S1 E6: Sound and Meaning: Preserving Native American Voice and Song

In this episode of Material Memory, we return to the Autry Museum of the American West in southern California, where a project is underway to preserve audiovisual materials documenting Native American voice and song.

We’ll learn about the vital process of community-building and the relationships forged along the way.


Joy Banks Narration: Hello and welcome! I’m Joy Banks, your host on this season of Material Memory. We’ve reached our last episode of this season. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about the different people and projects working to preserve indigenous language audio and audiovisual materials for future generations. On this episode, we are hearing more from the staff at The Autry Museum of the American West in Southern California:

Liza Posas: I am Liza Posas and I’m head of research services and archives at the Autry Museum of the American West.

Yuri Shimoda: I am Yuri Shimoda. I am the Recordings at Risk student intern for the CLIR grant project.

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

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

Joy Banks Narration: You may recall our introduction to Lylliam and Josh from Episode 1, but now we’ll hear more about the work at the Autry to preserve A/V materials documenting Native voice and song. Much of the work they will discuss is from a project funded through a Recordings at Risk grant awarded in 2018. This episode will be driven by the conversation I had with Liza and Yuri, interspersed with clips from the separate conversations I had with Lylliam and Josh. Let’s get started.

Joy Banks: Why don’t you just start by telling us a little bit about the project that you’re working on.

Liza Posas: Yeah—so this is Liza. The grant project is a pretty straightforward digitization project and I think what makes it a bit different is that it is recorded sound and audiovisual material related to Native communities and songs and lectures and oral histories. The museum, you know, has been collecting all types of materials since 1907 due to the merger of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. It’s the oldest museum in Los Angeles. And then it merged with the Autry Museum in 2003. I say all of that to give an idea of the breadth of the time span of the recordings. And the various types of documentation, in regards to their provenance and their acquisitions, run the gamut as well as much as the medium format. So what this project had us do is centralize that information as best we could, digitize the material, and then enhance the catalog and descriptive metadata records as best we could, based on what we know. And this leads us up to the next step of working with different tribal communities to get more contextual information for each of the recordings.

Yuri Shimoda: And, and I think that you know, previous preservation efforts have been made to perhaps transfer disks to open-reel tape. But this is the first, I think, really comprehensive project where everything is being digitized together under the theme of Native voice and song. And it really just speaks to the beauty of Recordings at Risk and, and allowing an institution to you know, really dig into its collections to find these hidden gems that maybe haven’t been exposed to their fullest. And as Liza touched on, the formats in the collection are really unique and, kind of what drew me to the project since my specialization is audio archiving—getting to work with wire recordings, aluminum disks, lacquer disks and open reel tape, cassette tape and then into the audio visual formats, which are mainly VHS tape, DV Cam, and mini DV. It’s, been a really great experience just getting to handle all of those different formats and to get to bring them to light.

Joy Banks: Were you able to find just one vendor that could handle all of those?

Liza Posas: No. So, because we had those various mediums, I had to look at whatever audio engineer that had come with good references, worked with aluminum disks and wire recording since those were the most hard to find, then we would give them the whole collection to digitize if they could handle all that medium. And partly is because the way in which we work with vendors as a museum, there’s a process to approve them. So it was just easiest to approve two vendors, for instance, as opposed to four. Through my investigations, I was only able to find two vendors that could do aluminum discs that, that I was told do have the capacity for wire recordings. Audio visual was a little bit easier. We are in Los Angeles where film is made and Burbank is one of the places where there are a lot of production houses. So that was a little easier and that came down to references as well as expense.

Joy Banks: So were you looking nationally or just sort of closer to home?

Liza Posas: Closer to home. We follow the guidelines as if the tape recordings were going to an exhibit or a conservator out of the Autry campus. So if we were to fly it, we would have to escort it. So that was out of the question.

Joy Banks: Can you talk a little bit about some of the known places that these recordings come from?

Yuri Shimoda: Sure. The recordings can actually be divided into three specific groupings. All of the recordings span about 40 tribal groups. But the three groups are 1) the Native Voices at the Autry theatrical group which was formed in 1994. It’s the only Equity theatrical company in the United States that’s dedicated to performing productions that are written and produced by Native American playwrights. And then they became the resident theater company in 1999

Liza Posas: Yes.

Yuri Shimoda: I believe. So at that time all of their archives were absorbed into the Autry’s collections. And they luckily videotaped a lot of their readings you know, play blocking. Every year they would do a playwrights’ retreat where they would invite playwrights to workshop a new play that they were working on and they’d have readings of those works and then question and answer sessions with the audience afterwards. All of that is captured in the audio visual materials that are in this project.

Joy Banks Narration: After our conversation, Yuri shared two brief video clips from the Native Voices at the Autry theatre troupe. The clips feature a stage reading of the play “Distant Thunder” written by Lynne and Shaun Taylor-Corbett. As with many works produced by Native Voices, this play features a mix of languages. The production is a musical set in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. The story follows attorney Darrell Walters, a mixed-raced Native American who was removed from the reservation by his white mother as a child and then raised in Chicago. After his mother dies, he returns to the tribe to seek reconciliation with his father. In the first clip we hear the teacher, played by Marisa Quinn, communicating with her students in the Blackfeet language. One of the students, played by Spencer Battiest, attempts to reply back to her in the Blackfeet language, but he gives up mid-sentence and reverts back to English.

Clip 1                [mix of English and Blackfeet languages]

Voice1:             Airball!
Voice2:             Yo, Kemosabe, you suck, man.
Teacher:           [Blackfeet language]
Voice2:             Um, [Blackfeet language]. Whatever! I didn’t disrespect him. He sucks at basketball.
Teacher:           [Blackfeet language]
Voice2:             Our tribe? I don’t think so.
Teacher:           Well, he is. And you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Joy Banks Narration: This second clip features two members of the Blackfoot tribe arguing about the importance of teaching their language to the younger members of the community. The first speaker, played by Sammy Espinoza, wants to sell the land the tribe’s school is on. We then hear an emphatic response from the teacher, played by Marisa Quinn

Clip 2                [English language]

Voice1:             We really don’t need to learn an outdated language.
Teacher:           Without the language, our culture will die. Come on, Sam, your own great grandfather was taken from his parents                            and sent hundreds of miles away to a Christian boarding school. You told me that yourself. And Old Man’s
                          grandfather, beaten if he spoke his own language.
Voice1:             That was a long time ago.
Teacher:           It was not that long ago. Sherman, say something.

Joy Banks Narration: We’ll pick back up with Yuri and Liza as they talk about the second grouping of material included in their digitization project.

Yuri Shimoda: The second group, Liza, if you want to talk about California Indian Arts Association…

Liza Posas: Yeah. So the California Indian Arts Association is our newest collection, I would say. It was, was acquired by the founder of the California Indian Arts Association, Justin Farmer.

Yuri Shimoda: Yeah, he donated it in 2017. So, they were active from 1994 through 2000.

Liza Posas: Okay. Yeah, it was founded in 1994 and all of their meetings, so they would hold I guess, monthly meetings, would you say?

Yuri Shimoda: Mmhmm

Liza Posas: … were also tape recorded. They provided a forum to discuss Native arts, artifacts, and culture, in particular, the Indians of Southern California. And we received all the newsletters, some archival notes as well as the master and access copies of the recordings. What’s, great about these recordings that they were meant for distribution and anything that wasn’t supposed to be recorded was not recorded. So there might be maybe a description in the newsletter, but it wasn’t recorded. So we know that at the very least this is information that is meant to go out into a wider community. In fact, they sold the access copies in various museums and libraries. So in 1994, I believe, there was most likely a blanket statement or agreement amongst the members and those that were discussing or giving the lecture that, you know, if you’re coming to this meeting, you’re agreeing to be tape recorded. If you’re agreeing to be tape recorded, you’re agreeing that we make copies of these recordings and distribute them for sale to support the organization. Now, we need a little bit more, a better, more solid type of releases or permissions from the various people involved in the recordings as well, of course, Justin Farmer, just to make sure that we can more openly provide these recordings in more accessible streaming possibilities. But they’ll always be open for research and research purposes, but we also would like clearance for some of the recordings to be able to be posted so it can be accessible remotely.

Yuri Shimoda: And these, these are so great, you know, they would invite archeologists or scholars, but also private collectors to come and share the collections that they’ve been gathering for like decades. And then they’d also go on site visits, so they’d go to different museums around the area and kind of get a behind-the-scenes look at, like, a basket collection. So they’re really fun. And educational as well. The third kind of group of the project are the audio sound recordings. And these are, you know, the most varied; it’s not just one group of field recordings. It’s maybe 10 or 12. And then in addition to those field recordings, there’s also radio broadcasts, oral histories, interviews, and also other lectures relating to Native American culture or performances of Native song by actual tribal members. So this is where the, the wide variety is really seen in terms of all of the different groups that are captured in these recordings and will be the major challenge for Lylliam as we move into the next phase in terms of all of the different groups that she will be establishing contact with.

Joy Banks Narration: During our separate conversation, Lylliam Posadas, the Repatriation and Community Research Manager at the Autry, shared a bit more about her involvement in the project and the importance of relationship building with the various tribes.

Lylliam Posadas: Liza approached me about this project. And in the past we had discussed the digitization of some of our sound recordings here at the Autry and what we might be able to do with them, how we should care for them, what are the ethics behind how we apply care and how we manage access to these recordings. So my role in this project, as someone who works in repatriation, and who, who was interested in how we work together with communities on research initiatives or research interests, research questions, was to take a look at how we could make sure that as we digitize these recordings, that tribes were the primary point of access, that these recordings would be shared with tribes first, so that we can get feedback not only on what the content of the recordings might be, whether or not it is culturally sensitive and should be restricted from being accessed by your general researcher, or whether it’s completely fine and that we can make it available to the general public. But all of that requires extensive consultation that really begins with digitizing these recordings so that they can be accessible so that we can share them with tribes from all over the country and start to have those conversations. So, my role is really about following through with those processes once all of the recordings are digitized and all the data’s been gathered. I’m working with Yuri, who is going to be helping me tremendously by compiling these reports that I’m going to use to share information about the recordings with the tribes to really supplement our conversations. And it’s really going to be very open ended. Whatever decisions we make about access are really going to be dictated by the tribe and what their needs are, what their concerns are, what their priorities are. And that’s all stuff that we find out after many, many conversations and building relationships with everyone.

Joy Banks Narration: As Lylliam implies, the post-digitization work will take time and involve many different communities of people. But this isn’t new for the Autry Museum. Liza explains the winding path that led to the collections of today.

Liza Posas: Basically our sound recordings started with the Southwest Museum. And earlier I’d said the Southwest Museum of the American Indian was started in 1907 by Charles Fletcher Lummis. And in 1904, he was funded by the Archeological Institute of America to go out and make wax cylinder recordings of Spanish folk songs as well as Native songs. He was interested in recorded sound. He was particularly enamored with the new technology of wax cylinder recordings. So he made about 600 recordings of Spanish language and Native language songs. And, it sort of paved the way for other donations related to Native recordings. So given the Southwest Museum’s founding and its association with the Archeological Institute of America, that’s where the field recordings, the oral histories, the ethnomusicology studies came in—that type of recording—and it just followed suit that it also moved into recordings that were done artistically, mostly songs. So within our batch, it is mostly noncommercial recordings. But there are a few, a handful of commercial recordings that are very rare.

Joy Banks Narration: Josh Garrett Davis, an Associate Curator at the Autry, provided more information about the museum’s unique commercial recordings that were included in this digitization project.

Josh Garrett Davis: One of the interesting things about this project was we, we included some commercial records because what we realized was that some of the Native commercial records that exist from even the early really early 20th century onward, we may have the only copy or there might be two copies, at least in institutions. There may be private collectors that have copies somewhere. What I think are the earliest commercial recordings by a Native performer are of a guy named Jesse Lyons who is Onondaga, one of the five Iroquois tribes or Haudenosaunee tribes in upstate New York and Wisconsin and elsewhere. And he recorded around 1904 at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey. He recorded seven discs. I’ve found one on Ebay a few years ago for $15 and bought it for the museum’s collection. But I haven’t come across any in any other music archives or museum collections. And then there are very early Native owned record labels beginning in the forties. Some of those early disks, there aren’t that many copies of either. There’s a guy named Linn Pauahty in, that was originally in Oklahoma, but moved around quite a bit because he was a Methodist minister. Kiowa guy. And he started a record label originally called American Indian Sound Masters and later called American Indian Soundchiefs. They recorded a lot of different tribal music and he had a huge catalog, but it’s unclear, especially with his earlier disks, how many copies of some of those survived. So even commercial recordings were produced on a small enough scale in terms of Native American music that there may only be a couple of copies around. You would think that a commercial recording might not have the cultural sensitivities that some other recordings have, but we’re not totally sure that that will be the case as we speak to people. It may be that in that time and place, it felt like the right thing to do to record that, but the, the community may not want it to be like on Youtube or whatever. So even those, I think at least in some cases will require some consultation with communities.

Joy Banks Narration: As Liza and Yuri have touched on, the history of the Autry Museum is complex. The current museum is the result of a 2003 merger of three museums: the historic Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the well-known Autry Museum, and the Women of the West, a virtual museum. The merger of museums also included related library collections. Liza explains that, while everything is merged, the collections are still unique.

Liza Posas: With that merger came the Braun Research Library, which supported the research functions and object collections of the Southwest Museum, and the Autry Library, which supported the research functions and the scholarship and study of the object collection of the Autry Museum. Usually museum libraries are there to support the scholarship of what’s in the object collection of the museum. Whereas the Braun Research Library collection started its own distinct collection and had its own presence and identity. And even though the names have changed, the handoff of the different custodianship remained consistent.

Joy Banks: Is there some history? Like why is it called the Autry Museum?

Liza Posas: The Autry Museum was founded by four people, Monte Hale, Joanne Hale, Gene Autry, and Jackie Autry.

Joy Banks: I was wondering if Gene Autry was involved.

Liza Posas: Yeah, that was the four. Using the Autry name brought popularity as well as better exposure when it opened in 1988, but it really wasn’t supposed to be a museum about Gene Autry. It was meant to always be a museum about the American West and the myth and reality involved in telling the stories of the West or the American West, which makes it pretty exciting ‘cause it has different components that involve art as well as Hollywood cowboy as well as cowboy culture. The expansion of the West, and the stories of just whatever that, that connotation of what is the wild West, what exploring new territory is. So it’s also this spirit that the West has not only nationally, but internationally. So I think that’s what makes the Autry a really interesting place to be. And I also think it, it, it makes it also a place of experimentation a little bit because of how it was created. And this allows us to go on, on new paths in regard to how we evolve our ideas of custodianship and collaboration and envisioning, you know, future possibilities on how we want to represent a 21st century museum. And, and a lot of that spirit also goes into how we want to work, that we work with the tribes to understand these recordings as best to our possibility. And I’m not, I’m not trying to say that that’s not what happened in the past, but I do think that you know, the Southwest Museum started, like I said, it was the first museum in Los Angeles. So a lot of standardized practices that we have today were being developed during the Southwest Museum history. And it takes time and whenever I talk about these recordings or anything we have that especially that we collected in the early 1900s is, you know, who we are, who the librarians, archivists, custodians, staff is today. They’re connected to the legacy of the staff of yesterday and, and the years of the first founding. So if, if Charles Fletcher Lummis started a relationship, that relationship still continues today. It’s not like it started with Lummis and therefore there was this string of communications and relationship that stayed consistent through the hundred years. What we’re trying to do in providing more contextual information is, is trying to document that thread as best we can, knowing that there is going to be a relationship that needs to be upheld for the next generation when we’re not here. 

Yuri Shimoda: Yeah, I think, I think that’s one super important thing to note about community and the word community and how the notion of community needs to be something that’s fluid because it’s ever changing. Right? I think that being able to say that a community is given back a bit of their agency and control has to acknowledge that a community has to be able to self-identify as a community and, and really say, you know, “These are the people that we want to represent us as a community, as our tribal board” or “In 10 years from now, this is the one person we want to be our representative.” I think that that’s what’s so beautiful about working here at the Autry and being surrounded by like-minded individuals, not just here in the library and archives, but throughout the institution. Really embody that activist kind of social justice, lean towards ideas of community.

Joy Banks Narration: One way that the Autry sets itself apart from many other museums and archives is by employing a full-time individual whose focus is on repatriation and the community relationships that are vital to that process. Part of Lylliam’s responsibilities include overseeing the museum’s compliance with the US’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. These laws specifically address carefully defined sacred, ceremonial, and funerary objects, including human remains. Though most of the audio in their project won’t fall under NAGPRA guidelines, the Autry staff see the importance of working with tribal communities. Lylliam goes into more detail about her rather unique position.

Lylliam Posadas: The Autry is very fortunate and so am I, in that we have a permanent position for a repatriation person. Oftentimes people working on repatriation efforts are grant-funded people or they are curators that have a portion of their time dedicated to repatriation. From my conversations with Liza, it seems as though not many archivists have opportunities to work very closely with someone who’s involved in NAGPRA and repatriation. So we’re very fortunate that we get to work together. And I also employ the archives extensively in my repatriation work. I mean, the archives carry information about how items in the collection made it here and the conditions under which they made it here, which are all things I need to know about. Whether things were gathered ethically, whether people were coerced into giving things, whether things were stolen, or whether things were sold legitimately. So we work together very closely to answer questions about how things got here … working with tribes and sharing information that we have in the archives to help as they do research to gather more information about maybe specific donors that have donated things to our institution, but have also donated things as collectors to other institutions across the country or in California. And these are efforts that many tribes are, are engaged in as they track where their things ended up. And sometimes it’s, it’s helpful to look at who was collecting their things and where they ended up giving, giving these things out to various institutions.

Joy Banks Narration: To accomplish the community building and related repatriation efforts in the most respectful manner, the Autry Museum recently invested in the construction of a new physical Resources Center. Yuri continues our conversation, describing how this newly imagined space helps facilitate their work. 

Yuri Shimoda: I think it, it’s important to note kind of why this is a time that the Autry would want to pursue the grant in terms of the Resources Center being a new way for the Autry to continue to invite you know, not just youth and school children, scholars of all ages, researchers, but tribal communities to come and interact with collection items in our viewing room and our listening room. Even in its construction, it embodies those ideals that I was just talking about. I don’t know any other archives that has an outside space that is full of, you know, relaxing elements like a water feature and native plants that are known for their anti-anxiety properties. Just a place to step away from—it’s not like the, the situation inside is so like sanitized and rigid, but it is a research facility. It is,

Liza Posas: Yeah

Yuri Shimoda: you know, it does have its formal procedures in terms of security and you know, you’re always being watched in, in an archives, right? So it’s, it’s nice to have a place to step away and just take a breath and, and regroup.

Liza Posas: It’s beautiful. We’re calling it the Native garden and it was designed with the different Native tribes that we consult with as well as with our architects. So the design is, is meant to be a place where, like Yuri said, like it is a place of serenity, but it is particularly for Native consultation and the processes that could be involved in Native consultation. So it is part of our repatriation processes and it’s, it’s just part of one of the things we offer as tribal groups come for their visits. But it offers different spaces. As tribes come in, there’s a space for them to dress in regalia. There’s, there’s a close room for where they can view materials for repatriation in privacy. There’s, then there’s the garden. So they can also do whatever activities related to that in that garden. And there’s an—even though it’s an outside space—there’s a way to make it private. And that comes from years of experience of working with different tribes or working with NAGPRA and the repatriation process. So when the building was being built those considerations were put in place. And this is one thing that we’ve talked about too, is sort of the human aspect of working with these collections. You know, how do you put in a budget line item, the, the protocols that are involved in these types of relationship building and collaborations, right? It’s just like, well, you know, we want to show hospitality, as part of the process. Like the part of hospitality that shows respect, that shows that we’re going to change sort of the reputation that consultation has taken in the past. I know one woman said to me many years ago, she said, “I know what consultation means. It means you go in, you listen maybe to what we have to say, but you do whatever you want to do anyway.” So I want to make sure that when we say consultation, we do see it as a meaningful exchange of knowledge and information and reciprocity, and we’re doing the best that we can and providing custodianship to the best of our ability based on those consultations. The other thing that we also have heard in the past is that tribal members would be invited to see a collection and then they would be invited again 10 years later. And then invited again 10 years later, and that has to do with sort of the nuts and bolts of how we capture the data and how we capture data in a sustainable, maintainable way. Like we never lose the information about the original collector. We never lose information about the title or the description or the call number, but for some reason, the feedback that we get—that is sometimes you know, straight from the Natives’ input—that gets put in other places. And I know that other institutions have acknowledged that and they’re trying to battle that with things like Mukurtu and Tribal Knowledge Labels.

Joy Banks Narration: For those new to these matters, Mukurtu and Traditional Knowledge Labels, or TK Labels, are being developed by collecting institutions to better address the cultural mores that may restrict access to Native materials. Designed to allow flexibility in implementation, these tools are being explored by many of the people we spoke to this season. Liza and Yuri explain more about the Autry’s plan.

Liza Posas: Yeah. And so we’re trying to, to also look at those various resources that have developed as of late, that has taken advantage of metadata structures to give meaningful spaces that are sustainable and maintainable and can continue on for the, what I call the tribal-authored content and context.

Yuri Shimoda: Yeah. And I think that’s something that really drew me to this project is all of these considerations. And even in my first few weeks here, we had a meeting with the head of cataloging where we went through every metadata field and considered, you know, what it means when you’re dealing with tribal materials, how the meaning of a simple word can shift versus traditional, you know, metadata and cataloging standards. So I think that we’ve tried to, to really look at every angle from, you know, description and access to how we’re storing the items and even as Liza mentioned, exploring options like Traditional Knowledge Labels. I, I did want to do a little shout out to the Ancestral Voices Project and Kim Christen, Jane Anderson because they were a huge inspiration to me coming into this project, and I, I know not just to myself but other members of the team. They worked with one tribal group to revamp their catalog record. And this collaboration took place over the span of two years to describe one song. But it is the only successful truly collaborative and not just participatory, consultative but truly collaborative effort that I’ve seen a major institution be able to carry out with a tribal group in terms of audio recordings. So, you know, we’re really hoping to kind of use their project as a model moving forward in terms of how we might be able to integrate Traditional Knowledge into our catalog records, hopefully in the future with tribal consultation.

Liza Posas: Yeah, and I’m glad you actually used the word integrate because as you were talking about this word of consultation, then I was thinking that maybe we should come up with a different word or different phrasing and what I was thinking, you know, maybe it’s more about tribal integration as opposed to tribal consultation. Because consultation does seem like it’s an optional layer that’s put on top of things and not everybody chooses to consult, right? If you talk about bringing in a consultant, they’re traditionally seen as an outside entity consulting, right? And then you take, you take what you need. But integration gives more of a commitment to, to integrate, right? The, the two things together.

Yuri Shimoda: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve, I’ve tried to, I’ve tried to be conscious of, trying to say at least say “collaboration” for the most part, but that also you have to be clear what you mean by collaboration.

Liza Posas: Yes.

Yuri Shimoda: It’s not one side having more of a say than the other. It’s, it’s a true balance. But I do like also the word “integration” too. I think it’s something that even encapsulates more fully how we hope the next stage of the project will proceed.

Joy Banks: And that’s, that seems like for you and the specific collections you’re dealing with, I think you said you have potential materials from about 40 different tribal entities that—that’s a big commitment that you’re making—and that you see the value of drawing these communities together with the materials that are theirs.

Liza Posas: Yeah. And I think , I think it’s part of the different people who work here with the collections have inherently had to deal with the legacy data and understand the practices and intentions of the previous custodians, the previous museum staff. And sometimes we’ll have, we’ll maybe know of our predecessors and therefore can surmise from their personalities and their reputations what their actions or intent were or, or publications, the Southwest Museum published a lot. But I think because of the inconsistency in, in documenting and inconsistency because of so many various factors, it’s not just one factor, right, of somebody being irresponsible. There’s, there’s so many different things that happen in the past few years that could lead to that. And then I think that because those of us who currently work with this material are in want of something more structured. We are, firstly, we’re going at this slowly, methodically, actually I should say, and we really want to create a foundation of policies and practices that is documented that can then be built upon in a systematic way, in the future that makes sense. But we hope that, you know, in 20 years’ time when the, the new archivist or the new coordinators, NAGPRA coordinators, archaeologists, librarians come in, it’s not as much of a mystery to them if they find something that needs more information. That they can rest assured that we did these policies to find as much information about this particular item as best we could. And I think that building policies is a way you can communicate with your future selves. You know, and it’s, it’s a slow process. So we do have a lot ahead of us, but we’re, what I think we’re doing is kind of building the foundation and the scaffolding for the work to continue on way past us.

Joy Banks: Well, Lylliam spoke quite a bit about the policy and structures that you’re building, too.

Liza Posas: Yeah, there are many of us in Autry staff who just want to build up all these policies and we’re doing it as a team. So it’s an institutional front. It’s an institutional effort. It really is. There’s probably five different departments and subunits where we’re working on a similar policy in regards to access, how we work with tribes, what, what is cultural sensitivity, where’s the Autry stand in building its relationships with the communities that we work with. And partly it’s prompted by the building of the Resources Center of the Autry. And another part of it is, is just that it’s time for us to, to really come together. You know, we’ve been merged since 2003 and that took a few years. And now we’re, we’ve got this breath that we can take where we can look at all of our guidelines and policies and practices and look at what’s happening, you know, in our professional field. So I just heard that ACRL and RBMS also endorsed the protocols for Native American materials. Last year, the Society of American Archivists did that. Other entities are reaching out to me in regards to the policies they’re making. So it also fits within what’s happening in our respective fields.

Joy Banks: So kind of like totally changing the direction of our conversation: tell me a little bit about the languages that maybe are contained on the materials that you have as I would imagine since the collections are pretty broad in those three areas, that there’s probably a variety of things that you’re encountering in terms of languages.

Yuri Shimoda: Mmhmm. You know, CIAA, the California Indian Association, their focus at least was primarily Native Americans of Southern California, so that, that’s a little insulated their, their collection. But even so, sometimes they would touch on threads that would, they would weave out into like Plains Indian territory. And it’s the same with the plays, and the creative forces behind Native Voices. They are an eclectic mix of many tribes. And so the content of the plays—the languages that are woven into the scripts and dialogue—usually stem from whatever group the playwright comes from which, you know, ranges from Pueblo to Shoshone. And the other audio really is a, a wide range of languages that are woven into all of the recordings. There is a, a lot of tribes represented from Southern California. Luiseño. But we do have recordings from Arizona, so Hopi song, chants, and also language is captured in the stories that are shared. Some are, you know, spoken in English, but then terms are woven into the stories they’re telling. And it might just be someone introducing the song and the language and then the translator coming behind them and, and translating what they just said. And then the performer actually going into the song, which sometimes could have words, it can have lyrics, or it could be just a beat and one word repeated throughout the song. For a little variety, there are some recordings from Chihuahua, Mexico. So there are some Spanish song and Spanish language from the Tarahumara people, where I don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s, it’s the tribe’s medicine man kind of speaking to members of his village. And I don’t understand any of that conversation, but it was captured, I believe on one of our wire recordings, which is pretty neat. It’s been amazing to get, to actually sit down and have the time to kind of digest all of this material. Some of my favorite stories so far have been in the oral histories of Frederick Web Hodge who was the director of the Southwest Museum from 1932 to 1955 and these recordings were just captured at a gathering of his friends. So— and he was such like a charismatic big personality—so he’d be like, “have I told you this story?” And then they’d all be egging him on and he shared a lot of his experiences from architectural trips to the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. And I believe he was also part of the Hemenway expedition.

Liza Posas: Mmhmm

Yuri Shimoda: … that Jesse Fewkes was on that became the Ancestral Voices Project cylinders. Hodge was originally on that expedition. So even though it’s not a tribe speaking, he does weave Zuni and Hopi phrases into his stories as he’s recounting his experiences in New Mexico.

Joy Banks: Tell me what’s the point, what, what’s the point of, of doing all of this work and spending all this time?

Liza Posas: This segues nicely into the Autry Museum mission. So the Autry mission is to bring together the stories of all the peoples of the American West, connecting the past with the present to inspire our shared future. And Yuri and I are fortunate enough to work with history on a daily basis. And for me, when I work with the archives it is almost a constant, nearly a constant state of wonder because you will listen to something or see a photograph or read a letter that gives you a peek into something that happened in a moment of time in the past. But maybe now it’s instinct for us to connect it to today and make sense of what’s going on today. And I feel, I sometimes say, working with archives makes you a better human because in working with archives, there are so many characteristics that are put into place. You have to set yourself into a different place  in time and try to understand the environment that person or that era was in. You develop empathy. You have to develop critical thinking. You have to develop translation skills to translate what happened back then to what it may mean today. Like what is the equivalent? And I think if a person spends time in the archive, there’s, like I said, a little bit of that wonder and luminosity that comes with touching something that you know, was authored or originated before you were ever in any sort of existence. But yet there’s still that connection and we see it all the time where, you know the digitization is, is, is a tool, right? I see many times that people say, “Digitize it!” and therefore period, end of story. But it’s really a tool about access and not just physical access or literally accessing the collection, but just like access in so many ways. So yes, it could mean access to the actual archives or access to a piece of information that helps you with your scholarship. But it does access a different part of your imagination and your brain. And I know I got into archive collections because I wanted to know a history that resonated—right?—with me. And coming from, you know, a school system where they didn’t tell me much about Filipino American history, I’m a Filipino. When I did learn about it, it was like opening up a new world. So some of these songs were literally kept on in wire recordings and wax cylinders and the aluminum disc, these non-playable formats. And then there’s this rediscovering, uncovering of them with the digitization. So they might have had some contact of tribal members in the past, but as I was saying before, this is a multigenerational thing that goes onto the future. So digitization just provides this other element of access to most likely a new set of people that that don’t have as many resources of reference that, that they should or could.

Yuri Shimoda: I think your question kind of to us it’s like what is the point of your existence and the work that you’re doing every day? It’s kind of like the same question. For me, sound recordings, you know, it’s, it’s so much more than just the literal sounds in the recording. It’s really the meaning that’s imbued in that recording by the listener. And specifically in this case it’s, it’s the members of those communities who maybe haven’t heard that specific rendition of a song performed and the way that it is on the recording from, you know, 1902; maybe it’s not the same way that they perform it now. Being able to take care of that material until someone is ready to come and listen to it, I think is one of the most important things we do as archivists. Just making sure that material is ready and waiting for them for that next generation to come and seek it out. And I’m just so intrigued by you know, the uses that I’ve seen in my studies of archival materials to provide inspiration to that next generation. You know, I have her heard of projects that take beats from tribal song and incorporate them into electronic music so that younger members of the tribe will have a reinvigorated interest in learning that traditional art form. I’ve also heard stories of archival recordings, you know, standing in place for an instrument where there’s not a current member of the tribe that can play that specific instrument. That way they can perform a ceremony or song in the way that it was intended to be performed using the archival recording as a stand in. So I’m just so intrigued by the future utilizations of sound recordings. And I think for me that’s like the number one reason to do this here and now.

Joy Banks Narration: To end our conversations, I asked everyone to share one thing, one recording, one interaction encountered during the project that has been particularly exciting or impactful. The project warm fuzzies, if you will. For Yuri and Josh, who work more with the collections, they reflected on the voices being revealed through the digitization.

Yuri Shimoda: Oh my gosh, I have—there’s so many times. I mean just getting to actually review each of the recordings you know, even the plays like getting to see the process of the playwrights and, it’s hard not to get emotional, you know, when you see like their blood, sweat and tears go into this one thing and see it succeed in front of an audience or. There is a young playwright’s festival that the Native Voices would hold and seeing those teens like get to share like the first play that they’ve written. That is definitely a warm and fuzzy and super hilarious moment. When you see like their awkwardness, but then when they actually get laughs like from the lines that they wrote just how proud they are when they stand on that stage during curtain call. It’s, it’s so inspiring. I love like all the field recordings especially that you just are transported to another time and place through, you know, the way, the cadence of how they talk. You really get immersed in a different time and place listening to them, seeing and interact with their fellow singers. I love those moments a lot.

Josh Garrett Davis: Working in native American history more generally, if you’re working on periods before about 1970, there’s precious little sort of Native voice in the archive. This is true of a lot of underrepresented groups, but you’re always hoping for those moments if you’re a researcher where the Native voice comes through because the archives were largely created by non-Native people, institutions, academic fields and so on. And so, you know, there are a lot of techniques that people use to just sort of try to sift out the bias in the recorder’s point of view and try to imagine or to document a different perspective then the authors I guess you’d say. These archives have that quite a bit. Well, obviously they have literal Native voice happening. I mean, I guess what I really like on the sound recordings themselves are just sort of moments outside the specific, musical material, if a little bit of context is almost inadvertently recorded. And then sometimes it’s in conversation with the notes that are taken. I found a few cases in archives where a performer composed a song about the situation of recording. where they compose a song on the spot that says “I’m here recording with this anthropologist” and maybe they’ll be kind of making fun of them in the song or they’ll be kind of trying to create a sense of reciprocity or relationship where the ethnographer in most cases will kind of feel obligated to, to them in some way or feel that they need to help with some sort of political issue. There’s, there’s traces of the kind of politics around the, the recording that, that show up in little ways.

Joy Banks Narration: For Lylliam and Liza, they reflected on the spirit of collaboration their project has helped to solidify.

Lylliam Posadas: I’m excited for the ways in which this project has really brought us together to develop this infrastructure which ensures that no matter if we have staff changes that the work can continue in hopefully an ethical and, and productive fashion. And it means that information will be captured appropriately in our database. And so many of these recordings lack so much information, which in a way it’s, it’s it’s almost really disrespectful. Like these are people’s stories. They we have them here in the collection and we’ll have records that have no information about who that person was on the other end of the microphone. And that is something we really need to repair.

Liza Posas: Yuri has the funner job I would say, or the more fun job of the two because she gets to listen to everything. And I, you know, am the one that found all the materials, you know, centralized the items and, and came up with sort of an overview of a plan. But what was exciting for me and is exciting for me is pulling in so many people to write the grant with me. We collaborate all the time. But like, I really feel that the, from the start of the grant to the various stages within the grant period and after, it’s just this promise of collaboration, but collaborating in a way that we can work together. We can understand each other’s blind spots. But I think there’s, there were definitely times of tension but I think what helped is that we all have the same intent of doing the best we can with what we have and the technology of what we have in pushing our capabilities. And hopefully implementing this institutional culture of collaboration.

Yuri Shimoda: Yeah. I mean, I am so excited for the next steps to come, which I’m sure will provide many of those warm and fuzzy, but also frustrating and disheartening moments as well. I think that the future of this project is only going to be even more exciting and thrilling. And I can’t wait to see like, what happens.

Liza Posas: It’s, it’s a hefty size of elements involved that include standardized practices, tribal integration and what we’ve been calling data sovereignty, and understanding of worldviews and perspectives that aren’t necessarily written into much literature within our field. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a continuation of efforts. But, yeah, it’s, it’s been an interesting road..

Joy Banks: Well, I am very excited about your project. It’s such a pleasure to have this sort of closer look at the work that you’re doing.

Liza Posas: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s always a pleasure to talk about what we’re doing and to unpack things that we think about on a daily basis. And in this you know, organic way, I should say, where conversation flows in and out in regards to what we’re doing. So thank you.

Yuri Shimoda: And thank you for letting all four of us chime in because it truly, you know, one step couldn’t have gone on without every single member of the team. So it’s been super valuable. Thank you.

Joy Banks Narration: Thanks for listening to our episode. More information on this and all our episodes, including show notes, transcript, information on our guests, and links to their project sites and social medias, can be found online at material-memory.clir.org.

If you like our podcast, we hope you’ll rate, review, and subscribe.

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

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

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

I’m Joy and I hope you’ll join us next season on Material Memory.

Behind The Mic

Joy Banks

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.

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. 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. 

Liza Posas

Liza Posas


Liza Posas joined the Autry Museum of the American West in 2005 and serves as the Head of Research Services and Archives. In recent years, she has concentrated on building collaborations related to the practices supporting ethical stewardship for tribal collections. She is currently developing a workbook funded by the Society of American Archivist Foundation that examines the intersecting activities between the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) policies and Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (PNAAM) guidelines.

Yuri Shimoda

Yuri Shimoda


In June 2019, Yuri Shimoda earned her MLIS at UCLA, with a focus in media archival studies, and served as the CLIR Recordings at Risk Intern at the Autry Museum of the American West, a clerk for Los Angeles Public Library, and an asset specialist intern for Walt Disney Imagineering. She is the founder of the first student chapter of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), co-founder of Basement Tapes Day, and spent a summer as a Library of Congress Junior Fellow in the Recorded Sound Section of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Her research interests include community archiving and the preservation of sound recordings.

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