spirit that the West has not only nationally, but internationally. So I think that’s what makes the Autry a really interesting place to be. And I also think it, it, it makes it also a place of experimentation a little bit because of how it was created. And this allows us to go on, on new paths in regard to how we evolve our ideas of custodianship and collaboration and envisioning, you know, future possibilities on how we want to represent a 21st century museum. And, and a lot of that spirit also goes into how we want to work, that we work with the tribes to understand these recordings as best to our possibility. And I’m not, I’m not trying to say that that’s not what happened in the past, but I do think that you know, the Southwest Museum started, like I said, it was the first museum in Los Angeles. So a lot of standardized practices that we have today were being developed during the Southwest Museum history. And it takes time and whenever I talk about these recordings or anything we have that especially that we collected in the early 1900s is, you know, who we are, who the librarians, archivists, custodians, staff is today. They’re connected to the legacy of the staff of yesterday and, and the years of the first founding. So if, if Charles Fletcher Lummis started a relationship, that relationship still continues today. It’s not like it started with Lummis and therefore there was this string of communications and relationship that stayed consistent through the hundred years. What we’re trying to do in providing more contextual information is, is trying to document that thread as best we can, knowing that there is going to be a relationship that needs to be upheld for the next generation when we’re not here.
Yuri Shimoda: Yeah, I think, I think that’s one super important thing to note about community and the word community and how the notion of community needs to be something that’s fluid because it’s ever changing. Right? I think that being able to say that a community is given back a bit of their agency and control has to acknowledge that a community has to be able to self-identify as a community and, and really say, you know, “These are the people that we want to represent us as a community, as our tribal board” or “In 10 years from now, this is the one person we want to be our representative.” I think that that’s what’s so beautiful about working here at the Autry and being surrounded by like-minded individuals, not just here in the library and archives, but throughout the institution. Really embody that activist kind of social justice, lean towards ideas of community.
Joy Banks Narration: One way that the Autry sets itself apart from many other museums and archives is by employing a full-time individual whose focus is on repatriation and the community relationships that are vital to that process. Part of Lylliam’s responsibilities include overseeing the museum’s compliance with the US’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. These laws specifically address carefully defined sacred, ceremonial, and funerary objects, including human remains. Though most of the audio in their project won’t fall under NAGPRA guidelines, the Autry staff see the importance of working with tribal communities. Lylliam goes into more detail about her rather unique position.
Lylliam Posadas: The Autry is very fortunate and so am I, in that we have a permanent position for a repatriation person. Oftentimes people working on repatriation efforts are grant-funded people or they are curators that have a portion of their time dedicated to repatriation. From my conversations with Liza, it seems as though not many archivists have opportunities to work very closely with someone who’s involved in NAGPRA and repatriation. So we’re very fortunate that we get to work together. And I also employ the archives extensively in my repatriation work. I mean, the archives carry information about how items in the collection made it here and the conditions under which they made it here, which are all things I need to know about. Whether things were gathered ethically, whether people were coerced into giving things, whether things were stolen, or whether things were sold legitimately. So we work together very closely to answer questions about how things got here … working with tribes and sharing information that we have in the archives to help as they do research to gather more information about maybe specific donors that have donated things to our institution, but have also donated things as collectors to other institutions across the country or in California. And these are efforts that many tribes are, are engaged in as they track where their things ended up. And sometimes it’s, it’s helpful to look at who was collecting their things and where they ended up giving, giving these things out to various institutions.
Joy Banks Narration: To accomplish the community building and related repatriation efforts in the most respectful manner, the Autry Museum recently invested in the construction of a new physical Resources Center. Yuri continues our conversation, describing how this newly imagined space helps facilitate their work.
Yuri Shimoda: I think it, it’s important to note kind of why this is a time that the Autry would want to pursue the grant in terms of the Resources Center being a new way for the Autry to continue to invite you know, not just youth and school children, scholars of all ages, researchers, but tribal communities to come and interact with collection items in our viewing room and our listening room. Even in its construction, it embodies those ideals that I was just talking about. I don’t know any other archives that has an outside space that is full of, you know, relaxing elements like a water feature and native plants that are known for their anti-anxiety properties. Just a place to step away from—it’s not like the, the situation inside is so like sanitized and rigid, but it is a research facility. It is,
Liza Posas: Yeah
Yuri Shimoda: you know, it does have its formal procedures in terms of security and you know, you’re always being watched in, in an archives, right? So it’s, it’s nice to have a place to step away and just take a breath and, and regroup.
Liza Posas: It’s beautiful. We’re calling it the Native garden and it was designed with the different Native tribes that we consult with as well as with our architects. So the design is, is meant to be a place where, like Yuri said, like it is a place of serenity, but it is particularly for Native consultation and the processes that could be involved in Native consultation. So it is part of our repatriation processes and it’s, it’s just part of one of the things we offer as tribal groups come for their visits. But it offers different spaces. As tribes come in, there’s a space for them to dress in regalia. There’s, there’s a close room for where they can view materials for repatriation in privacy. There’s, then there’s the garden. So they can also do whatever activities related to that in that garden. And there’s an—even though it’s an outside space—there’s a way to make it private. And that comes from years of experience of working with different tribes or working with NAGPRA and the repatriation process. So when the building was being built those considerations were put in place. And this is one thing that we’ve talked about too, is sort of the human aspect of working with these collections. You know, how do you put in a budget line item, the, the protocols that are involved in these types of relationship building and collaborations, right? It’s just like, well, you know, we want to show hospitality, as part of the process. Like the part of hospitality that shows respect, that shows that we’re going to change sort of the reputation that consultation has taken in the past. I know one woman said to me many years ago, she said, “I know what consultation means. It means you go in, you listen maybe to what we have to say, but you do whatever you want to do anyway.” So I want to make sure that when we say consultation, we do see it as a meaningful exchange of knowledge and information and reciprocity, and we’re doing the best that we can and providing custodianship to the best of our ability based on those consultations. The other thing that we also have heard in the past is that tribal members would be invited to see a collection and then they would be invited again 10 years later. And then invited again 10 years later, and that has to do with sort of the nuts and bolts of how we capture the data and how we capture data in a sustainable, maintainable way. Like we never lose the information about the original collector. We never lose information about the title or the description or the call number, but for some reason, the feedback that we get—that is sometimes you know, straight from the Natives’ input—that gets put in other places. And I know that other institutions have acknowledged that and they’re trying to battle that with things like Mukurtu and Tribal Knowledge Labels.
Joy Banks Narration: For those new to these matters, Mukurtu and Traditional Knowledge Labels, or TK Labels, are being developed by collecting institutions to better address the cultural mores that may restrict access to Native materials. Designed to allow flexibility in implementation, these tools are being explored by many of the people we spoke to this season. Liza and Yuri explain more about the Autry’s plan.
Liza Posas: Yeah. And so we’re trying to, to also look at those various resources that have developed as of late, that has taken advantage of metadata structures to give meaningful spaces that are sustainable and maintainable and can continue on for the, what I call the tribal-authored content and context.
Yuri Shimoda: Yeah. And I think that’s something that really drew me to this project is all of these considerations. And even in my first few weeks here, we had a meeting with the head of cataloging where we went through every metadata field and considered, you know, what it means when you’re dealing with tribal materials, how the meaning of a simple word can shift versus traditional, you know, metadata and cataloging standards. So I think that we’ve tried to, to really look at every angle from, you know, description and access to how we’re storing the items and even as Liza mentioned, exploring options like Traditional Knowledge Labels. I, I did want to do a little shout out to the Ancestral Voices Project and Kim Christen, Jane Anderson because they were a huge inspiration to me coming into this project, and I, I know not just to myself but other members of the team. They worked with one tribal group to revamp their catalog record. And this collaboration took place over the span of two years to describe one song. But it is the only successful truly collaborative and not just participatory, consultative but truly collaborative effort that I’ve seen a major institution be able to carry out with a tribal group in terms of audio recordings. So, you know, we’re really hoping to kind of use their project as a model moving forward in terms of how we might be able to integrate Traditional Knowledge into our catalog records, hopefully in the future with tribal consultation.
Liza Posas: Yeah, and I’m glad you actually used the word integrate because as you were talking about this word of consultation, then I was thinking that maybe we should come up with a different word or different phrasing and what I was thinking, you know, maybe it’s more about tribal integration as opposed to tribal consultation. Because consultation does seem like it’s an optional layer that’s put on top of things and not everybody chooses to consult, right? If you talk about bringing in a consultant, they’re traditionally seen as an outside entity consulting, right? And then you take, you take what you need. But integration gives more of a commitment to, to integrate, right? The, the two things together.
Yuri Shimoda: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve, I’ve tried to, I’ve tried to be conscious of, trying to say at least say “collaboration” for the most part, but that also you have to be clear what you mean by collaboration.
Liza Posas: Yes.
Yuri Shimoda: It’s not one side having more of a say than the other. It’s, it’s a true balance. But I do like also the word “integration” too. I think it’s something that even encapsulates more fully how we hope the next stage of the project will proceed.
Joy Banks: And that’s, that seems like for you and the specific collections you’re dealing with, I think you said you have potential materials from about 40 different tribal entities that—that’s a big commitment that you’re making—and that you see the value of drawing these communities together with the materials that are theirs.
Liza Posas: Yeah. And I think , I think it’s part of the different people who work here with the collections have inherently had to deal with the legacy data and understand the practices and intentions of the previous custodians, the previous museum staff. And sometimes we’ll have, we’ll maybe know of our predecessors and therefore can surmise from their personalities and their reputations what their actions or intent were or, or publications, the Southwest Museum published a lot. But I think because of the inconsistency in, in documenting and inconsistency because of so many various factors, it’s not just one factor, right, of somebody being irresponsible. There’s, there’s so many different things that happen in the past few years that could lead to that. And then I think that because those of us who currently work with this material are in want of something more structured. We are, firstly, we’re going at this slowly, methodically, actually I should say, and we really want to create a foundation of policies and practices that is documented that can then be built upon in a systematic way, in the future that makes sense. But we hope that, you know, in 20 years’ time when the, the new archivist or the new coordinators, NAGPRA coordinators, archaeologists, librarians come in, it’s not as much of a mystery to them if they find something that needs more information. That they can rest assured that we did these policies to find as much information about this particular item as best we could. And I think that building policies is a way you can communicate with your future selves. You know, and it’s, it’s a slow process. So we do have a lot ahead of us, but we’re, what I think we’re doing is kind of building the foundation and the scaffolding for the work to continue on way past us.
Joy Banks: Well, Lylliam spoke quite a bit about the policy and structures that you’re building, too.
Liza Posas: Yeah, there are many of us in Autry staff who just want to build up all these policies and we’re doing it as a team. So it’s an institutional front. It’s an institutional effort. It really is. There’s probably five different departments and subunits where we’re working on a similar policy in regards to access, how we work with tribes, what, what is cultural sensitivity, where’s the Autry stand in building its relationships with the communities that we work with. And partly it’s prompted by the building of the Resources Center of the Autry. And another part of it is, is just that it’s time for us to, to really come together. You know, we’ve been merged since 2003 and that took a few years. And now we’re, we’ve got this breath that we can take where we can look at all of our guidelines and policies and practices and look at what’s happening, you know, in our professional field. So I just heard that ACRL and RBMS also endorsed the protocols for Native American materials. Last year, the Society of American Archivists did that. Other entities are reaching out to me in regards to the policies they’re making. So it also fits within what’s happening in our respective fields.
Joy Banks: So kind of like totally changing the direction of our conversation: tell me a little bit about the languages that maybe are contained on the materials that you have as I would imagine since the collections are pretty broad in those three areas, that there’s probably a variety of things that you’re encountering in terms of languages.
Yuri Shimoda: Mmhmm. You know, CIAA, the California Indian Association, their focus at least was primarily Native Americans of Southern California, so that, that’s a little insulated their, their collection. But even so, sometimes they would touch on threads that would, they would weave out into like Plains Indian territory. And it’s the same with the plays, and the creative forces behind Native Voices. They are an eclectic mix of many tribes. And so the content of the plays—the languages that are woven into the scripts and dialogue—usually stem from whatever group the playwright comes from which, you know, ranges from Pueblo to Shoshone. And the other audio really is a, a wide range of languages that are woven into all of the recordings. There is a, a lot of tribes represented from Southern California. Luiseño. But we do have recordings from Arizona, so Hopi song, chants, and also language is captured in the stories that are shared. Some are, you know, spoken in English, but then terms are woven into the stories they’re telling. And it might just be someone introducing the song and the language and then the translator coming behind them and, and translating what they just said. And then the performer actually going into the song, which sometimes could have words, it can have lyrics, or it could be just a beat and one word repeated throughout the song. For a little variety, there are some recordings from Chihuahua, Mexico. So there are some Spanish song and Spanish language from the Tarahumara people, where I don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s, it’s the tribe’s medicine man kind of speaking to members of his village. And I don’t understand any of that conversation, but it was captured, I believe on one of our wire recordings, which is pretty neat. It’s been amazing to get, to actually sit down and have the time to kind of digest all of this material. Some of my favorite stories so far have been in the oral histories of Frederick Web Hodge who was the director of the Southwest Museum from 1932 to 1955 and these recordings were just captured at a gathering of his friends. So— and he was such like a charismatic big personality—so he’d be like, “have I told you this story?” And then they’d all be egging him on and he shared a lot of his experiences from architectural trips to the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. And I believe he was also part of the Hemenway expedition.
Liza Posas: Mmhmm
Yuri Shimoda: … that Jesse Fewkes was on that became the Ancestral Voices Project cylinders. Hodge was originally on that expedition. So even though it’s not a tribe speaking, he does weave Zuni and Hopi phrases into his stories as he’s recounting his experiences in New Mexico.
Joy Banks: Tell me what’s the point, what, what’s the point of, of doing all of this work and spending all this time?
Liza Posas: This segues nicely into the Autry Museum mission. So the Autry mission is to bring together the stories of all the peoples of the American West, connecting the past with the present to inspire our shared future. And Yuri and I are fortunate enough to work with history on a daily basis. And for me, when I work with the archives it is almost a constant, nearly a constant state of wonder because you will listen to something or see a photograph or read a letter that gives you a peek into something that happened in a moment of time in the past. But maybe now it’s instinct for us to connect it to today and make sense of what’s going on today. And I feel, I sometimes say, working with archives makes you a better human because in working with archives, there are so many characteristics that are put into place. You have to set yourself into a different place in time and try to understand the environment that person or that era was in. You develop empathy. You have to develop critical thinking. You have to develop translation skills to translate what happened back then to what it may mean today. Like what is the equivalent? And I think if a person spends time in the archive, there’s, like I said, a little bit of that wonder and luminosity that comes with touching something that you know, was authored or originated before you were ever in any sort of existence. But yet there’s still that connection and we see it all the time where, you know the digitization is, is, is a tool, right? I see many times that people say, “Digitize it!” and therefore period, end of story. But it’s really a tool about access and not just physical access or literally accessing the collection, but just like access in so many ways. So yes, it could mean access to the actual archives or access to a piece of information that helps you with your scholarship. But it does access a different part of your imagination and your brain. And I know I got into archive collections because I wanted to know a history that resonated—right?—with me. And coming from, you know, a school system where they didn’t tell me much about Filipino American history, I’m a Filipino. When I did learn about it, it was like opening up a new world. So some of these songs were literally kept on in wire recordings and wax cylinders and the aluminum disc, these non-playable formats. And then there’s this rediscovering, uncovering of them with the digitization. So they might have had some contact of tribal members in the past, but as I was saying before, this is a multigenerational thing that goes onto the future. So digitization just provides this other element of access to most likely a new set of people that that don’t have as many resources of reference that, that they should or could.
Yuri Shimoda: I think your question kind of to us it’s like what is the point of your existence and the work that you’re doing every day? It’s kind of like the same question. For me, sound recordings, you know, it’s, it’s so much more than just the literal sounds in the recording. It’s really the meaning that’s imbued in that recording by the listener. And specifically in this case it’s, it’s the members of those communities who maybe haven’t heard that specific rendition of a song performed and the way that it is on the recording from, you know, 1902; maybe it’s not the same way that they perform it now. Being able to take care of that material until someone is ready to come and listen to it, I think is one of the most important things we do as archivists. Just making sure that material is ready and waiting for them for that next generation to come and seek it out. And I’m just so intrigued by you know, the uses that I’ve seen in my studies of archival materials to provide inspiration to that next generation. You know, I have her heard of projects that take beats from tribal song and incorporate them into electronic music so that younger members of the tribe will have a reinvigorated interest in learning that traditional art form. I’ve also heard stories of archival recordings, you know, standing in place for an instrument where there’s not a current member of the tribe that can play that specific instrument. That way they can perform a ceremony or song in the way that it was intended to be performed using the archival recording as a stand in. So I’m just so intrigued by the future utilizations of sound recordings. And I think for me that’s like the number one reason to do this here and now.
Joy Banks Narration: To end our conversations, I asked everyone to share one thing, one recording, one interaction encountered during the project that has been particularly exciting or impactful. The project warm fuzzies, if you will. For Yuri and Josh, who work more with the collections, they reflected on the voices being revealed through the digitization.
Yuri Shimoda: Oh my gosh, I have—there’s so many times. I mean just getting to actually review each of the recordings you know, even the plays like getting to see the process of the playwrights and, it’s hard not to get emotional, you know, when you see like their blood, sweat and tears go into this one thing and see it succeed in front of an audience or. There is a young playwright’s festival that the Native Voices would hold and seeing those teens like get to share like the first play that they’ve written. That is definitely a warm and fuzzy and super hilarious moment. When you see like their awkwardness, but then when they actually get laughs like from the lines that they wrote just how proud they are when they stand on that stage during curtain call. It’s, it’s so inspiring. I love like all the field recordings especially that you just are transported to another time and place through, you know, the way, the cadence of how they talk. You really get immersed in a different time and place listening to them, seeing and interact with their fellow singers. I love those moments a lot.
Josh Garrett Davis: Working in native American history more generally, if you’re working on periods before about 1970, there’s precious little sort of Native voice in the archive. This is true of a lot of underrepresented groups, but you’re always hoping for those moments if you’re a researcher where the Native voice comes through because the archives were largely created by non-Native people, institutions, academic fields and so on. And so, you know, there are a lot of techniques that people use to just sort of try to sift out the bias in the recorder’s point of view and try to imagine or to document a different perspective then the authors I guess you’d say. These archives have that quite a bit. Well, obviously they have literal Native voice happening. I mean, I guess what I really like on the sound recordings themselves are just sort of moments outside the specific, musical material, if a little bit of context is almost inadvertently recorded. And then sometimes it’s in conversation with the notes that are taken. I found a few cases in archives where a performer composed a song about the situation of recording. where they compose a song on the spot that says “I’m here recording with this anthropologist” and maybe they’ll be kind of making fun of them in the song or they’ll be kind of trying to create a sense of reciprocity or relationship where the ethnographer in most cases will kind of feel obligated to, to them in some way or feel that they need to help with some sort of political issue. There’s, there’s traces of the kind of politics around the, the recording that, that show up in little ways.
Joy Banks Narration: For Lylliam and Liza, they reflected on the spirit of collaboration their project has helped to solidify.
Lylliam Posadas: I’m excited for the ways in which this project has really brought us together to develop this infrastructure which ensures that no matter if we have staff changes that the work can continue in hopefully an ethical and, and productive fashion. And it means that information will be captured appropriately in our database. And so many of these recordings lack so much information, which in a way it’s, it’s it’s almost really disrespectful. Like these are people’s stories. They we have them here in the collection and we’ll have records that have no information about who that person was on the other end of the microphone. And that is something we really need to repair.
Liza Posas: Yuri has the funner job I would say, or the more fun job of the two because she gets to listen to everything. And I, you know, am the one that found all the materials, you know, centralized the items and, and came up with sort of an overview of a plan. But what was exciting for me and is exciting for me is pulling in so many people to write the grant with me. We collaborate all the time. But like, I really feel that the, from the start of the grant to the various stages within the grant period and after, it’s just this promise of collaboration, but collaborating in a way that we can work together. We can understand each other’s blind spots. But I think there’s, there were definitely times of tension but I think what helped is that we all have the same intent of doing the best we can with what we have and the technology of what we have in pushing our capabilities. And hopefully implementing this institutional culture of collaboration.
Yuri Shimoda: Yeah. I mean, I am so excited for the next steps to come, which I’m sure will provide many of those warm and fuzzy, but also frustrating and disheartening moments as well. I think that the future of this project is only going to be even more exciting and thrilling. And I can’t wait to see like, what happens.
Liza Posas: It’s, it’s a hefty size of elements involved that include standardized practices, tribal integration and what we’ve been calling data sovereignty, and understanding of worldviews and perspectives that aren’t necessarily written into much literature within our field. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a continuation of efforts. But, yeah, it’s, it’s been an interesting road..
Joy Banks: Well, I am very excited about your project. It’s such a pleasure to have this sort of closer look at the work that you’re doing.
Liza Posas: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s always a pleasure to talk about what we’re doing and to unpack things that we think about on a daily basis. And in this you know, organic way, I should say, where conversation flows in and out in regards to what we’re doing. So thank you.
Yuri Shimoda: And thank you for letting all four of us chime in because it truly, you know, one step couldn’t have gone on without every single member of the team. So it’s been super valuable. Thank you.
Joy Banks Narration: Thanks for listening to our episode. More information on this and all our episodes, including show notes, transcript, information on our guests, and links to their project sites and social medias, can be found online at material-memory.clir.org.
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 clir.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 hope you’ll join us next season 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.
Josh Garrett Davis
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. 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.
Liza Posas joined the Autry Museum of the American West in 2005 and serves as the Head of Research Services and Archives. In recent years, she has concentrated on building collaborations related to the practices supporting ethical stewardship for tribal collections. She is currently developing a workbook funded by the Society of American Archivist Foundation that examines the intersecting activities between the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) policies and Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (PNAAM) guidelines.
In June 2019, Yuri Shimoda earned her MLIS at UCLA, with a focus in media archival studies, and served as the CLIR Recordings at Risk Intern at the Autry Museum of the American West, a clerk for Los Angeles Public Library, and an asset specialist intern for Walt Disney Imagineering. She is the founder of the first student chapter of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), co-founder of Basement Tapes Day, and spent a summer as a Library of Congress Junior Fellow in the Recorded Sound Section of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Her research interests include community archiving and the preservation of sound recordings.
In this episode of Material Memory, we talk with a staff member at the University of Oklahoma who has been working to preserve the recordings of the Indians for Indians Radio Hour program, a long-running broadcast that started in the 1940s at the university’s WNAD station.
We’ll hear about the show’s founder, the complications of dealing with a well-used collection of many different Native voices, and the process of providing access to this important historical resource about tribal life.
Photo: Pawnee Indian School Students in WNAD studio for Indians for Indians Broadcast, ca. 1942. Courtesy OU Photographic Service, no. 16342.
Joy Banks Narration: Hello and welcome! I’m Joy Banks, and I’m your host on this season of Material Memory. As we’re moving through this season, we hope you’re enjoying hearing from a variety of individuals working to provide greater access to indigenous language materials through digitization of audio and audiovisual items. On this episode, I had the chance to chat with a staff member from the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.
Lina Ortega: Hello, I’m Lina Ortega, I’m the associate curator at the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma.
Joy Banks Narration: Lina has been working to preserve the recordings of the Indians for Indians Radio Hour program which was broadcast weekly over the University of Oklahoma’s WNAD station from 1941 through about the mid 1970s. We’ll hear about Lina’s own personal connections to the collection, the history of the show’s founder, Don Whistler, and the complications of dealing with a well-used collection that represents many different Native voices.
Joy Banks: I wanted to start with you telling us a little bit about the project that you’re working on and sort of how you were connected to it.
Lina Ortega: The Indians for Indians Hour radio show was broadcast from OU’s WNAD radio station starting in 1941, and it was continuously broadcast through the mid 1970s. And the recordings of some of the broadcasts—not all of them, unfortunately—but some of them have been archived here in the Western History Collection for decades.
So with the recordings being archived here at the Western History Collections for many years, I was aware that they were here just because my tribe, The Sac and Fox Nation, had a part in creating the show as well as we’re represented on some of the broadcasts. Before I started working here at the Western History Collections, I worked in a different part of the library here on campus. And so I would come over now and then and listen to some of the broadcasts that had my tribe on it. Some of my relatives who were singing and I just wanted to hear them and, and to hear these songs. The radio show is also pretty fondly remembered by a lot of native American individuals across the state.
Several tribes—I would say two thirds of the tribes currently headquartered in Oklahoma—are represented on the show. And because it also had such a long run, many people remember participating in it or their family members did or they just remember listening to it. I knew that the show was important for those reasons, just because native communities remember the show and want to come in and listen to the to the recordings. So working here, most of the requests that we’ve gotten over the years have been from family members simply wanting to listen to recordings of the show that they know their, their mother or their father or grandparent or uncle or aunt participated in. But in recent years, we’ve had an uptick in some of the tribe’s language preservation departments or other sorts of cultural departments like historic preservation.
We’ve had employees and even groups, sometimes, from those tribal departments coming in to, to listen to the recordings and requesting copies of them. So the copies that we’ve been using for access are on cassette tapes. Those cassette copies had been made from the reel copies, the reel-to ree- tape copies some years ago. And of course, cassette tapes were not really made for long-term use. And so there is concern that the cassettes would break. And so the Recordings at Risk grant opportunity was, was an incredible chance to have another way to preserve these recordings
What was actually digitized was the content from the reels, not the cassette tapes.
Joy Banks: Okay
Lina Ortega: There was just a preference that the collection be digitized from the reel-to-reel tapes. In some cases those were the original recordings. And also I had concerns that when the copies were made to cassettes that not everything was copied. So that was another reason to work with the reels.
So as I’ve listened to the collection as a body, I’ve listened to all 200 or so recordings that we have. I’ve come to appreciate the greater usefulness of it as a collection and as a resource for understanding United States history. Definitely through a native American perspective, but still it’s important to remember that this is part of American history and, and Oklahoma history too.
And so a lot of themes have emerged, as I’ve listened to it as a collection and some of those have to do with community life including the rise of inner tribal life through the 20th century. And then military service, schools, and education—there are several school groups who participated on the show regularly—and then religion. There are many, many religions represented on the show as well as advocacy for tribal rights and tribal governments. Since the show went through the 1940s through the 50s and the early seventies, it covers a pretty good chunk of federal policy towards native American tribes. And so when you hear some of the announcements on this show, you can actually glean some of this United States history through the announcements that different elected officials from the tribes would send in about their government operations. So it’s really been an incredible opportunity to understand this as a historical resource, not only for native Americans, but for any student in general.
Joy Banks: Can you talk a little bit more about the physical condition that the tapes were in?
Lina Ortega: Mmhm. The condition of the, of the audio tapes is of concern because we have a set that are on reel-to-reel tapes and they were recorded at varying speeds. Oftentimes there were multiple broadcasts on one reel-to-reel tape. They were not put on in chronological order. And so I think they were put on, I don’t know if it was according to however, whoever was doing it just picked up a tape, or if it was a matter of they were just trying to fit what they could on a tape. And so access wise, it can be really confusing to figure out which tape you needed but also the physical condition: the tape ends are not secured and so there is loose pack on the reels and I think that’s the preservation concern. And then plus many of the recordings are 60, 70, 50 years old. I mean the youngest of them is 50 years old. And so
Just a lot of concerns with our preservation and then our use copies were on cassette tapes, which don’t have a long life. And yet we’ve been using those for at least 30 years, probably more like 40. And so I did have very serious concerns about tapes breaking. I know with some of our other audio collections that we have on cassette tape, I’ve actually broken a couple of those cassettes myself and made me cringe.
That’s like an archivist worst nightmare..
Joy Banks: Could you describe a little bit “loose pack”? What is that?
Lina Ortega: I actually wasn’t familiar with that term until I started working with the Northeast Document Conservation Center.
Joy Banks: NEDCC?
Lina Ortega: Yes. So the NEDCC is who we contracted with to do the professional digitization and it was the CLIR Recordings at Risk grant that enabled us to contract with the NEDCC. So the NEDCC was quite detailed in their scope of work when the project manager was explaining it to me and then in their written materials. And so they explained that part of what they were going to address was how the tapes were reeled on, on the spools. And so as far as I understand, it is better for preservation to keep them tightly wound on those spools and not have them loose and flopping around and, and getting warped and so forth.
Joy Banks: Okay. So it’s pretty much what it sounds like.
Lina Ortega: Yes. Yeah, it is. I didn’t even realize until doing this work that you’re supposed to fix the tape ends down on the reel. There’s a certain type of tape that you can use to do that. And I didn’t even realize that that was something that we were supposed to do.
Joy Banks: It seems as though there’s an advantage in using a service like NEDCC or another vendor that does this all the time
Lina Ortega: Definitely.
Joy Banks: I asked Lina what kind of digitization OU had been able to do in-house before they started working with the NEDCC.
Lina Ortega: There were just isolated tapes that we had digitized ourselves. And when we were creating some of those digital files, we didn’t even know in the beginning that it’s necessary to clean the tape deck every time.
And, and so that has impacted the quality of those files. And we did not have the expertise here to clean them and repair them. And then also once you do have a digital file to be able to engineer those digital files to improve the sound quality. We just didn’t have the expertise here at the Western History Collections. I do have a couple of colleagues here on the OU campus who were able to do some of that work, but they’re very busy with their own collections and so they could only do one-offs for me. They weren’t able to digitize the whole collection and so really it was an enormous relief to be able to have an organization who is able to do this work professionally.
Joy Banks: So let’s talk a little bit about some of the content of these items that you digitized. I know you touched briefly on the different tribes that are represented on it, but who is the, who was the person that started this show?
Lina Ortega: The radio show was created by Don Whistler. He was an alumnus of the University of Oklahoma. And actually the story of his family is quite interesting in itself. Whistler was actually principal chief of the Sac and Fox tribe when he created the show and all throughout the time he was hosting it. So he was a busy man, but he also had a lot of contacts across the state. And as you listened to him it becomes obvious that he’s very much aware of what’s going on with the federal government’s relationship with tribes in Oklahoma and a lot of federal legislation that could impact the tribes. So he’s very knowledgeable in that respect. But going back to his family, he and his siblings had moved with their mother to Norman specifically so that they would have better educational opportunities. And they moved here to Norman around 1915 from the Sac and Fox Agency, which is near Stroud, Oklahoma.
So Don Whistler’s father was a Sac and Fox named Leo Whistler, I believe. And his mother was, she was not Native American. She was white. And after the parents divorced, she decided that she wanted to move her children to Norman for better educational opportunities. So Chief Whistler was the eldest and then his younger brothers and sister also attended and graduated from OU, so had very strong ties to OU. And his mother, as well as Don and one of the other siblings, were very instrumental in building up Campus Corner, which is an area just to the north of the main part of campus here at OU, and it has a lot of restaurants and clothing stores and other private businesses that his mother, Maud Whistler, was instrumental— she actually constructed some of the buildings and they’re still very much in use today.
And so that history has been lost for the most part. It’s not widely known that there was a Sac and Fox connection to OU’s Campus Corner. But another thing I wanted to mention about Chief Whistler is since he and his siblings did grow up at the Sac and Fox agency, he grew up around his father’s people and it was part of his life to be part of our tribe’s way of life and culture. And so he was very knowledgeable about it and it’s my understanding that he spoke the Sauk language fluently as did his siblings.
Joy Banks Narration: Don Whistler stayed in Norman after university, raising five children with his wife and managing construction and real estate businesses. In 1939, he became principal chief of the Sac and Fox tribe, and in 1941 he launched the Indians for Indians radio show. It was crucial to him that the show was “by Indians, for Indians,” and free from any need to conform to a non-Native aesthetic.
Joy Banks: Did he have any sort of unique ways of starting the show?
Lina Ortega: He did. On every broadcast he would start the same way with the same sign on, he would say, “Âho nikân! Keshkekosh a nina!” And so what he was saying in the Sauk language was, “Hello friends!” Keshkekosh was his Sauk name. And so then he was just identifying himself as it was Keshkekosh speaking. It’s always interesting to hear his name in, in that respect because Sac and Fox people who have our names like that, we believe that those are our forever names. And so our English names that we have here that we use every day are just temporary names. And then after death, when our spirit goes on to that village that was prepared for us, we’ll still continue to use our Sauk names, which are given to us through our clans. It’s always interesting to me to hear his name used on the radio and I think I wish I could talk to him and, and find out why he wanted to introduce himself that way.
So when the radio station does their sign on so WNAD would have their separate sign on where they’re introducing the show and so they would, they would say “Indians for Indians hosted by Don Whistler.” So they would say Don Whistler, but he oftentimes did not say his name in English.
Joy Banks: Names are such a personal thing. It’s really something special that he would share another name with his listeners. Like it seems like that would be something that would help to build trust with his audience almost.
Lina Ortega: Yes. Yeah. I do think it’s a manifestation of how this show was created by Indians for Indians. Whistler was very explicit about that. And you’ll hear it sometimes in the show that the show’s audience was intended to be other native Americans. And so I do think that’s one reason why he felt comfortable using his, his forever name, so to speak.
Joy Banks: The next thing I sort of wanted to talk about, you shared with me four different clips that I feel they were just, they were all beautiful. Why don’t you share a little bit about some of the, the different languages that were included on the show?
Lina Ortega: Okay. The Indians for Indians Hour radio show had native language woven all throughout since the show was intended to be for our native audience. I don’t think that there was any, I don’t think that participants felt a need to try to perform for a non-native audience. And I think another important factor is that since the show started in the forties and it goes through the fifties and sixties, there are still several first-language speakers within the tribes. Nowadays, unfortunately that’s pretty rare for a person to, for their native language to be their first language. That’s why languages have become more and more threatened and endangered as, as the years have gone by. But during the time of the radio show, there’s still quite a few people where their native language was their first language and so they speak it fluently. You know, it’s obvious that they’re comfortable with it and speaking it fluidly as well as fluently. So there are several languages represented on the show. Most of the time when we hear them, they’re either saying a prayer or they’re speaking on a religious topic, or they’re singing a hymn or some other type of,
Of prayer in song form. That’s the majority of the language content, but not always. There are a couple of speeches that have to do more with native American rights, where the man is speaking in English, but then he will also go into his own native language.
The languages that are represented most on this show are the Kiowa language. And I’m not actually saying the name of the languages, I’m saying the names of the tribes that speak them, but the tribes whose languages are represented the most on this show are the Kiowa tribe, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, which those are two different distinct languages, even though the Cheyenne and Arapaho are a combined tribal entity here in Oklahoma. And then
The Creek and Seminole languages.
There are dialects to the Muskogean family of languages. And then Sac and Fox, we actually don’t hear a whole lot of outside of Chief Whistler’s sign-on and sign-off. But every once in a while I’ll hear a little word here and there. And then some other languages that are represented are Pawnee and Oto and Ioway and Apache and Ponka a little bit. And so I enjoy hearing the variety. Lots of times we do hear some languages more often than others, you know, like here on campus. It’s not uncommon to hear the Kiowa language or to hear the Cherokee language. And there is a tiny bit of Cherokee language represented in the show too. But to hear other languages like Oto or Pawnee, that’s a bit more unusual outside of those communities,
Joy Banks: I feel like that’s something, well, you tell me, was that something that was unique to this radio program that there would have been such a variety?
Lina Ortega: I would say so. One of, one Chief Whistler’s strengths was bringing people together and I find it admirable that he brought people from different parts of the state into the show and he didn’t focus on just one tribe or one group of tribes from a particular region of Oklahoma. Oklahoma has such a diversity of native nations here just because of the history of all these tribes being moved here or being made to stay here. I think that is unique about Oklahoma. And so it’s incredible to me that that diversity for the most part is reflected in the radio show. And you know, people were traveling often from great distances at their own expense to participate. And some of it is during World War II where there’s gasoline rationing. So to think about what they went through when it wasn’t easy to even make a long distance phone call. You know, they were very, I think committed to participating as was Chief Whistler committed to bringing people in and together. And I’ve seen references to where they would often gather at his house afterwards and, and have a meal together.
Joy Banks: Let’s talk a little bit about the clips that you shared. So we’ll start with the lullaby maybe?
Lina Ortega: Okay.
Joy Banks: So tell us what language we’re listening to and then anything else you want to say about it.
Lina Ortega: Okay. The lullaby clip is in the Kiowa language and it is sung by Etta Apekaum. I’m making an assumption that she was an older lady at the time that she was singing this song and she was participating on the show with some of her other relatives. And it was actually a pretty large group, but it’s wonderful that they, they made that time for her to do something that was a little unusual. There’s a handful of lullabies that are recorded on the show and then I’ve seen references to having, having been done on the show at other times, but it’s unusual. There wasn’t a lot of times when something that was geared toward children was done. Oftentimes the people who were singing on the show are men. And so the reason why I wanted to feature this clip was to just to be able to hear a woman singing,
[Audio clip: Etta Apekaum Lullaby]
Lina Ortega: I don’t know what the lullaby is saying. And so there is a lot of work to be done with these recordings to have them translated and, and to even have them transcribed into the different tribes’ modern orthographies, or, you know, modern ways of, of writing their language. And so that is one of the offshoot goals that I have for this collection and this, you know, much improved digitization makes that possible, is to be able to have transcriptions and translations of the native languages
Joy Banks: Are, are you going to do that? You know, it’s not, like you say yes, you have to commit, but translation and transcription can be daunting.
Lina Ortega: Yes, so I’m in the process of doing a little bit of a pilot project with it. So as part of preparing for the upcoming exhibit that’s gonna start in November  I’ve done transcriptions of—or actually we had an intern do transcriptions of—the audio files that are being used in the exhibit.
And the reason for that was just to make the exhibit more accessible to people who might be there for the exhibit who have hearing difficulties. And so part of that, since I am featuring the native languages to some extent, not as much as I would’ve liked to, but for the native language clips, I do still need to recruit people to translate them for me and to actually transcribe them to use in the exhibit. So that’s part of the little pilot project. And then just for the straight transcription of an entire episode, this, the intern that I had this summer out of the Native American Studies Department here at OU actually had experience as a court reporter.
Joy Banks: Fantastic.
Lina Ortega: So I had a pilot project in mind for her and then it was just serendipitous that she already has this experience. And so I had her list out—we talked about some of the difficulties, you know, that she ran into doing the transcriptions and that also enabled us to get an idea of the time involved and just doing one broadcast. So, generally, since she was able to work pretty quickly, she was able to do a broadcast in a couple of hours, which I thought was impressive. I thought it would take longer. But then the additional work of filling in gaps, of course that that is going to add time to it.
Joy Banks: Yeah, it seems whenever you’re working with foreign languages of any kind, there’s these challenges of expertise.
Lina Ortega: Yes.
Joy Banks: And no matter how much we think automation can do everything, there’s still high, high level of involvement from people.
Lina Ortega: Exactly. And so one of the difficulties is people’s names. So even when they are using their English names, a lot of times those are derived from their native languages. And so I think it’s necessary in this transcription work for—at some point in the process—for a person to be able to, to have knowledge of that particular tribe or maybe even be from that same region in the state just so they recognize the names, because some of them you would have no idea really what they’re saying or how to spell it if you didn’t already know it. As well as some of the terms, like some of the, the different types of songs that are sung. If you don’t have that cultural framework, then it’s going to be really difficult to understand what they’re talking about and to be able to transcribe that.
Joy Banks: Yeah. So one of the other clips that you sent was from the Summer Institute, right?
Lina Ortega: Mmhmm
Joy Banks: Do you want to talk a little bit about that program and then the clip that we can hear?
Lina Ortega: OK. The Summer Institute was sponsored here at the OU campus. I believe it started in the 1950s and I’m not sure when, when it ended here at OU. I believe it was in the 1980s. So it was something that went on for a while. It was an annual institute that was held during the summertime for a few weeks. And
I didn’t realize it until one of our anthropology professors was explaining it to me. And then I heard it explained later in a broadcast too, but it was … it had a relationship with a Wycliffe Bible translators. And so its reason for existence was for missionaries to come and get some training in linguistics and to also have some exposure to different indigenous languages and start getting practice in learning them. And being able to say some of the different sounds that are used in different languages for the purpose of making it easier for them to learn the indigenous language at a community that they were assigned to, to work with as missionaries. And so if they were, if they attended the summer institute—and oftentimes students would attend in multiple years—so if they were learning the Kiowa language at the Summer Institute it wasn’t necessarily to minister or be missionaries to the Kiowa. Oftentimes they were missionaries to indigenous communities in central or South America or even Africa sometimes. And so it was just to, to get them exposure to different types of sounds that are articulated in different languages.
So here at OU the informants as they were called—I think now, I don’t know that that term “informant” would be used—the instructors of the native languages were fluent, I would say most likely were first language speakers of their different tribes’ languages. And so a Kiowa man named Mose Poolaw was often—I don’t know that he was the coordinator of the Institutes for particular years—but he seems to have been the main or the lead instructor. And whenever the students, both the instructors and the students would participate on the Indians for Indians radio show, Mr. Poolaw was often the host of that particular broadcast. So we do have … we have four or five broadcasts from different years that feature the Summer Institute of Linguistics. And so this particular clip is a dialogue between a native Cherokee speaker as well as a student who— even though their dialogue is kind of short and I think kind of basic—the student is able to say it fluidly enough that I wonder if he had been a repeat student. I’m just, I don’t know. I’m just curious about that. Or maybe he was just gifted in linguistics and learning languages.
[Audio clip: Summer Institute Linguistics]
Host, Mose Poolaw: Next, we have a Cherokee conversation by Informant Martin Johnson and Al Pence.
Lina Ortega: So I think a lot of this has to do with just the range of the, of the broadcast signal. People from the eastern part of Oklahoma and tribes located there are not so familiar with Indians for Indians, I don’t think they listened to it. They weren’t really able to. And so that would include the Cherokee nation and it’s unusual to hear the Cherokee language on the show. That is one tribe that is not well represented on the show. And about the only time that we hear anything in Cherokee has to do with the Summer Institute of Linguistics because a Cherokee speaker was here on the OU campus at that time.
Joy Banks: You said you had a few reverends documented on the series. So the clip that you sent is from Walter Burgess.
Lina Ortega: Yes. Mmhmm
Joy Banks: Tell us a little bit about that.
Lina Ortega: So Reverend Burgess participated on Indians for Indians during a March 1949 broadcast, and he was there with other members of his congregation. And so they’re singing and they’re singing some hymns. But Reverend Burgess, who is from this Seminole missionary Baptist church, is the one who is speaking most of the time. And as he’s speaking, I can tell that he’s kind of praying and also delivering a sermon in the Seminole language. The Muskogee Creek and the Seminole, as well as the other five tribes—like the Cherokee and the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, have a long history with Christianity. Many individuals in those particular tribes were Christians even before removal to Oklahoma or to Indian Territory as it was then.
Probably the Seminoles didn’t really become Christians until they were removed to Indian Territory, but it’s something that grew very quickly, and through exposure to many different Christian denominations, there are different Indian Christian denominations as well, or Indian churches for those denominations. And so there’s a lot of Indian Baptist churches, Indian Methodist churches and so on. And so, for children who are brought up in those churches, you spend a great deal of your time in church listening to sermons and singing hymns in the native language.
[Audio clip: Reverand Walter Burgess]
Lina Ortega: I, I particularly like this clip. It’s one of my favorite examples of the Creek or Seminole languages because that really singsong talking and sermonizing and singing, where things kind of transition smoothly from speaking to singing, is very evocative of being in church, and of my other side of the family, which is Seminole and Muskogee Creek. And so a lot of times when I’ve played clips from people who are from those tribes, you can tell, you know, they get kind of misty-eyed and you can tell that it evokes a lot of memories and feelings for them. And you know, probably, they do still participate in, in their native churches, native congregations of these different churches. But also it reminds them of childhood, I think.
You can’t really tell in his singsong way of doing it, which I think is typical. It’s hard to tell if you’re not fluent in the language where something ends and something begins. You know, he’s probably, he probably has scripture verses interspersed with his own speech, but not knowing the language, it’s hard to tell that.
Joy Banks: Mmhmm
Lina Ortega: But it does show, you know, the depth of, of missionary work that these different denominations did with the different tribes for that to become such a way of life for hundreds of years and to be, you know, very much a part of everyday life and to have that native stamp on it of being able to deliver a whole sermon in your own language and as well as composing your own hymns in your own language.
Joy Banks: Yeah. There’s a, a sense of ownership.
Lina Ortega: Yes, definitely. Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it.
Joy Banks: Now, I, I don’t speak any of these languages, but even in just listening to them myself, like, for each person on there, you hear something in their voice
Lina Ortega: Uhhuh
Joy Banks: that is unique to them.
Lina Ortega: Yes,
Joy Banks: Yeah. They were all, they’re all very powerful. Well, and the last one that you shared, was this the oldest recording?
Lina Ortega: Yes,
Joy Banks: … that you had?
Lina Ortega: Mmhmm. [inaudible] The Tsatoke recording is actually on our oldest tape from 1942 and Tsatoke, otherwise known as Hunting Horse or Old Man Hunting Horse, or even Old Man Horse I’ve seen him referred to—he was Kiowa and he lived to be more than a hundred years old. I believe he lived to be 106 or 104, and in 1942 at the time of this recording, I think he’s 96 and to just imagine what he must have seen in his long lifetime during a period of just enormous change is
I think it boggles the mind. You, know, he starts, he starts out living very much as a traditional Kiowa and of course he continued that through his life, but then, you know, he makes use of any technology that becomes available. And so during the clip
You can tell that he’s an elderly person talking, but he, his voice also comes across very strongly.
[Audio clip: Tsatoke Kiowa]
Lina Ortega: Honestly I have no idea what he’s saying in the broadcast. He is speaking and singing alternately, and when he’s singing, he’s usually singing songs from the native American church or Peyote songs. And so when he’s speaking, I don’t know if he’s praying, if he’s talking about the Peyote religion, if he’s talking about something completely different. I have no idea. And so that is part, you know, this important work that needs to be done in translating or even if it’s not a word-to-word translating, at least having an idea of what he’s speaking about. Cause I know that when I create clips, I feel guilty that I’m cutting someone off right in the middle of an important thought. I wished that I had the knowledge myself to be able to, you know, at least have it at the beginning and the end of a particular thought or even a couple of sentences. But as it is they’re just random clips right now.
Joy Banks: So, Lina, why, why should we work to preserve these materials?
Lina Ortega: These, these recordings are important to preserve for different reasons. And the one that is foremost in my mind is to preserve them for the native communities whom they most closely concern and who contributed to their making. It is the case that there are ways of speaking or there are particular songs that go out of use sometimes or
They might be completely forgotten or not so much forgotten, but not heard commonly anymore. And so there’s not too many people who, who still know them and they might need to be reminded of them a little bit. And so it’s a way to help the work of cultural revitalization and language revitalization for the tribes. I think another reason to preserve these recordings is for the young people of those tribes to have access to their elders’ voices and to hear firsthand what was of concern to them at that time. And even just to hear the way that they spoke even in English, you know, cause that that changes over time as well. And to hear things that have to do with firsthand experiences of war or of going to school, I think it helps all of us have a more nuanced and better understanding of history when we get to hear these voices. You have firsthand experience of, of going to war, serving in the military or working as a teacher or
Attending an Indian boarding school in the mid 20th century. And so for those reasons, I think all of those reasons are equally important. And then something that I hadn’t thought about a whole lot before having been invited to the Radio Preservation Task Force conference that was at the Library of Congress in 2017.
That enabled me to start thinking more about how diverse voices and diverse media sources can be used in education for, for everybody, for universities and colleges across the nation as well as international ones too, and be used in K through 12 education as well. I think a lot of United States history as it involves Native Americans tends to be really abbreviated and condensed in an easily digestible format. And sources like these help all of us understand the particulars more, and the lived experiences of, of people from, from those times.
Joy Banks: How are you working towards access for these collections? Has, have you encountered challenges with, obviously probably with description but what are, how are you working on access?
Lina Ortega: Enabling access is an ongoing project and, as part of the Northeast Document Conservation Centers work to digitize the recordings, they have provided to us different versions of the files for each broadcast. And so they are enabling access by providing these files. We have a preservation file that we will always, you know, keep safe. That’s part of the, the grant funding. And then we have we have access files in both wav format and MP3 format. And so currently the OU Libraries is working to–I don’t know if upgrade is the right word–but upgrade our digital collections repository to be able to deal with audio. It’s really had, you know, great repercussions for the OU libraries projects. It’s something that needed doing anyway. But preserving this particular collection was the impetus for, you know, really getting on top of it. There is some content on this show that is ceremonial songs of different tribes and, for whatever reason, those who sang them on the, on broadcast felt like it was okay to do so. But I think that some of the tribes whose songs those are, would not feel comfortable with those recordings being publicly, freely accessible online for just anyone to hear and to potentially appropriate. And so those recordings are not going to be made available, but that work is ongoing with some of those tribes and communities to determine what’s okay to, to have online and what is not okay.
Joy Banks: Through the conversation you’ve alluded to the ongoing migration of these recordings and really sort of the audio history long-term…
Lina Ortega: Mmhmm
Joy Banks: …. to address changes in technology to keep up with the times, so to speak, and make sure that audiences are still able to interact with them.
Lina Ortega: Mmhmm
Joy Banks: So even in digitization, it seems there continue to be like, that’s not the end of the story.
Lina Ortega: Not at all. In fact, it’s the beginning of the next era, I guess I would say.
Joy Banks: So you’ve talked a little bit too about an upcoming exhibit. Did you want to go into that at all and share some of what you’re doing?
Lina Ortega: Sure. To help celebrate this renewed access for to the Indians for Indians radio show recordings, the OU Library is mounting an exhibit and it’s called “Native Voices Over the Airwaves: The Indians for Indians Hour Radio Show.” And so it’s gonna be on the main floor of the main campus library from mid-November through sometime next summer. So eight to nine months, not quite a year.
Joy Banks: It just sounds like such an amazing way to celebrate this.
Lina Ortega: Thank you. I hope so. And it’s also a a way to help make the native communities across the state aware that the recordings are going to be freely available online. So it’s just another way to, to help promote the collection. We’re also planning a symposium in the spring time and the date is yet to be determined. I’m trying to make it for early, early April, just to coincide for with when the show began. The show started on April 1st of 1941. The symposium is just a way to have a more academic or maybe more scholarly discussion about the radio show and the value of the recordings.
Joy Banks: One of the last questions that I’m sort of asking everybody is, if there was one thing about this project that has made you most the most excited or perhaps something that has impacted you the most in some way, what would that be?
Lina Ortega: Having the entire collection professionally digitized and made more accessible has enabled me to, to hear, to hear it as a body. So I talked earlier about its value as a historical resource. Through our own in-house amateur digitization, there were some recordings where I was not able to make out what was being said or even if they were singing or speaking. And so this much, much improved audio quality of the new, of the new digital files of the recordings will enable everyone to make greater use of them. And as I’ve listened to all the recordings, I’m just
Constantly astounded by the variety of content in them, some of which I think has been lost over time. And, and how it not only is a great resource for United States history as a whole, but also a very personal resource. For myself, there are references to my great grandfather. I have a couple of great uncles and cousins who are singing on the show. There is even a, a dedication that my grandmother wrote in to my uncle that she had announced on the show. And so, you know, those details are not they’re not available in our current written descriptions of the broadcast. And so I think a lot of those details have been lost to the different families and tribes that they impact over time. And I think a lot of people are going to be really moved to be able to to hear these things.
Joy Banks: Are there any other topics, things that you had on your mind, words that you wanted to say?
Lina Ortega: I think the show is important to show the idea of community life, you know, both from very specific local tribal communities, you know, local communities, even within a tribe and extending even on up to inner tribal life. And I think it’s important to show that development of inner tribal life over time.
It also shows how Native Americans have always made use of the technology that was available to them. And that is something that I like to emphasize because I think a lot of times non-native students think of Native Americans as being very, very much historical phenomenon and not living, breathing people of today who have to some extent been assimilated into United States society or American society, but yet also have that continuum of, of traditions and in ways of life from their tribes.
Joy Banks: Thank you so much for everything that you’ve shared today. It’s just such a fabulous project and I can’t wait to see how it progresses and is able to make an impact on the communities that it serves.
Lina Ortega: Yeah. Thank you. Me too. I, I feel like I’ve been the one doing a lot of talking about it, but I look forward to the time when other people are, are doing the talking about it and how it’s impacted them and their studies and their daily lives. So yeah, I do look forward to that.
Joy Banks Narration: Since Lina and I spoke, the Native Voices Over the Airwaves exhibit has opened at Oklahoma University’s Bizzell Memorial Library. You can view the collection and listen to the recordings at repository.OU.edu. The symposium is scheduled for March 26, 2020.
Joy Banks Narration: Thanks for listening to our episode. We hope that you’ll join us for Episode Six, when we’ll close out the season with staff from the Autry Museum who are working to digitize audio and audiovisual recordings representing a number of Native Nations from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.
More information on this and all our episodes, including show notes, transcript, information on our guests, and links to their projects, can be found online at material-memory.clir.org. 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 clir.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.
 The exhibit opened in November 2019
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.
Lina Ortega serves as the Associate Curator of the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Libraries. A proud member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, she is interested in how archival and special collections can be used by Native Americans for cultural revitalization.
Iñupiaq dialects—spoken by people in the Northernmost parts of Alaska—are considered “severely endangered,” with about 2,000 native speakers of these dialects alive today.
In this episode, we chat with the people who are preserving, transcribing, and translating collections of audio and video recordings of Inupiaq dialects. They discuss the joys and challenges of preserving the history and culture of the people for the next generation.
They thought they knew what had value. In 1980, soldiers stormed the headquarters of Radio Haiti, arrested its journalists, and stole or destroyed the equipment—not realizing that the station’s most powerful weapon was its audio archive, which was left neglected and damaged but intact.
In this episode of Material Memory, we talk to experts at the Amistad Research Center who are working to digitize the audio field recordings of African-American academic and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner. His work established a connection between the languages of West Africa and African Americans living in the low countries and sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. We listen to some of these recordings, discuss their importance, and hear how they bridge the distance between time and place.
Photo: Lorenzo Dow Turner makes recordings in African village. Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia Community Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Lois Turner Williams.
Joy Banks: Hello and welcome. I’m Joy Banks and I’ll be your host today on episode two of Material Memory. We hope that you’ve been enjoying our season so far. This season, we’re talking with a variety of individuals working to provide greater access to indigenous language materials through digitization of audio and audiovisual items. On this episode, I chat with staff from the Amistad Research Center, housed on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Brenda Flora: Hi, I’m Brenda Flora. I’m the curator of moving images and recorded sound at the Amistad Research Center.
Lerin Williams: My name’s Lerin Williams, I’m a master’s candidate in Ethnomusicology and a graduate assistant at Amistad Research Center.
Joy Banks: Brenda and Lerin have been working to digitize recordings of African-American academic and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner.
Joy Banks: Welcome to you both. I’m so glad that you could join me today as we talk about your project. If you want, just sort of give us an introduction to the projects and the work that you’ve been doing.
Brenda Flora: So we’re working on the papers of Lorenzo Dow Turner. Turner was an African American scholar and linguist known as the father of Gullah Studies. His 1949 publication, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, established a connection between the languages of West Africa and African Americans living in the low countries and sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. So our collection contains a number of field recordings that Turner conducted throughout the United States, as well as in Brazil and West Africa. So we’ve digitized these recordings and we’re working on creating descriptions so that we can make all of these materials available online, digitally.
Joy Banks: How many different languages do you think are represented on the recordings?
Lerin Williams: Well, they’re definitely, represented: there’s Yoruba, there’s Igbo, there’s a dialect of Igbo called Ijebu. There’s Portuguese. There is some Vai. Off the top of my head, those are the primary ones that are most prevalent in the recordings that I’ve done descriptions for so far.
Joy Banks: So, Lerin, your work that you’re doing is really, you’re getting to listen to the different recordings as they’re digitized?
Lerin Williams: Yes, this is a dream come true. I have been trying to just follow in his footsteps for the past seven years. He basically innovated the way that people approach the study of language. So he was the first African American linguist ever in the country, and so the way that he approached it, he created everything from scratch. So he pulled together different fields of scholarship and inquiry. So he’s using some Africanist theory. He’s using native speakers. He’s using social sciences theory, and primarily people who are not just European, but also from the Caribbean and from African countries. So he was a huge innovator in that regard.
Joy Banks: There are a lot of people that did field recordings during this time, but it sounds like there are certain things that really set him apart in the work that he did.
Brenda Flora: I think so. I think part of it comes from just a genuine interest and wanting to find out what the roots of this connection was. He had some students when he was a professor at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg who were Gullah speakers and hearing them talk to each other, he kind of realized that there was likely a connection between the language they were speaking and the languages of West Africa. But in the United States at that time, people just saw it as a version of English or corrupted English. And he was really—it was important to him to prove that it was more than that and that the people who were brought to the United States and Brazil as slaves had retained enough of their culture and enough of their language that that still existed in the 1920s, 1930s, when he started studying.
Lerin Williams: And the approach that he took to record, he would specifically try to get elders and people between their 40s and their 60s to interview, so you’d get a difference in vocabulary with their, what their colloquialisms were, and he also made a point to get people from different social classes, so there was a variety and diversification in who his ethnographic subjects were, which was another approach that was quite different from what ethnographers were doing at the time. He was also able to establish a relationship that was deeper than what other scholars were doing at the time because they were predominately European or white and they were coming in with an air of superiority. So part of that assumption that it was just broken English comes from a superiority complex of not being able to view that type of linguistic uniqueness as something on its own merit and as an individual type of knowledge production that deserved to be elevated and studied on the same levels as other languages.
Joy Banks: That’s really fascinating to have that sort of insight into the pursuit of collecting and documenting these different languages. So how is it that your institution got this collection? How did it how did it get there?
Brenda Flora: Well, this is a collection that was for sale up in Chicago at a rare books dealer. And one of our long-term donors purchased it for us and donated it to our collection.
Joy Banks: Is it just the recordings that you got or did you get anything else?
Brenda Flora: It’s also extensive papers. And we have some of his original recording equipment that he brought with him. Lots of photographs and other materials related to the recordings and to his career.
Joy Banks: Is it typical that institutions would also get equipment from someone who did field recordings like this?
Brenda Flora: It’s actually pretty unusual that an archival institution would keep the equipment. That’s more of an area of museums. But in this instance, it’s so closely tied to his work that we just thought it would be an important thing to keep because you have to picture him going out into the field recording people. And we’re not talking like a little handheld microphone or something like you would see today. He had large, large pieces of equipment weighing hundreds of pounds that he would have to figure out how to ship internationally or, you know, how to bring the people to the place where he had the electricity to do the recordings. And it kind of just puts a little, a little context to the work that he was doing to collect these recordings.
Joy Banks: I just think it’s so cool that you’d have his recording equipment.
Brenda Flora: Me too! The Rio de Janeiro stickers all over it.
Lerin Williams: It’s amazing. Honestly, I mean, I love the recordings themselves, but that was one of the biggest—when she asked, like, the moment for you—when I saw his recording equipment—because I’m an audiophile—like, I flipped out. It’s so large and so bulky and it’s just so hard to imagine somebody traveling by boat, like from place to place, like, oh, well, I’m here until Friday. Let me see if I can hop over to the next city and come back with all of this …
Brenda Flora: like 400 pounds, or whatever.
Lerin Williams: It’s crazy. I mean, it’s just like, before I came into ethnomusicology, I thought I wanted to be one of those song catchers that carry the bulky material, and then I saw it in person. I was like, I got to work up to it.
Joy Banks: Yeah, well I think things have gotten smaller, although maybe we need to go back to wire reel recordings, right?
Brenda Flora: Still something good now.
Lerin Williams: Right! I’m one of those people, though, who would totally get one. Like, I want to get one.
Joy Banks: And did you say when was his sort of primary activity? When did most of these recordings take place?
Brenda Flora: The recordings that we have range from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. So that encompasses the time when he was teaching at Fisk University and also at Roosevelt College in Chicago.
Lerin Williams: Yeah, and he was the first African American teacher to ever be hired to teach at Roosevelt as a all-white institution.
Brenda Flora: He was also the first African American member of the Linguistic Society of America, and one of the first 40 African Americans to earn a PhD. One thing I just thought was interesting about Turner’s career trajectory was that he never … it wasn’t until after he published his seminal work that he was actually able to visit Africa and connect those dots more directly. And he brought recordings that he had made in the new world to Africa and played for them and made the connections between the speakers and the Gullah speakers, which I think is really exciting. And just that the work that he did laid the groundwork for so much future work to come in Creole studies, African American studies, Gullah studies, dialect, geography. He was really the first in many different ways and changed the landscape of what came after him.
Joy Banks: Wow, that is a lot of firsts.
Lerin Williams: He was the first at almost everything.
Joy Banks: So Lerin, I can tell that you are really excited about working with this collection. But how did you get involved with this project?
Lerin Williams: Honestly, I had [written] a proposal to do independent research with this collection already and I’d been emailing and coming into the archives, just badgering and bothering people to see when these recordings would be made available. So, months before they were actually digitized, I was, “Oh, well please email, let me know, please email let me know.” I presented a proposal to some other executive director of the archives and then I received an email from Brenda, and it was like, “Hey, we got a CLIR grant and there’s enough funding in here for a graduate assistant to create descriptions and metadata on this collection. And I’m writing my thesis and have multiple jobs and I was like, hmmm, do I have 20 hours a week? I’m just gonna make it happen. Thank you so much. Like I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t believe that the opportunity presented itself. So thank you, Brenda, for e-mailing me with this opportunity because I would have … I was planning on doing it for free, so …
Joy Banks: Well, I’m glad that you were around and in the forefront of their minds.
Brenda Flora: But this is one of those instances where—I have a background in audiovisual material, I know about that—but as far as the linguistic specifics of it, we really wanted somebody to come in and be able to listen to the recordings and do some translation and categorize everything properly. So the collection, access to the collection, is only as good as the descriptions that we can create. So that was why we wanted Lerin on board.
Joy Banks: Do you speak multiple languages, Lerin?
Lerin Williams: I am conversationally fluent in Portuguese. I am learning Yoruba, but I mean, I don’t even know if I would consider myself a beginner. I think I’m earlier than that, like “baby’s first words” kind of situation. I can pick out some things. But I definitely have approached linguistics from the phonetics, syntax, patterns, inflections—those are the same systems that Lorenzo Dow Turner used because he wasn’t fluent in all of these languages yet. Throughout his studies, he took it upon himself to identify different scholars who studied Ga, Twi, Efik, Ewe, Fon, and Yoruba, and he studied under those people and created his own system that would later be used when people created the Peace Corps so that it was just like the way that he established the system, would lay the foundation for how people decades later would learn languages. So I’m following in those footsteps.
Joy Banks: That sort of draws us into the clips that you shared with me and I loved the combination of the two of you, I think, in these clips—between the interest in the languages that they included, and then also from a very technical standpoint, I think they told a story of the importance of preservation.
Brenda Flora: Lerin selected the clips. So do you want to just work your way through and talk about why you chose those?
Lerin Williams: I would like to prioritize the last one and spend the most time talking about that one because, even though there’s English translation, there’s this phenomenal backstory of who Martiniano Eliseu do Bonfim is as a person. And so I’ve really wanted to have an opportunity to elaborate on that one.
Joy Banks: So can you tell me a little bit about who is speaking on these two clips?
Lerin Williams: So Senhor Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim was born in 1859 in Bahia, but his mother was born in Nigeria and his father actually purchased his mother’s freedom. And so she was raised in Nigeria, in a city that no longer exists, and then taken to Lagos, and then from there she was sold into slavery. And when she arrived in Brazil shortly thereafter, his father was able to purchase her freedom. So later on, his father sent him back to Nigeria. And he was able to study English at a missionary school in Lagos for six or seven years and then go to a trade school and become, in Portuguese they call it, a pedreiro, but is something like a carpenter who works with stone, building structures, and then he also painted walls. But what’s most fascinating is that he was he was fluent in Yoruba, he was fluent in Portuguese. He was also fluent in English, as a result of his studies in Lagos, Nigeria, when he was growing up. When the beginnings of Afro Brazilian studies came to be, there was this huge rush to focus on questions of authenticity: What’s the most authentic manifestation of identity in Brazil? And one side is kind of fighting this African origin, but the other side is really trying to elevate it as something truly unique. And so they’re trying to create a museum. There was this Afro Brazilian Congress that the first one happened in Recife in 1934. And then there was one—and that was Freyre who led that congress. In 1937, Edison Carneiro, he led the Afro Brazilian Congress in 1937. So this is the first time that Afro Brazilian spiritual leaders acted and spoke, defining their own identity and their own culture in a scholarly context at a scholarly congress. And the 1937 one, because Edison Carneiro was a journalist as well as a sociologist, he was able to get all of this word out. So it was attended by over 3,000 people. And at that congress, Senhor Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim, he presented a paper that was published on Afro Brazilian and Yoruba identity. So you have this really progressive movement in scholarship, where the ethnographic subjects are no longer subjects. They’re in a space where they’re able to articulate and define for themselves. And it’s really interesting because at the same time, police officers and military—police military units were arresting people and for having these religious practices at the same time that there are these national congresses elevating the inherent value of this culture. They’re being arrested for just their cultural practices and traditions. So he, Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim, was a major spokesperson for religious freedom and the rights to govern themselves and not have a police entity enforcing restrictions on their religious practices.
[Clips 1 and 2, not transcribed]
Joy Banks: So tell us a little bit about this first clip in Yoruba.
Lerin Williams: So the first clip in Yoruba talks about where he was born. It’s a little bit of a brief autobiography. He talks about the year he was born. And in that spiritual tradition, they’re given Yoruba names. So he announces his Yoruba name, the Yoruba name of his father, and the Yoruba name of his mother, as well as introducing a little bit of his intellectual upbringing.
Joy Banks: So then the second clip that you sent, that also has Senhor Martiniano on it. What was the sort of background on that one?
Lerin Williams: That’s the English side of it, so the first clip is in Yoruba and the second clip is in English.
Joy Banks: OK, so they go together.
Lerin Williams: Yes. The intention was that they’d be playing back to back. So you can get a sense of his language acquisition and fluency, because he wasn’t really able to travel. Once he returned to Bahia, he wasn’t able to travel back to Nigeria for years and years and years. So the fact that he was able to maintain his Yoruba and English speaking facilities says a lot about the extent of his own desire to have that tie to his culture and to be able to represent it, to educate others in his spiritual community, and then also to share it with other scholars who wanted to know more about the culture and the value of Yoruba presence in Bahia and in Brazil.
Joy Banks: Was English prevalent in Brazil at that time?
Lerin Williams: No. This is only in the context of American and—scholars from America and scholars from Great Britain coming to Bahia in the late thirties, early forties to conduct research. But there were enough scholars in place that if someone was coming into town and they didn’t have a handle on the Portuguese language, then there would be someone who could serve as a translator for them. Lorenzo Dow Turner did not speak Portuguese.
There are letters of correspondence of him expressing his frustration with people speaking very quickly. But there are also evidences where he is very intentional, taking five classes of Portuguese a week, staying and being in a residence where there was only Portuguese being spoken. So he was very intentional about trying to get a handle on the Portuguese language.
[Clip transcript]: I was in Brazil, Bahia. The place that I born. I born in 16 October of 50. Eighteen fifty. Fifty nine. Yes. And my father got in me and put me in the school first class. I’ve come out from school there. Then my father takes me to Lagos, West Coast of Africa, the place they call Nigeria. I’ve been there 11 years and nine months. Before that, my father, he leaves me in this school. When I come out from school in the first class, I’ve been at grammar school. I’ve been there. A few, little time. Besides that I go to learn another trade as a mason. And when l lived (as) a mason, I worked for a little time in Lagos then my father called me for Brazil. When my father called me for Brazil, it was when my father died…
Joy Banks: Now, this is the one this was originally an aluminum disc, and I noticed at the very end of the clip that there was distortion that was captured in the digitization process.
Brenda Flora: So that’s pretty common with aluminum discs. There was a common format to carry to for field recordings instead of a deep groove. It just etches a lighter scratch on the top of the record. So it’s very prone to getting scratched and they’re very difficult to clean as well. So they’re prone to dirt and debris damaging them.
Joy Banks: Do you think—I imagine that people thought aluminum was probably a good idea because it’s metal and it’s sturdy as opposed to like a wax cylinder or something like that.
Brenda Flora: Right. When you think of other fragile formats that can get dropped and shattered or delaminate as they age, it really is a pretty robust format. So you can see why they used it.
Joy Banks: But it had a lot of problems.
Brenda Flora: But it had a lot of problems.
Joy Banks: So the next clip that I think would be interesting to talk about is the one that was the wire reel recording, or maybe it wasn’t on a reel, but it was a wire recording of the Igbo dialect? Is that [pronunciation] correct?
Lerin Williams: No—Igbo [corrects pronunciation]. So I am not fluent in Igbo; I know less Igbo than I know Yoruba, but it is it’s really tonal as well. They share that in common. So again, from a linguistic perspective, looking at the tonality, speech patterns, syntax, it’s very interesting to listen to how they convey storytelling. The clip that I selected is very reminiscent and representative of a type of storytelling found in Yoruba culture, called Alo, and it is where a storyteller or a narrator speaks. And there is one short song where the narrator sings, and then there’s a choral response, and that appears intermittently between the narration of the story. And so it can be about daily life and experiences in the culture. It can have a moral of the story. It can be more of a folktale. But there’s usually a lesson to be learned at the end of it. So that’s why I selected this clip, because it’s a really good example of that style of storytelling.
[Igbo clip not transcribed]
Joy Banks: Of the clips that you sent, this was really the clearest audio that existed, and I found that to be very interesting as a wire recording.
Brenda Flora: Yeah. And some of those wire recordings we got back were crystal clear. And it’s kind of impressive that they lasted that long. I guess just a little background about wire recordings, it was before other magnetic media like cassette tapes or reel-to-reel tapes, they would record directly on a thin steel wire on a spool. So it’s a magnetic recording, but there it’s very, very thin wire. And they’re susceptible to tangles and they’re susceptible to print-through, which is when you hear an echo in the background on the recording, so that some of our recordings, I think that’s probably present in. But we were very, very excited to get the recordings back and hear just how clear they were because we didn’t know what it was going to … because another problem with wire recordings, one of the biggest concerns, is that there’s not playback equipment readily available for it. So it’s sort of a high preservation risk to get those transferred as quickly as possible, but for the same reason it was—we had never listened to any of them and we weren’t sure what we were sending out when we got the recordings back. So we were very happy.
Joy Banks: Well, that seems to be a risk for a lot of these audio materials that you don’t know until you send it out or try to play it.
Brenda Flora: Right. That’s part of why we’re working so hard to get these descriptions done too, is because when you look at a blank record or a cassette tape with no label, you have no way of knowing what’s on the on the recording without playing it through. So that’s a high preservation risk and a high concern for intellectual control, too.
Joy Banks: the last one that you sent was a Creole song. So did you want to talk a little bit about that?
Lerin Williams: Well, in trying to anticipate a potential question … I thought that one of your potential questions might be regarding whether Creole languages could be considered as indigenous languages.
Joy Banks: I would love for you to talk about whether Creole can be considered indigenous languages.
Lerin Williams: So, if the criteria of an indigenous language pertains to a linguistically distinct system of symbols and forms of expressions shared with a specific group of people, Creole languages are definitely indigenous languages. When you think about who determines what languages get elevated or what is watered down with a—really, it’s a colonial tie that it’s always being compared to and included with instead of being treated within its own merit. You start to think, OK, why isn’t it held to its own on its own? Why isn’t it regarded in the same way that other languages are? And so if you speak to members of a Gullah Geechee community, they maintain it’s their own language. And there are a lot Yoruba; the way that is spoken now in Brazil is just inherent to there. The Yoruba that’s spoken in Nigeria is completely different. So if someone from an older generation heard some of the words, they might be able to decipher and identify them. But a native Yoruba speaker today would not listen to the way that it appears in obviously religious and sacred contexts and heard in the songs that they would not readily be able to identify it as the same Yoruba spoken in Nigeria. So that is another way that we can note that it is very distinct, regional among the shared group of people. And that to me—those are the main markers of an indigenous language. So to me it is.*
Joy Banks: I appreciate that you brought that up because—and I think that in the framing work that the U.N. has done for this year—they’ve allowed a much broader definition for indigenous language that I think is telling, itself, that this is about the people, right? It’s not about some textbook that tells us things.
Lerin Williams: Exactly.
Joy Banks: So then the last clip that you sent ….
Lerin Williams: Sure. Miss Hosanna. Sometimes the descriptions are tricky to read because it’s his own handwriting. And as you can imagine in the field, he’s just scrambling to transcribe as many hours as possible before he has to hop on a plane or a boat to get back. He often traveled by boat. So, Miss Hosanna:
[Krio clip not transcribed]
Lerin Williams: I believe this recording was done in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And the language is Krio—K R I O—as opposed to the way it’s written on the description. And it is audible—but you have to strain to hear it—but I loved the timbre of her voice, the inflection in the melodies, the melismas. There was a rhythm to it that was very reminiscent of the Caribbean. So I think it kind of demonstrated the story of the creation of Krio language and culture a bit. You know, the amalgamation of Jamaican and Great Britain, Nova Scotia freed African people of African descent coming together and creating this new space and new cultures. So that’s a clip that I thought represented the most, even though you have to strain to hear it.
Joy Banks: Well, and that I think it sort of moves into a conversation about the importance of the preservation of all of these and at least trying to get something. It’s like I just ask, well, let what’s the point? Why are we trying to do this? Why try when the audio is not perfect?
Brenda Flora: I think because the importance of the record being there. And just like Turner was trying to race time to collect this older dialects that were no longer in use and find the elders in the towns who remember the most knowledge, it’s up to us to get it all in a position so that it’s available to people for generations to come now, while the recordings are still playable. And sadly, we’re hitting a point where a lot of them are becoming unplayable very quickly.
Lerin Williams: To add to that, I think another reason why it’s so important to digitize these recordings is because, at least with this particular collection of recordings, you can actually hear in a context where there was still colonial occupation in certain countries, this huge effort and push of an intrinsic method of passing knowledge down. So, Lorenzo Dow Turner also, when he was in Abeokuta, Nigeria, he visited language schools and grammar schools and documented not only professors reciting proverbs, tales, singing songs, and riddles; he recorded children and the way that they would recount these. And so you have concrete documentation of the ways that people maintained, protected, and guaranteed the continuity of their culture in these recordings. And so maybe those systems can be reproduced now by having these available. Maybe this is a mode of knowledge production that can be recreated globally and with indigenous languages and with all of these different languages that we have here. That’s why I think it’s so important.
Brenda Flora: And also, when we’re talking specifically about these international collections, the idea that we can make it available digitally and make it available online so that it reaches a wider audience, including the countries where these recordings were made: we think that’s very important too.
Joy Banks: And that seems to be a conversation that’s happening a lot about a lot of collections that are related to different cultures, and I think there’s two questions here. One: there’s conversations happening about the way that these collections were made, but it sounds like Turner really took a much different approach than maybe some of the other peers that were around at the time doing field recordings where he saw these languages as living, as opposed to some of the other linguists who thought they were documenting the end of a culture.
Brenda Flora: And I think he was also just respectful of the people that he was working with. He made sure to compensate people for their time, buying groceries or paying them a small fee. So I think part of it is just approaching people as an equal and as a person, which I think probably allowed him to get a lot more access than other linguists might have.
Joy Banks: Well, and, maybe even more genuine recordings.
Lerin Williams: Right. And there’s even documentation of … so, of course, being a scholar and being a member of different linguistic societies, he did have relationships with other scholars who wanted to know what his findings were. So either they were providing funding for his research or whatever. So there was a time where he invited someone—and it’s documented—that one of his ethnographic informants was just like, why did you bring this white person here? Like, that’s documented as one of the experiences that he had. So that speaks to the level of trust and the kind of relationship that he had with people to where it was like, OK, well, I see you as this. We can share these because it’s names. It’s … some of this is very sacred. You know, some of this is something they kept just among themselves. That’s why it lasted and was preserved for so long, because there was such outer dismissal of the significance and the value of their language. So, not saying that that is why it was held so closely, I think it had an impact for sure. And so they knew linguists in the past who had come to talk to them were dismissive of the way that they spoke and published that it was rudimentary. It was this crass, you know, sort of people who didn’t have the intellectual capacity to learn proper English, like that’s how they were spoken about. So I wouldn’t feel so inclined to be forthcoming with my language, knowing that that’s going to be the result of an academic inquiry—that it’s someone being dismissive entirely of my culture. And Lorenzo Dow Turner also made a point, to, in addition to compensation, he made sure to get native speakers [translators] from Africa. This is the timeline where a lot of countries were [starting to] gaining independence and he was part of a Pan Africanist movement. And this is again part of the transnational knowledge production piece, where when students would come from different African countries, he made a point to establish educational programs so that they were the ones doing translations and teaching Vai, Ga and Yoruba and Efik. So he worked personally with them and made sure they were paid. And they were students; they weren’t in a position to get grant funding per se. He struggled himself getting funding to publish his book and to travel to these different places to help bolster the findings of his research, and he knew—the whole time he knew—he just needed the resources to be able to get there. And I think in projects like what we’re doing here, making these documentations available for people in other countries, it’s an opportunity for people to have access and to self-publish and to be in positions where they can utilize this information to … even from a person who belongs to that community, to that ethnic community—a native speaker. Now they’re able to write something with insights that someone like myself or someone from England or France or whatever, they don’t have the same level of insight. But they also don’t have the resources, so it’s a means to provide access that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
Brenda Flora: But also then a means to provide richer scholarship surrounding the recording so everybody wins.
Joy Banks: So do you anticipate that you’ll have many access restrictions on these recordings? Is what you have sensitive, especially in light of the trust that the individuals had with Turner?
Brenda Flora: One thing we talked about early on in the project was kind of noting if it was a religious ritual or something related to faith, because we want to make sure we’re sensitive around those issues. But I don’t know, have you flagged anything as …?
Lerin Williams: I need to flag a lot of things because there is a lot of material. That’s the thing, especially in the Brazilian context of Yoruba presence, it’s very inundated with sacred songs. There are Yoruba words for different elements that are directly pertaining to faith [customs and traditions]. And if you do a little more digging into the scholarship of the time around the 1930s, like around 1936, 37, 38, when people from the Brazilian elite class were starting to put out more and more articles and publish regarding Afro Brazilian spirituality, they wanted to publish everything and they went to the heads of these religious temples. They would go to them and just say, OK, give me all the Yoruba [words used in] recipes for all of your sacred rituals. And it’s like, no, you can’t do that. That compromises your faith, that compromises your position with your community and that, you know, depending on your belief system, I mean, that’s endangering yourself and everything that you’re standing for and creating. So that’s a real issue.
Brenda Flora: So we’re working our way through the first level of digitizing them, preserving them, providing access to a wide range of people, but hopefully that will just continue to expand as more people use the collection and can provide us with more information about the materials as well.
Joy Banks: Are you doing the metadata in multiple languages?
Lerin Williams: That was what I suggested before we started. That was one of the first suggestions I made. That’s like the first conversations we had about this in creating it. And it’s like that’s a goal. We’re working on it. I don’t know when it’s going to come about, but we’ve definitely discussed creating the metadata in multiple languages, especially the predominant languages that were his ethnographic subjects.
Brenda Flora: I would say that’s the ideal for all of our multi language collections.
Joy Banks: Do the infrastructure and software systems that you have in place allow for that, or would there have to be significant development in order to implement a multilingual metadata process?
Brenda Flora: Well, we haven’t implemented it yet for any of our collections. We have, as far as I know, anyway, we have—we’re primarily operating in English. So I think it’s something we would have to explore.
Lerin Williams: Just on my personal computer, I have all of the different accent marks and notations for Portuguese, but I don’t readily have the ones for Yoruba available. And so I don’t know if that’s something I need to download or if it’s a larger program thing. I’m not sure. That’s something for the near future that I’m trying to—that we’re both trying to—figure out.
Joy Banks: You’re not alone.
Lerin Williams: I hope everyone’s on board with it. It would be, it’s just such a resource. And that’s … it should be that way. Everyone should be able to access it. But even more so, the native speakers of who’s documented because the relevance and the identity and just the resonance that it can hold for people who whose cultural heritage has quite violently been stripped away. I think it’s important to center those people and provide—in any way, shape, or form we can—that connection. And I think that had something to do with Turner’s never-ceasing emphasis on making sure that he could provide these tangible measures to connect these communities.
Joy Banks: So we’re coming up to the end of our scheduled time. What might be the one thing— whether it’s a recording, or an interaction with a user, or some other experience that you have had through working with this project—that has been the most exciting or the most impactful to you? Big question.
Brenda Flora: Well, I can answer your question for me, at least. For me, the most exciting moment of this project was when we got the first test recordings back from the lab and I listened to them for the first time and got to hear those voices from 1930s wire recordings, you know, recorded far away from where we are, in a far-away time. And it just bridges that that distance between time and place. I found it very exciting.
Joy Banks: Had you ever been able to listen to any of these prior to that?
Brenda Flora: No. We never listened to any of them. So that was … we didn’t we didn’t know when we got the recordings back off there would be anything on them or if it would be too muddled to hear anything. So it was very, very exciting. And here’s Lerin.
Joy Banks: Can you choose just one?
Lerin Williams: I literally cannot choose just one. I mean, every time I press play, it’s just—because I’m also a musician, I’m getting a masters in ethnomusicology. So everything I listen to, is just fireworks going off. I mean, it’s … it’s just phenomenal that that much was preserved. I mean, the first time I pressed play and I heard the quality of the sound and the fact that the majority of them have that level of audibility and clarity. That was really impactful because I had no idea recording technology could last that long because everything today is created in a way so that it’s obsolete. So you have to purchase and purchase and purchase. The fact that I can hold his notes in my hand and listen to these recordings and look at him scribbling down syntax and oh, this word means this. And this song is with regard to this tradition, all every single thing, every single day. Like, I can’t really choose one.
Brenda Flora: And I think it’s one thing to be able to read a book about a subject, and then something else to read a book by somebody who’s been there and done that. Something else to read something they hand-wrote. But something about audio recordings and moving images, too, where you’re actually hearing the voices—you just feel connected in a way that can’t be replicated.
Joy Banks: Yeah, well, even listening to the clips that you shared with me, I don’t speak any of the languages, but to hear a voice from the past and just, yeah, there’s something about audio that is different.
Lerin Williams: It’s transcendent. You’re literally transported to that time period, to that place. It is just, it’s great. I think it’s really important to add just like a larger framework of linguistics and ethnography. And the question of historical memory and cultural heritage. Because despite having scholarship and archival records, there’s such a disparity in representation of who has access and who’s able to conduct these studies in the first place. And then there’s also legislation put in place that is directly contributing to the genocide of the cultures that we’re talking about here. I mean, right now there’s an 88 percent increase in wildfires in the Amazon than there was last year. So I think when we’re having these conversations of this being a year of indigenous languages, we have to think about what that looks like in terms of application. It doesn’t have to just be a symbolic valorization. It should be a very tangible, measurable valorization so that things are put into place and people are actually protected and not continuously displaced, removed from their homelands, and their actual ways of life prevented from continuity.
Joy Banks: Yeah. And I think that was one of our hopes in sort of joining this conversation that has been happening this year. And if we can do anything to help broadcast work that was done in the past and work that is being done now to make a difference for the future, that is something we’re always interested in doing. But the more that we can have these conversations and the more that we can talk about it and then also do practical application, which is the important last step, Lerin, you’re right that it’s not just talking about it. It’s doing something about it, too. Is that a nice ending point?
Lerin Williams: I could keep going, but that was a very nice closing remark.
Joy Banks: Well, thank you both so much for your time and the conversation. And I’ve just really enjoyed talking with you.
Brenda Flora: Thank you so much for having us.
Lerin Williams: Thank you; yeah, this is a great conversation.
Joy Banks: Thanks so much for listening to our episode. We hope that you’ll join us on episode three when we’ll talk to staff at the Duke University Libraries who will share their journey through a restoration project to save recordings from Radio Haiti, which was a voice of social change and democracy that advocated human rights and celebrated Haitian culture and heritage. We also hope you’ll stick around for the full season of Material Memory, and do be sure to rate, review, and subscribe.
More information on today’s episode, including show notes, transcript, information on our guests, and links to their projects, can be found online at material-memory.clir.org.
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 clir.org.
To learn more about preservation efforts happening in your area and ways that 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.
*Note by Lerin Williams: It is important to note that there are diverse ethnicities within what is considered a Pan-Yoruba identity today in Nigeria. These ethnic groups have their own linguistic and cultural traditions. The term Yoruba to describe the broader designation of people from the region became standardized and more widely used around the era of British colonization in Nigeria, beginning during the nineteenth century
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.
Brenda Flora is the curator of moving images and recorded sound at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. She holds a master’s degree in film archiving from the University of East Anglia and is a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and the Association of Moving Image Archivists, where she currently serves as co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Board. She has been with Amistad since 2010 and has completed several grant-funded projects including projects funded by CLIR, the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, and the National Park Service.
Lerin Williams is a master’s candidate in ethnomusicology at Tulane University. She has worked as a graduate assistant at the William R. Hogan Jazz Archive and the Amistad Research Center. Her ethnographic fieldwork in transnational knowledge production, oral history, cultural heritage, and linguistics has taken her to Brazil and the Caribbean. She has interned with the Louisiana Museum of African American History, and participated as a member of their Martinique delegation. Williams’s scholarship in ethnomusicology is concerned with community-led approaches to the preservation and continuity of material and intangible culture.