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Native American Heritage Month: Preserving Songs and Stories of the Past

Judith Gray joined the staff of the American Folklife Center in 1983 with a goal in mind: she wanted to work on the Federal Cylinder Project. The Folklife Center launched the project four years earlier to preserve early field recordings of the sung and spoken traditions of Native American communities. Ethnographers had made the recordings on wax cylinders—the recording medium of the day—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Library houses the country’s largest collection of these recordings.

Judith Gray rehouses wax cylinder recordings in archival boxes to help preserve them. Photo by Nicole Saylor.

Beyond preservation, the Federal Cylinder Project has also made copies of recordings available to tribal archives. Some recordings document traditions that had disappeared from communities, or that existed only in the memories of elders. But in some cases, the recordings also confirm the continuity of traditions—contemporary people have recognized songs a century old as being part of their unique heritage.

Gray’s passion for the project arose from her academic training: she studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University with David McAllester, a pioneer in the field and an expert in Navajo musical traditions.

Today, she heads references services for the Folklife Center and continues to work with the Federal Cylinder Project recordings. Last fall, she received the prestigious Honored One Award from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums for her support of Native American communities and cultural institutions.

Here Gray answers a few questions about the Federal Cylinder Project.

What motivated ethnographers at the turn of the 20th century to document Native American cultural traditions?

Partly, they were continuing an established practice. From their earliest arrivals in the Americas, Europeans who encountered Native Americans often documented what they perceived of tribal communities, practices, rituals and material culture, sending that information back to their sponsors, sometimes to further specific goals. So, for example, the Jesuit priests who lived in indigenous communities along the St. Lawrence River in the mid-1600s gathered information on languages and kinship structure, the better to translate the Bible and hymns into Native languages and to convert people to Christianity.

In the early 1800s, the new United States government operated trading posts in Indian country; correspondence between the agents, territorial governors, geographical surveyors and various government offices related not only to commerce but also to other affairs, documenting many aspects of Native life.

By the latter half of the 19th century, many Native people had been confined to reservations, many children were being sent to nontribal boarding schools and treaties were no longer being signed. Congressmen like Henry Dawes were speaking in terms of “civilizing” Native people by allotting tribal lands to individuals as private property—of turning “Indians into farmers.” Correspondingly, the general presumption among Euroamericans of that day was that traditional indigenous lifeways were disappearing. This “myth of the vanishing Indian” was definitely one impetus for much cultural documentation, including recordings made on wax cylinders.

How did the Library come to house the largest collection of these early field recordings in the U.S.?

In 1879, Congress created the Bureau of Ethnology within the Smithsonian Institution to house archival materials on tribal populations. It was renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) in 1897 and soon became the home for much of the anthropological fieldwork of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including much of the aural documentation on wax cylinders.

Cylinders being organized into shelf-list order. Photo by Nicole Saylor.

In 1948, the BAE collection of thousands of ethnographic wax cylinder recordings was transferred to the Library of Congress, after being housed briefly by the National Archives. One of the principal BAE cylinder collectors, Frances Densmore, pushed for the move because she knew the Library had a recording lab to facilitate public access to the recordings, something she believed was essential. The Library by that time also had other field-recorded collections of North, Central and South American tribal songs and some spoken-word examples (as well as recordings of indigenous people from other parts of the world)—some on cylinders, others on wire or disc recordings and soon thereafter on tape recordings.

Once the Federal Cylinder Project was created in the late 1970s, more cylinder collections came to the Library, not only from federal agencies but also from museums, historical societies and individuals. The Library now has over 8,800 actual field-recorded cylinders, together with disc copies of hundreds of additional cylinders—and we still occasionally receive some small collections of them that people discover in homes and offices. Probably 80 percent or more of the Library’s field-recorded cylinders are of Native American songs and spoken word.

How has the Folklife Center approached dissemination of the recordings, and what are the challenges?

The goals of the Federal Cylinder Project were to preserve, document and then disseminate copies of the early recordings to their communities of origin. To help us set the ground rules for such a process, the Folklife Center in the 1980s requested the advice of tribal representatives active in museums and other cultural institutions. Based on their recommendations, Cylinder Project staff members then contacted tribal governments, requesting that they place us in touch with cultural heritage committees, elders groups and so on—people knowledgeable about the traditions and song genres represented on the recordings from their communities. After making such connections and consulting with the designated contacts—and if we were then invited—project staff often visited the communities, formally returning copies of the recordings, sometimes at large tribal events, sometimes at tribal council meetings, sometimes at school assemblies or senior centers—whatever the community asked of us.

The challenges have to do both with the medium itself and with the contents. Not all recordists were equally proficient in using the cylinder recorder, so sometimes the recordings were simply not well made. Over the course of time, others have deteriorated; fragile ones have cracked and broken. Consequently, the recordings are not always easy to decipher. Some take repeated listening before the ear learns to ignore the surface noise and focus on the recorded voice itself. For some collections, listening is definitely hard work.

And the contents can be problematic for contemporary community members. In some cases, for example, descendants of someone recorded back in the 1910s or 1920s are uncomfortable with the fact that it was their ancestor who “gave songs away” to an outsider ethnologist. In other cases, the recordings are of songs belonging to a specific ceremony, songs that should be heard only in that context, only by members of certain societies or only during certain parts of the year. Such recordings are an issue for community members who then need to sort out who should be able to have access to them under what circumstances. Sometimes the recordings are decidedly a mixed blessing.

How have communities responded to the project?

The responses are as different as the communities themselves. We’ve heard that cylinder recordings have been used to help revive a specific dance in one location. We know that at least one community for a while gave copies of century-old recordings to their high-school graduates to remind the young people of their heritage. At this year’s conference of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, I encountered a person I had met on a dissemination visit in 1985 who told me that the cassette copies I had left in his community had since been digitized, and the recordings were still in use. Other recordings delivered during the dissemination phase in the 1980s disappeared soon thereafter, we were told, probably due to issues related to the contents and conflicting senses of who should be able to access them.

But the early recordings remain a source of great interest. They are frequently sought in the Folklife Center’s reading room by visiting members of tribal communities and requested via email by participants in tribal language-preservation activities and so on. We do outreach to tribal communities whenever possible in order to spread the word about the existence of the early recordings, but the uses (or nonuses) of the recordings are in the hands of their communities of origin. The recordings are their intellectual property, and we respect their wishes.

How have the Library’s efforts toward preserving the recordings evolved?

When the BAE cylinders first came to the Library in 1948, the preservation technique of the day was to copy the recordings on to aluminum discs. Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of those discs were in turn copied on to 10-inch preservation tapes. We used those tapes in the 1980s to make the dissemination cassettes (the most accessible and requested format within tribal communities at that time).

Interestingly, in the 1980s and 1990s, listening to a reference-tape copy of a 10-inch preservation tape of a disc copy of a wax cylinder was often better than listening to a newly accessioned actual cylinder being played. The tape copies were based on recordings that had first been transferred in the 1940s, when the cylinders were decades younger and in somewhat better condition. Cylinders being transferred for the first time in the 1990s were apt to be in worse shape.

Now, however, the Library has several new cylinder transports, or playback machines, that allow us to digitize the recordings in the process of transferring the actual cylinders anew. These devices by themselves or in conjunction with audio-restoration software are helping us pull even more sound from the early recordings, in some cases almost bringing the original singer “to life” and sometimes allowing us to decipher an additional helpful word in a recorded announcement. Digitizing cylinders is a time-consuming process, however—it can easily take more than an hour to digitize a single cylinder holding about two minutes of material—so for the moment we still are principally using the preservation-tape copies for listening and dissemination, while looking forward to hearing the new transfers as those become available.

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