Digitizing some Native American recordings while keeping others sacred

There are 3,000 recordings, representing languages and songs of more than 40 Native American tribes, in the archives of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Some of them are over 100 years old, recorded on wax cylinders and wire spools. Most have been digitized, a couple dozen made readily available online.

Many more will never be heard by the general public. Digital technology presents new challenges to sacred sound, challenges the APS is learning to face.

“We’ve come to realize some recording are of sacred formulae,” said Timothy Powell, director of the APS Native American Project. “To the Cherokee, it’s dangerous; they can cause people harm. They believe if those recordings are digitized and put on the web — we would never do that, but should that happen — it kills the formulae.”

For the first time in its 269-year history, the American Philosophical Society is inviting Native Americans into its archive as experts of their own culture. Tribal elders travel to Philadelphia in order to listen to these recordings and determine how sacred they are.

Sacred recordings will be digitized and made available to visitors to the APS archive. But they will not be copied, even for academic research.

One of the indigenous ethnographers invited to listen to the tapes was Thomas Belt, a Cherokee teaching linguistics at West Carolina University. He came to the APS in 2010 to listen to a 1935 recording of Cherokee named Will West Long speaking in a formal oratory style.

“Hearing that tape recording reminded me so much of how people spoke where I come from in Oklahoma,” said Belt in a 2010 recording, available online. “Oklahoma Cherokees and North Carolina Cherokees had been seperated for almost 100 years by that point. And yet it was so much alike in its presentation.”

The Cherokees were split in 1838 when the American government forced Native Americans in the East and South to relocate: the Trail of Tears. The recordings at the APS show that both the Oklahoma Cherokees and those in North Carolina, though divided, maintained their traditional language and customs for over a century.

“That’s not a perception widley held by Cherokee people,” said Powell. “What’s fascinating is the style of oratory as much as language itself. It’s a powerful message.  It’s way for Cherokee to reunite in the sense of a shared language.”

Said Belt in the 2010 recording made at APS, “it’s a reminded we have that same concept of how to speak. We truly are the same people.”

With the legal powers granted by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) many tribes fight museums for the return of sacred objects taken over the centuries by anthropologists.

Sound recordings are a different matter.

“One thing interesting about digital recordings, people don’t necessarily want the wax cylinder,” said Powell. “You don’t have the technology to play the original.”

Powell says many tribal elders prefer the objects on which the recordings were made — i.e., the now-obsolete cylinders and spools and shellac phonographs — be kept at the American Philosophical Society, which will preserve those objects and digitize their contents.

The tribe receives the only copy outside the archive. Through negotiations based largely on trust, the APS agrees to not disseminate those recordings deemed sacred.

Editor’s Note:  At the request of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, NewsWorks has removed a sample audio recording that appeared on an earlier version of this story. 

Correction:  In a previous version of this story the Trail of Tears was misdated. 

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