S1 E5: “Hello, Friends” The Story of the Indians for Indians Radio Hour

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 And the recordings of some of the broadcasts—not all of them, unfortunately—but some of them have been archived here in the Western History Collection for decades.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..

Yes, Yeah.

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 [1] 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.

[Cherokee dialogue]

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.


[1] The exhibit opened in November 2019

Joy Banks

Show Host

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


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.

S1 E4: Not Even in the Dictionary

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.


S1 E3: The Duty of Memory

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.


S1 E2: Connected to the Legacy

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

Show Host

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

Brenda Flora


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


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.

S1 E1: The Ethics of Access

How can recordings of indigenous languages be made accessible to the communities they represent? In this episode of Material Memory, we talk to experts about the ethical considerations and complexities of providing broad access to recordings that may be culturally sensitive—sacred sounds, songs and language—and why it’s important to reconnect people to their own content. One lesson? The story doesn’t end once something is digitized.


International Year of Indigenous Languages website: https://en.iyil2019.org/

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. https://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/FHPL_NAGPRA.pdf


Joy Banks: Hello and welcome. I’m Joy Banks and I’ll be your host on this first season of CLIR’s new podcast, Material Memory. For those of you unfamiliar with CLIR, we are an independent nonprofit organization that for the last 65 years or so has helped to support the work of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations through things like programs, promotion, and publications. On this season, we’re celebrating the U.N.-declared International Year of Indigenous Languages. In each of our six episodes, we’ll be speaking with people involved in the work of restoring audio and audiovisual recordings of indigenous languages and their sometimes Herculean efforts to make these recordings accessible to the communities they represent. In this episode, I’ll be sharing pieces of several conversations I had on the complexities of providing broad access to recordings containing material that may be culturally sensitive. You’ll be hearing from a few speakers on this episode.

Chris Aplin: Chris Aplin, I’m an independent scholar and archival consultant with the Fort Sill Apache tribe with their digital sound archives.

Lylliam Posadas: My name is Lylliam Posadas and I am the I’m the repatriation and community research manager for the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Josh Garrett Davis: My name is Josh Garrett Davis. I’m an associate curator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Joy Banks: Most of today’s episode will be filled with the conversation I had with Chris. We’ll hear more from both Lylliam and Josh on a later episode in the season when they’ll talk more about their digitization project with some other colleagues from the Autry Museum. For the last 20 years or so Chris has been working with the Fort Sill Apache tribe in Oklahoma to inventory, digitize, and describe their archival materials. I just wanted to start a little bit by describing having you describe for us a little bit about the work that you’ve done with languages—indigenous languages. What’s your background?

Chris Aplin: I’m an ethnomusicologist so I actually start musically is where I begin. I’ve been working with the Fort Sill Apache tribe for a period of about 20 years and we’ve built a relationship across that time dealing with ethnomusicology, music, how music is put together, and the way that music carries history. Over time I’ve kind of become well versed in the general historical documentation of the tribe. I’ve done research at the National Archives, Library of Congress, regional archives like Oklahoma Historical Society and Museum of the Great Plains. So there is a musical aspect to it. There’s an anthropological aspect too, because I’ve been doing a lot of research on Morris Opler, who wrote the book on Apache and ethnography and a subset of that would be Harry Hoijer’s work, which was linguistic you know. So I’ve kind of worked my way through the literature surrounding this particular tribe, this particular history, and after 20 years I was able to begin a inventory of their audio collections, which at first I thought were mostly going to be cassettes and reels but I soon discovered they actually had a number of fragile discs—instantaneous discs—and so it’s really been kind of a project of discovery that began with music but also spread it out to include history, anthropology, and language too.

Joy Banks:  It seems to me like working on a project like this comes with a lot of different complications; it’s not just even the material formats but some of the subject materials that might be encountered with any sort of tribal recordings. Did you find that to be true?

Chris Aplin: Yes. There are a lot of issues in terms of privacy, in terms of fears of appropriation and misuse of material, or another way to think about it is transgressions or desecration of sacred sounds, sacred songs, sacred language, and things like that.

Joy Banks: You might find yourself wondering, how is it that institutions assure appropriate access to materials, especially when dealing with a variety of cultural or ethical restrictions. In Lylliam’s position at the Autry Museum, her entire job is centered around the process of repatriation of items and I imagine that term may be new to some of our listeners. In the field of libraries, archives, and museums, repatriation is really about the thoughtful and careful return of objects and other items in collections that may be tied to communities and people groups. In some cases, these items may have been acquired through less than desirable means by either individuals or perhaps by institutions. So Lylliam shares a little about the work they are doing to assure that access is achieved in a respectful manner.

Lylliam Posadas: We, because we had already been working together in addressing questions about not just repatriation but also questions about access, like how do we ensure that tribes are involved in the decisions that are made about how their things are used, how they’re accessed, how they’re researched, how they’re cared for, and recognizing that these are their things. They may be in the control of the Autry, may be in the possession of the Autry, but this is content that’s coming from the tribes, and for a long time people have been separated from these things. And so in our efforts to do something like digitize these recordings, it’s just taking those very first steps to reconnecting people to those, the content in those recordings and allowing people to decide what they want to do with them.

Joy Banks: A lot of this work is dependent on relationships filled with trust. Chris shares a bit more about forming relationships with and among tribes.

Chris Aplin: Yeah I’d say working with any native tribe you have to establish a good relationship. I would say that it’s a very long-term game. Building trust is a matter of time.

There’s a lot of advice and consent, I think, that goes that’s interwoven in a project like ours. So far with our own digitization project, we’ve gone through a process of inventory, of grant writing, of digitization, and now we’re in a process of processing cataloging and trying to determine contents that are acceptable for possible public access. I think that we’ve really knocked out some very important work. I think that we have had a lot of fun doing it, and also been really set on fire by the contents of the collections that we’re dealing with, you know, and it takes a lot of time for people to understand that, I guess. Even yesterday I was trying to deal with some administrative notes for the tribe and it kind of struck me how at one point they were like, they looked at me and they were like, how much work still needs to be done on this? And the truth is any librarian archivist knows I mean it’s, there’s a lot of work that goes into the cataloging of it and particularly noting the hesitations that people in the community have about sharing it outside the tribe. You know, it really is a very detailed process that’s going to take a considerable amount of time to do correctly. We dealt with—I’m trying to remember how many we—I think we had 373 hours of recordings, which is not the biggest in the world but it really is hard to walk through people who aren’t part of that archival/academic/scholarly world with the details of what it means to maintain a collection like this.

Joy Banks: Beyond description of newly digitized items, those working with these materials often also have to address issues with older or legacy descriptions that may be inaccurate or just plain wrong. Josh talks about how he has encountered this in some of his research work.

Josh Garrett Davis: It is an ongoing conversation in terms of thinking how to document when we realize that whoever created the metadata was wrong or potentially that they—that it’s something that shouldn’t have been shared in a kind of semi-public archival sense. It took 100 years to create a lot of these archives and probably take 100 years to get through all of it in a sense because it just kind of comes up as these interactions happen. We don’t even know how something ended up here or we may it may be listed as from the wrong tribe or it may… So it’ll take us a lot of time probably to figure out some of those cases but in any case, the community is really the only source where we can find information. Otherwise it’s just sort of sitting in limbo here, where we kind of aren’t sure what we have and aren’t sure what’s the right thing to do with it.

Joy Banks: Lylliam shared a little about how digitization is really only the first step in finding out what they have.

Lylliam Posadas: But the thing is we don’t actually know fully what’s in the collection until we start having those conversations with the tribal representatives. We may know that something sounds like a song, but we don’t really know what it is, or the value of that song, or the cultural importance and meaning of that song and how it needs to be cared for—who should be listening or not listening to it. And once we have those conversations then we’ll have a better grasp of how to restrict them or how to make them available. And that could mean that a culturally sensitive song, for example, may be restricted to researchers and may only be available to tribes—to the tribal community that is connected to that song. It may also mean that the tribe may request that we only make it available to very specific individuals in the tribe, or it may mean that even though it’s a culturally sensitive or a sacred song that the tribe may be completely comfortable with it being available to the general public so it really really depends. And so when we as we create this infrastructure to move us forward—because we’re hoping to continue to do this this kind of work with a variety of different materials—having that flexibility built into the infrastructure to allow us to meet a variety of different needs is really critical and, for me, I don’t think of it so much as establishing a kind of best practice, but more about asking the right questions or learning to know … trying to to understand what are the right questions to ask that can lead us to making the right choices.

Joy Banks: Chris describes how access can allow rediscovery of material that may have been passed between community members for generations.

Chris Aplin: For the community, too, they are just discovering these materials again. It’s interesting because going through these recordings there are actually a lot of previously migrated recordings so they’ve made the rounds in the community for a number of decades; not all of them but there are some materials, you know, that you find in different collections and people have been sharing this. You know it’s kind of an intimate gift giving you know that people do to share history. But you know you’re just kind of picking through all the different layers of this. But beyond that, the tribe has not had access to this full breadth of material, and they’re not quite sure how to use it. And since we’ve started going through the process, as I’ve said my interest is in music. I want to set music as priority number one. When I asked the tribe what they want, they want to prioritize language, oral histories, then music. I think that’s probably fairly common, especially for a lot of tribes that are dealing with endangered languages. And I think that even in the sphere of music, I think that regaining some sort of knowledge about the language is one of the key things that that music can provide for communities.

Joy Banks: Yeah, because I think even just in general language as we all learn to speak, music is often used as a tool for reinforcement and education.

Chris Aplin: Yeah, I think it’s the sweetest pill for people to try to begin re-acquiring language. And when I deal with—I’ve given lectures at Comanche Nation College, Riverside Indian School, and a lot of times, and at the tribe, and typically people are lit up by the music itself. You know there is just something celebratory and joyous about it. So we do prioritize some of that music for translation and possible inclusion in a song book. But they are also of a particular type: they tend to be more social, or Christian hymns, or songs that are, you know, deemed more appropriate for circulation in the community and with strategic contacts outside the community too.

Joy Banks: I would guess music is woven a lot through very personal cultural ceremonial and religious aspects of different tribes, so you really have to be aware of that as you’re looking at these things.

Chris Aplin: You do have to be very aware of the sacred in terms of the music. Sacred also spreads for some tribes; some tribes will extend it to other things. You know there may be certain forms of speech and some people even argue language might be sacred. But for the most part, in terms of what I’m dealing with it tends to be sacred musics. They carry prayers. They’re really only supposed be handled by skilled practitioners—you know, people who are trained in their use. And so you do have to be very aware of that. And I consider it, I consider it a primary responsibility to try to identify as best as possible and to protect those types of materials.

Joy Banks: Lylliam reflected a bit on creating a flexible and respectful infrastructure for description as well as their own hopeful use of the traditional knowledge or T.K. labels.

Lylliam Posadas: Well, when we started working on this particular project, we had this background sort of established and so we just drove into questions about how do we— knowing that we need to involve tribes and knowing that we need to ask questions about access and research restrictions or care and stewardship—how do we create a system and an infrastructure that allows us to work with tribes in a manner that’s effective and productive and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of different needs and interests, because we may be working with tribes from all over the country. And in order to—and it’s so important to have that infrastructure in place so that if there are staff changes, or if there’s funding changes, or there’s …  we have a structure that someone can come in and follow and the work isn’t lost. And then the data is captured somewhere: like we also don’t want to waste anyone’s time. When we’re working with a tribal representative or community member and they’re sharing stories about a song or something that’s captured in a recording, that information—if we have permission to keep record of that—needs to be respectfully stored and not lost in a way that then you know 5, 10, 20 years from now someone in … a new staff person is revisiting this recording and then needing to again request information from the tribe when they’ve already provided it. So we don’t want to overburden anyone, and we want to be responsible in how we gather information, enrich what we know about what’s in our collections, and ensure that we are we’re not moving backwards and doing the same things over and over again.

Lylliam Posadas: The other thing I’m really excited about is that we are going to start using traditional knowledge labels in our database and in how we share these recordings. So that’s going to be great, testing that out, and it’s also spurred conversations about how we not only think about how these songs are shared with the public or not shared with the public but how staff internally interact with these with these recordings and how staff are interacting with these recordings through the database, and how even having these traditional knowledge labels visible to staff is an important education tool. It’s also an important means to which staff can make an active choice to view a record or to not view a record if they’re confronted with a label that says this is culturally sensitive or this song should only be listened to in the winter and these sorts of things.

Joy Banks: Chris picks up with handling the complexities of rights when donors make special requests.

Chris Aplin: One of the people who donated their materials at one point said that once we receive the digitized materials that individual was clear—clearly stated that they wanted me to put everything under copyright in her name. And my response was that you can’t copyright those kinds of materials, and even if you do those terms run out. And so what I was largely resting on was that this is for an educational project for use within the community, and that we’re having a lot of determinations and deliberations on appropriate access and use of those materials.

Joy Banks: It seems as though a lot of people are having this discussion, especially as it relates to cultural heritage materials. And I would be interested to see how the conversation progresses because I think you’re right that there’s not an answer right now. But you know you apply these labels, you apply restrictions, but what is the enforcement and then what does that mean for the future?

Chris Aplin: Right. Right. So I you know I’m open to them and understanding them and it’s a … again, you know protecting these materials I consider to be the most important thing that I can do trying to usher this project through. And so we prioritize it a certain way. It makes it a lot easier actually having music as a third priority, because then those sacred songs are protected. So really what we’re focusing on are oral histories and on languages. The language to me seems the most non-controversial. You can take this language you can chop them up into bits. I think the truth is the tribe should have a first right of review and access.

Chris Aplin: And they are having this as we’re going through the process of trying to learn what’s in the tapes and figure out how to use them. They are getting a sense of that. I would also say, though, that they’re … that even when meeting last time there was still some hesitation about the wrong people getting their hands on some of this knowledge. I do feel like it starts in the community. Once the community has it, perhaps we create a, you know, we help revise and edit their language book, we provide digital copies or even CDs—it’s still common in the community, you know—to the tribe. They are able to have access to their language again which they actually have not since the early 80s. And so they can, so they can access that that language and they can sort of internalize it for themselves.

Joy Banks: Josh shared a firsthand encounter illustrating why this access is so important.

Josh Garrett Davis: Actually just yesterday—this isn’t related exactly to sound recording but it is—I was meeting with some native community members about another project, and they had been part of a cultural revitalization in the past 25 or 30 years of some various parts of cultural practice, and this guy who was in his 60s say was saying, “You know I had to kind of go to anthropologists and archaeologists and museums to learn all this stuff, and I want my grandkids to be able to put in a disc and hear it from me.”

Joy Banks: Once access to language is restored, Chris shares how partnerships start to form.

Chris Aplin: At that point, it would be a natural space to start cooperating and collaborating with other communities who have a similar language. I’m not a linguist. It’s hard for me to get a sense of how distant these different groups are. I’m working with Fort Sill Apaches, or Mescalero Apaches, San Carlos Apaches, different types of Western Apaches, and the Navajo is related to Jicarilla and Kiowa-Apache you know, and it’s just trying to figure out, after we get it in the tribe, we get it cut up so that they have audio support for the linguistic text, which I think is hugely important. And you can use these recordings to do that kind of work. But once the community has had that, they’ve been able to digest it within the community, it’s trying to get those out and get those materials out and partnerships in a strategic and intelligent way. So, again, a long-term process.

Joy Banks: One of the questions I’ve sort of been asking is: Why? Why bother? What’s the point of all of this work? What’s the point of establishing these relationships? What’s the point of working to migrate and sometimes re-migrate these audio materials?

Why are we doing this?

Chris Aplin: Well because there’s a deep undercurrent of history that’s been overlooked. But the truth is, if you change your frame of reference just a little bit off this, you know, there’s been operating in history, “the great men,” “the great leaders” right? Since, you know, the mid-19th century people have been in a pursuit of the great changers in our society. But if you take the camera focus just a little bit off that and start looking at another subject that you can … another individual that you can really start putting together biographical data on, start understanding them in terms of language, start understanding them as, instead of the common thing, which is as warriors or as victims—and that’s a characterization used by Philip Deloria, which I think is a good characterization for the way that they talk about it in the Apache historiography. But if you can move the focus from warriors and victims to, for example, musicians and artists, youths, you get a totally different take on it. And it opens up a whole different world, and eventually you look at those great men and you’re like, “Wait is that the right great man to focus on?” because there are actually—if you go into any Apache community—there are other great men, and I would say actually given their times, they can be really riveting subjects for understanding what was going on back then.

Joy Banks: The appearance of true humanity and historical recordings also has a significant impact on Josh and his research and collections.

Josh Garrett Davis: In one of our collections, the Southwest museum’s founder, Charles Lummis, went with his phonograph recorder out to the Sherman Indian School or Sherman Institute, which is out in Riverside, California, about 60 miles east of here, and he recorded something like 60 recordings of students singing, and in one of those a group of three boys were singing and they kind of laughed. There’s a little laugh in the middle of the song, so I don’t know if one of them made a mistake, or if they were looking at each other or something like that. But there’s this sort of moment where their youth and their humanity kind of really comes through in its way, and so you can kind of forget about for a moment maybe Lummis’s perspective that he’s kind of thinks he’s documenting traditions that are dying out in his view, right? That that’s the kind of constant thing with anthropology, especially in the early 20th century, as if they are trying to salvage scraps of these cultures before they’re … before they vanish. But you kind of, if you’re sort of thinking about the context of these young teenager students and they’re singing with their friends and they’re, they kind of laugh in the middle there is this this moment of—that Lummis’s perspective and how he may have been wrong about the fact that more of these traditions are dying out. You kind of forget that and you’re just thinking about these adolescents kind of singing. It’s really clear that their human experience comes through.

Joy Banks: The theme of disappearing people came up in many conversations. Lylliam shares her response when she encounters this mindset even today.

Lylliam Posadas: That’s actually a question I’ve been asked a few times, and I’ve been in situations with other materials in the collection—other objects where I’ve had to request that maybe a researcher or a scholar who is interested in using a collection item—I’ve asked that they seek permission from the tribe or to show some kind of proof of engagement and consent from the tribe that they are working together or that they can access this item and write about it and do something with it and research it and in some cases have gotten replies that, for example, say something like, “Well no one is connected to these objects anymore.” You know, “All of these people are gone now,” or “All of these people have since migrated to Canada or Mexico,” and those, they don’t have a tribal government that’s structured in a way that the researcher can ask permission of a particular individual so it’s … and really that’s nonsense. I hate to be frank, it is. When I talked to you know to the people I work with, tribal representatives I work with, there’s always a connection. There’s always a connection somewhere. And oftentimes that means educating that researcher and saying that, you know, people don’t go extinct. People are still here. And those those ties are still very much alive. And sometimes it’s not hard to find that information out. But if you already are coming from a place of thinking that you know a culture has disappeared or people have disappeared, then you’re not going to look for for those connections.

Joy Banks: Chris picks back up with his own personal connection to these materials.

Chris Aplin: I’m a musician. The music’s great. I love the music. I mean, I grew up playing in bands and orchestras, mariachis, Indonesian gamelans, but for the past 15 years now I’ve really mostly listened to Apache tunes. I like them. They’re good tunes—they’re catchy, they’re hooky, but they’re also vehicles for language and for understanding some parts of their history. It’s also good for understanding the way people celebrate their joy, their families, which is a different way to write Native American histories because it’s not all about violence and, you know, clashes of civilizations. So, you know, you learn a lot more there, and then the linguistic piece I think is kind of interesting, you know, because there might have been a certain point where I’m like, “oh, sky is falling proclamations,” you know, which are kind of common. You know these recordings will not last. They’ll disappear. These languages, they will disappear. You know, why why should we care? I mean to me, tied to the language—sorry, tied to the history—language just becomes more meaningful, because at this point I am invested in the community. I know those histories. I know those families. I know the joy. And I’ve also heard the language and the distinctiveness of it.

And actually, there was a common sort of thing that I use to sort of, you know, explain what I think is so beautiful about Southwest Oklahoma, where the Fort Sill Apaches are from is there was an anthropologist, M. R. Harrington (Mark Raymond Harrington), who was doing field research there—in 1911-1912, somewhere between 1909 and 1912 is what I’d say—and he was in what they call a fire dance, which is a masked ceremonial common for poor Apaches. And he was describing the social scene at one of these dances, which were performed by Apache prisoners of war. The whole community were prisoners of war. And he was describing the scene and basically to sort of paraphrase it he says, “There among the sheeted visitors,” which is to say is the Southern Plains context. That’s a very different type of Indian than other types of Indians, those Eastern Woodlands, those civilized tribes. They’re among the sheeted visitors as blanket Indians. You could hear the singsong, drawling tones of the Kiowa, which is I think a very good descriptor of that Kiowa language. Then the matter-of-fact sounds of the Comanche language, and the Apache language, which is one of the most difficult phonetics that my ear has ever heard. It’s something along those lines; it’s been a while since I’ve referred to that quote. But when I think about it, the way that that language speaks so clearly about those different groups—and it’s not just linguistic, but it’s political, it’s historical, it’s cultural. But it’s also describing a cosmopolitan world which I think most people don’t think about in terms of Indian histories.

Joy Banks: Yeah. Well, so much of this culture was captured in an oral tradition. I know many of these languages didn’t have written versions until even into the 20th century. So Western culture sort of struggles with that a little I think.

Chris Aplin: Yeah.

Joy Banks: Another theme when talking about Indigenous language was adoption of technology. Josh describes some misconceptions about North American tribes.

Josh Garrett Davis: I think it’s sort of astonishingly widespread how many people think that Native people aren’t here anymore and that there’s a sort of popular conception that Indigenous people are fundamentally opposed to technology and one of the things that I hope that this project does is to say, no, that these Indigenous people have been for a long time very willing to appropriate non-native technologies of various kinds, and indigenize them and use them for their own ends.

Joy Banks: I asked Chris if he had encountered similar misperceptions about a native aversion to technology when, in a lot of ways, some of these tribes and communities seem to be embracing technology to help them make these recordings.

Chris Aplin: Yeah, I guess that’s true and they seem to emphasize what they value too, which—music is a key component of that. At the beginning they probably had very short song selections, as far as my information shows possibly as far back as the cylinder. So maybe they did like small little three- to five-minute recordings on cylinder; over time on disc they might be able to do five to 10 maybe 12 if it’s instantaneous. My numbers are a little hazy there but like when you get into reel-to-reel, though, people kind of get into longer full, live performances; they start telling much longer histories or giving us much longer sections of, you know, Apache language recordings where they are relaying life experiences and things of that sort. So yeah, they knew how to use those technologies. And music, to me—recording— is a very traditional space, I feel like, for native people to pass on heritage through the oral tradition.

Joy Banks: Do you think—and this is like purely speculative—that as ancestors were making these recordings, I mean clearly they valued saving these, but do you think that there was some concern that these would be lost? That they were seeing changes in a younger generation that were maybe not as interested in the oral traditions and languages of their tribe?

Chris Aplin: Yeah I think there’s some of that. You know, older generations did see change. There was a lot of talk about the disappearance of native people, of native cultures, native history; there was a lot of prioritizing of learning English in order to be able to compete, survive. There is kind of an interesting thing though, too, because I think that it’s not uncommon—it was not uncommon—for children and youth to tell their parents, “Hey I think this is actually important. Can we sit down and record?” I don’t think that that was uncommon, you know, which is another interesting thing to think about you know, the importance of youth and saying, “This is a value we should hold onto it.” You know and there are some, a lot of things didn’t make it here but the people that I work with have been often doing this since they were late teens, maybe early 20s, or something like that. The recordings I listen to: that’s not uncommon either. And people were really interested and they actively discuss. Yes, a sense of loss but an importance on documenting it.

Joy Banks: Are you seeing that still today?

Chris Aplin: Am I seeing that still today? Yeah, I think so. I mean, like I said, I’ve given lectures, you know, at Indian and Indian schools, university tribe, university presentations, and people come up and shake my hand after because getting access to that kind of intellectual heritage, that is a very real thing, or getting access to those musical sounds or those historical meanings. When people encounter it they’re lit up by it. And you can have good long conversations like the one we’re having today. I mean, seriously, I spent three days with the tribe this month and three days with the tribe in April, and we mostly sit around and talk hard culture or listen to music and work through materials. I don’t eat a lot during those sessions. They’re very good. You know I think people are lit up by it. You know being able to make these things available to communities matters.

Joy Banks: Community engagement is truly the key to these projects. As part of Lylliam’s job at the Autry Museum, she handles the institution’s compliance with the US’s NAGPRA laws. That’s N A G P R A. I asked Lylliam to explain this.

Lylliam Posadas: Yes of course. NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and it was passed in 1990. It’s a federal law, and any institution that receives federal funding is required to comply with NAGPRA. And so what NAGPRA really is it establishes a process for repatriation. So items that are considered sacred or ceremonial—and there’s specific definitions within NAGPRA for what those things are—or ancestral human remains, burial associated objects, funerary items—those are all things that are eligible for repatriation to the culturally affiliated tribe under NAGPRA. And we are also exploring really creative options for how we share ownership of materials like this. And, although legally under NAGPRA, we might not be able to repatriate some of these songs, there are still ways that we can partner with tribes to own them or there may be ways that we can still return things and maybe even transfer ownership completely outside of NAGPRA. And if we find items that can meet the legal definition for repatriation under NAGPRA then we will pursue that.

Joy Banks: Lylliam goes on to explain how a number of questions have to be asked during the repatriation efforts.

Lylliam Posadas: Repatriation questions are  … get broader and broader where it’s not just about, you know, is something sacred or ceremonial (yes or no), is it eligible for repatriation under NAGPRA (yes or no). How do we move forward? There’s also questions about how can we get digital copies of the archival materials related to these objects? How do we, how can people be involved in the process of granting or denying access to researchers? How can people be involved in the conservation efforts surrounding restoration projects, or repairs, or pesticide analysis and detection? And are there different things that tribes would want us to do and how can we accommodate that? I think that when we engage in consultation efforts—and consultation is so important—tribes need to come to the institution to view collections, or …. But we also have to consider as we invite people to these spaces: are we inviting them to spaces that are welcoming? Are we inviting them to spaces that are supportive? Or are we inviting them to spaces where we can just ask more questions and check some boxes and repatriate some things, but then it’s just this horrific experience for everyone, which is not what we want. And so it also, it means that we all have to, in our own worlds and our own departments, think about the spaces that we are creating to welcome and accommodate and build relationships with a variety of different people.

Joy Banks: As institutions continue this work, establishing trust will be essential.

Chris shares a little about what he’s learned in the last 20 years moving forward on a project of preservation.

Chris Aplin: OK, first you have to get the tribe on board in compiling their information and doing an inventory. The long-term preservation plan’s a little bit the next big trick. So, if you can get the tribe coordinated, get it digitized, that’s one thing, but it it’s really hard, I think, for people to give up the keys to an archivist at a local university for example.

Joy Banks: Chris went on to share about work that happened to build a relationship with an external service provider that had expressed interest in working with the tribe’s archives but then had closed down before the project got off the ground. Chris goes on to say how stability is important for preservation but often very challenging to achieve.

Chris Aplin: But the truth is, for those digital dark archives—again going back to the word sovereignty—that you know it’s like that would’ve been a third … an outside third party kind of vendor. They could have maintained materials; you would have known there would have been an existing copy, and you could have assured that preservation while you had a good window for advice and consent regarding overall collections; you really kind of need that window. But I do still wonder if there is a logical sort of digital sovereignty based route for tribes doing that kind of work.

Joy Banks: With all of these considerations. It’s clear to many people working with collections that digitization is really just one step in the right direction. Lylliam offered some great insight for this and finishes out our conversation.

Joy Banks: So many people have an impression that you digitize something and that’s the end and everybody has access forever. And we all know that’s not the case at all. And, in particular, when dealing with languages from different cultures, there is an entirely other level of consideration that has to take place. That it’s not just simple; nothing is simple.

Lylliam Posadas: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Which I hope means that people then understand that there are so many other steps that need support like financial and otherwise that like you’re saying it doesn’t end with just digitizing something and then it’s available and then the project is over you can tie it all up neatly but there’s a lot of these things cost money and staff time and lots of other stuff. Yeah I mean I’m excited for what what will become of this. I think there’s a there’s … I meet people more in the last couple of years that have been really interested in these sort of, you know, ethical questions about museums—like people in the general public—and I think that, you know, we don’t necessarily make those conversations accessible to the general public. There are conversations that happen in conferences amongst professionals but things like this—like a podcast that people can access—I think would I hope it would be very successful.

Joy Banks: We hope so, too.

Joy Banks: Thanks for listening to our episode. We hope that you’ll join us on Episode Two when we’ll talk to staff at the Amistad Research Center who are working to digitize the audio field recordings of African-American academic and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, and stick around for the full season of Material Memory. More information on today’s episode including information on our guests and links to their projects can be found online at material dash memory dot clir dot org. And if you like our podcast, we hope you’ll rate, review, and subscribe. 

 CLIR is an independent nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. Learn more about us at c l i r dot org.

To learn more about preservation efforts happening in your area and ways you can contribute, visit your local library, archive, museum, or historical society.

Material Memory is produced by CLIR, with the assistance of Ernesto Gluecksmann, Christa Williford, Kathlin Smith, and Lizzi Albert. Our audio engineer is Benjamin Green. Our theme music is by Poddington Bear.

I’m Joy and I’ll see you next time on Material Memory.

Behind The Mic


Joy Banks

Show Host

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.

Chris Aplin

Chris Aplin


T. Christopher Aplin (UCLA) is a recorded sound collection consultant who helps build sustainable digital collections that reinforce tribal community library, language, and history programs. He is currently working with the Fort Sill Apache Tribe to earn grant funding and secure long-term preservation for oral histories, language, and songs recorded on analog instantaneous discs (“records”), reel-to-reels, and cassettes for future generations. A 20-year colleague and friend of the Fort Sill Apache community, he is also writing a book about the music of the Apache prisoners of war taken with Geronimo in 1886. 

Josh Garrett-Davis

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. His article “The Intertribal Drum of Radio: The Indians for Indians Hour and Native American Media, 1941-1951” appeared in Western Historical Quarterly in 2018. He is the author of two books about the American West.

L Posadas

Lylliam Posadas


Lylliam Posadas is the repatriation and community research manager at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. She joined the Autry in 2016 after working as assistant curator of archaeological collections at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Lylliam holds an MSc in the Technology and Analysis of Archaeological Materials from University College London and a BA in Anthropology and Psychology from UCLA. She is interested in the processes of developing and maintaining culturally responsive research practices and the use of non-destructive and non-invasive methods of investigating community-driven research questions.

Keeping Cultural Memory Alive: What is at Stake?

What does it take to keep recorded memory alive for use by future generations? What are the threats to our cultural record, and what is at stake if it’s lost? In the first episode of Material Memory, we explore these issues with Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources. We discuss ways to address threats to cultural memory, such as climate change and the vulnerability of digital information, and how to create egalitarian access to shared knowledge.

References Noted in Podcast

[1] Slow Fires: On the Preservation of the Human Record. Filmmaker Terry Sanders highlights the problem of acid paper and the deterioration of late 19th and 20th century print materials.  https://www.clir.org/pubs/archives/film/.

[2] “American Archives and Climate Change: Risks and Adaptation.” T. Mazurczyk, N. Piekielek, E. Tansey, B. Goldman. Climate Risk Management, v. 20, 2018. pp. 111-125. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221209631830013

[3] “Pangia: A Global Interoperable Affiliation of Digital Libraries.” Charles Henry. CLIR Issues 128 (March/April 2019). https://www.clir.org/2019/04/clir-issues-128/.

[4] Preserving Digital Information. Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information. Donald Waters and John Garrett. 1996. https://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub63/


Kathlin Smith: Welcome to Material Memory. I’m Kathlin Smith, Director of Communications at CLIR, and your host for this episode.

For thousands of years, humans have recorded their ideas, transactions, observations, beliefs, and aspirations in many forms—from the earliest clay tablets to today’s digital media. Our past informs our future, and we rely largely on libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies—what we call cultural memory institutions—to connect us with humanity’s collective experience and knowledge.

What does it take to keep our recorded memory alive for use by future generations? What are the threats to our cultural record, and what is at stake if it’s lost? Material Memory will explore these themes. In this first episode, I’m discussing these questions with Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Charles Henry, thank you for talking with me today. History tells many tragic stories of cultural memory loss, from the destruction of the early Library of Alexandria to last year’s devastating fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Many losses, though, occur more slowly and silently, the result of neglect, lack of awareness, or unwillingness to act. What are some of the threats that CLIR has been concerned with, and how is its work in this area evolving, including recent efforts to partner globally?

Charles Henry: We have been around for slightly over 60 years and you go back several decades and the preservation and access to cultural heritage we were focused on at the time had largely, it was a consequence of time—that we were looking at deterioration of the cultural heritage. One prominent project we were involved with was “Slow Fires,” [1] and that was in response to the acidic paper that was slowly but inexorably destroying millions and millions of books around the country. The fluorescence of digital technology and digital culture has been, I think, particularly intriguing to CLIR. In the good old days—just back several decades—where it was mostly focused on material culture, you had objects that you could hold and objects that you could see were deteriorating, and what kinds of interventions were necessary. In the digital world, information is, I would say, more profligate. It’s more fragile. It’s more iterative. And those old kind of complacent and comforting boundaries of being able to hold something and to see something are gone. And so I think our present interests in the preservation and making sense of digital culture, of preserving born digital content, is apropos of our history. But it’s especially challenging. And you noted, Kathlin, that we’re going out more and more into the world. And I think in part that’s because of the intensity and complexity of the new kinds of threats that we’re dealing with. We are working closely with about nine nations in the Middle East and North Africa as a response to war, to conflict, and the kinds of destruction and looting and loss of culture—loss of life—that these kinds of conflicts can inflict. We’re also working on cultural loss through displacement. The world’s largest refugee population since World War II now confronts us with a considerable loss of personal cultural stories and the kinds of intangible cultural legacy that many of these people who have been displaced represent, and that can be the theater and the language itself, their own stories, their personal stories, their folklore: all of that is at risk.

And I think, looking ahead, the most challenging threat to culture is climate disruption. Some other organizations did an analysis of the United States—just the US—and it was an imposition of a couple of maps. One map was the areas where climate change would be most disrupted. And another map was superimposed on that one, which was archives—the number of mostly academic and historical archives in the United States. And the juxtaposition of those two maps showed that 98 percent of the archives in the United States would be negatively influenced and impacted by climate change—98 percent [2]! And I imagine this statistic holds around the world. So we’re looking at an unprecedented threat and the potential unprecedented loss of what we have built as human beings, as human societies, over millennia.

Kathlin Smith: The potential losses are staggering. What are some ways that CLIR is working with other cultural memory institutions to address these threats?

Charles Henry: I think you can look at it—you can scale it—and at the lower, the smaller scale of focus, we have the Recordings at Risk program, which is looking at audiovisual material that is physically deteriorating, and we want to identify some of the most important representatives of that cultural heritage and how we can restore it and preserve it. We have our Digitization of Hidden Collections, which are materials that are threatened by being unknown, which is another kind of threat: the loss of knowledge and loss of access to some remarkable archives that we’ve worked with over the years, and photographs, human rights archives, and documentation. That would have been lost through ignorance and just oblivion if we had not gotten involved with that. Larger-scale projects include the Digital Library of the Middle East and also Pangia [3], which is a global effort to create a digital environment in which threatened cultural heritage can be preserved and maintained, as well as an extensive and unprecedented repository of knowledge that can be accessed and used, hopefully, to begin to address some of the disruptions of climate change and to help to design a more sustainable planet.

Kathlin Smith: One of the things that we talk about with a loss of culture is the loss of identity. For example, during the Bosnian war, when the Library of Sarajevo was burned to the ground, it was an intentional effort to undermine the memory of the Bosnians and the minorities in the region and to erase an identity. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of cultural preservation in terms of identity and memory?

Charles Henry: Yeah, those are profound concepts, and when you look at the Bosnian war and what happened in Sarajevo, it does underscore the power of culture, and the aspects of culture that I think are key here: one is it brings people together. It’s a shared vision of a society and one’s place in it. Culture is performable and it teaches constantly. It also explicitly defines values and principles and things that are loved and considered exceptional to a particular group, whether it’s a community or a society, and this kind of unifying power—this kind of explication of who we are and our place in the world—is exhilarating on the one hand and threatening on the other if there is a competing vision. And so I think that you can probably go back throughout history and see many conflicts as not necessarily economic or territorial, but as also cultural. And I think CLIR’s role is certainly to preserve what we can in an agnostic, neutral way and to accept this vast and wonderful variety of interpreting ourselves in the world in a way that promotes dignity and equality.

Kathlin Smith: And one underlying hope for some of the projects that you’ve been working on is to create more egalitarian access to this shared knowledge—to make it possible for a displaced person to access their cultural heritage, and to retain or reclaim some of the identity that might be lost in conflict or because of climate change. Can you talk a little bit about some of some examples from work that you’ve been engaged with?

Charles Henry: One example comes to mind, going back to the Middle East and the Digital Library of the Middle East. That project is meant to preserve culture and obviously to make it accessible. It’s all open source and free. And there are many, many people in the region who can only access that kind of information through their phones, and they include people displaced in some of the refugee camps. But also, a lot of students and a lot of classrooms don’t have high-tech monitors and what we call Internet connections, but most everyone has a cell phone or smartphone of some sort. So the Digital Library the Middle East—all of its assets, all of its digital surrogates, its representations and the metadata and the information pertaining to these objects—is scaled to be accessible through a laptop or a tablet or a smartphone. And one of the reasons for that is that we are working with companies to create school curricula out of the information that the Digital Library the Middle East houses—its repository—and to take aspects of that and turn it into courseware. And so that courseware, that coursework, and that information then becomes available to students over their phones. So we’re hoping that collectively building the Digital Library the Middle East with our with our regional partners, you not only have increased access to this wealth of information, some of which is threatened or has been lost, but it then becomes a link to the next generation. So it’s a bridge—it’s not just a kind of static repository but it’s a bridge. It represents a conversation—a generational conversation—that younger people who would be ordinarily deprived of access to this knowledge can in fact use it, and hopefully it becomes incorporated into their sense of self.

Kathlin Smith: We’ve talked a little bit about the idea of cultural rights in conjunction with access to one’s history and one’s cultural memory. How do cultural rights relate to, say, human rights or basic fundamental rights?

Charles Henry: In most of the studies—and cultural rights is a term that is becoming more and more prominent; I think it’s becoming more as a kind of in the public view over the last decade or so—it’s usually considered an extension of human rights, and specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the U.N. published right after World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—all of the articles in it—focuses on an individual. It’s an individual’s right to live freely and not to be coerced. It’s an individual’s right to access knowledge. It’s an individual’s right to have an education.

Charles Henry: What cultural rights does is extend that into a group. So it takes many of those principles and puts it into the context of a society or a community. In doing that, cultural rights posits that a community or a society has in certain ways inalienable rights to exercise its culture and to participate in its culture and to do so in a way that’s non-discriminatory and in an unthreatened way. So cultural rights has become more prominent, in part because of what we were talking about earlier in the way that culture can be used as a threat, and as something to be eliminated and something to be replaced by an alternative story or alternative narrative, or alternative identity. So cultural rights—particularly with ethnic minorities and indigenous people who are often at most risk through war and now, looking into the future, climate change—cultural rights has deeper and deeper resonance to that, and I would say that CLIR is working within the context of cultural rights in the sense that we want to preserve the cultures that are lost, or threatened to be lost, in order to try to obtain longer-term preservation and sustainability of that culture as a right, and as an extremely relevant integral part of human understanding.

Kathlin Smith: I’d like to go back to something you mentioned earlier, and that is the threat of the loss of digital information. We know that digital information is vulnerable not only because it’s kept on fragile media, but also because it’s literally ones and zeros that can’t be interpreted without the right hardware and software, which changes quickly in today’s world. And, increasingly, what we create today is in digital formats. So, as CLIR works to make knowledge more accessible by supporting digitization and digital infrastructure, we also know that digital information is especially vulnerable. This is a thorny problem, isn’t it?

Charles Henry: I’d agree. I think that you can go back to 1996. There was a task force on archiving digital information [4], which was new at the time—almost brand new. But everyone in the archival profession and the library profession realized that this was going to be quite a challenge, and there were a number of recommendations that were made in 1996. We are still wrestling with that. There has been no national systemic effort to make accessible and preserve this information. And we are many decades in and many terabytes under just a tsunami of digital information, much of which is critical to our survival.

I can say three very quick examples come to mind at the scope of this potential loss. And it’s not just the humanities. Look at the sciences. Most of the prestigious articles that have been published in Science over the last 20 to 25 years have been done through companies that are privately held, and those articles are put in repositories on their servers. And if those companies go out of business tomorrow, there is absolutely no guarantee that that wealth of scientific information is going to be accessible or preserved. It could go away. It could go dark almost in an instant. I’m also reminded of the 1960 census problems in the United States. The census is taken every 10 years. The 1960 census was done using a particular kind of punch card. So all the information that was gathered from the census was reinterpreted into punch cards and then used and analyzed. In the mid 80s, there was a reason to go back and review this data—parts of this data—and the U.S. Government Census Bureau discovered that there was not a single machine in the United States that could read those punch cards, that that technology had become obsolete, and our government agents I believe had to go to Tokyo—there was a technology museum—and found the machine that could read that information. That’s census information that was out of reach and completely inaccessible. Fortunately, there was recourse to a machine in another country. But that gives you the sense of the fragility of all this. The last example is that there’s a meeting this week in fact that the National Endowment for the Humanities that is co-hosted by the Mellon Foundation and the IMLS, and the focus of the meeting is the preservation of essential humanities projects and there is no formula at this point. There is no standard and there is no protocol, across hundreds of incredibly important humanities projects that had been paid for and developed over the last decade or so, that would guarantee their perpetuity in time. And so anywhere you look you see a loss of what we call and we have termed essential.

Kathlin Smith: And addressing the problem will require an unprecedented level of collaboration, new ways of collaboration, that have not proven to be very easy for us in the past.

Charles Henry: No, and when you look at—particularly focusing on higher education—the lack of incentives to really collaborate are profound. And part of that has to do with the competition of institutions: the institutions compete for faculty, they compete for students, they compete for funding; individual researchers are awarded and promoted because of their research, which is often not collaborative. There is a proprietary sense of ownership of data that’s created in laboratories and even in some of the humanities projects. So in certain ways we have the incentives not to collaborate. And I think that’s a major hurdle for us.

Kathlin Smith: And interestingly, when CLIR was formed more than 60 years ago, one of the rationales for its forming was the fact that in the post-war era, with the growth of research libraries, institutions were spending money in ways that duplicated each other, resources were not being wisely allocated for what were really shared problems. So it’s interesting to think that 60 years later, that problem continues to keep CLIR in business, but unfortunately we haven’t made as much progress to solving it as we would like to.

Charles Henry: Well we keep trying, and I think the insurgence of digital technology has really been more than disruptive. It has tangled us into many interesting virtual knots. And I never thought I’d say this, but I do look back fondly on the era of microfilm. It looked so much easier then.

Kathlin Smith: Well yeah. I don’t think there would be too many scholars who were sorry to say goodbye to microfilm, but you have a point about its permanence and that it can suffer benign neglect for the most part without disappearing, unlike digital information.

Kathlin Smith: Charles, it has been a pleasure to talk with you today; thank you.

Charles Henry: Thank you.

Kathlin Smith: Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll join us for our first full season of Material Memory, Celebrating the Year of Indigenous Languages, 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.

If you want to find out more about preservation efforts happening in your area, visit your local library, archive, museum, or historical society to learn about their work and ways you can contribute to it. 

Behind The Mic

Kathlin Smith

Show Host

Kathlin Smith is director of communications at CLIR and coproducer of Material Memory

Charles Henry


Charles Henry is president of the Council on Library and Information Resources

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