States hand over recordings of Indigenous oral histories to tribal control

There are over 600 oral history records housed where Lina Ortega is Associate Curator of Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Libraries. Ortega speaks limited Seminole, one of the languages ​​heard on the recordings. But while reviewing a regular 1969 tribal government meeting, she kept hearing a name she knew.

The name was that of his grandfather, Thomas Coker, an elected tribal official who was active in Seminole Nation politics for more than 30 years. The recording captured the empowering historical moment when many tribes were drafting new constitutions after the Termination Era ended, roughly two decades when the US government ceased federal recognition of certain tribes.

“I couldn’t take it all in,” said Ortega, who is a Sac and Fox Nation citizen and has Seminole and Muscogee Creek heritage. “But I just heard his name come up quite often, and it was a joy.”

These are the treasures of the archives of the Doris Duke Indian Oral History Program, which from 1966 to 1972 paid anthropologists, historians and linguists at seven state universities to capture the histories and, in some cases, the languages ​​in decline, indigenous peoples around the world. United States.

The collection was supported by $200,000 grants to each school by tobacco heiress Doris Duke, whose friendship with actor Marlon Brando spurred her interest in collecting oral histories, according to the 1992 biography. of Duke, “The richest girl in the world”. Brando declined his 1973 Oscar for The Godfather in protest of the federal response to members of the American Indian Movement and other activists who occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for 71 days.

Fifty years later, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is following up on its initial grants with a $1.6 million gift to digitize records stored at universities. This time, tribes will have much more control over access, which will be through a centralized digital content management system, Mukurtu, created by and for indigenous peoples.

Increased control may mean that certain documents will no longer be as easily accessible to the public as before. But it also means that the descendants of those recorded – some of whom may not have given consent for their stories, songs or interviews to be recorded – will decide which materials should be in the public domain.

This will help achieve the original goals as envisioned by Duke – to record Indigenous history from an Indigenous perspective and then release the materials to the tribes from which the recordings originated so they can decide how they should be used. . Many archivists anticipate that the records will continue to be a resource for cultural and linguistic revitalization efforts. Tribes can also add modern oral histories to their collections.

LOOK: A brief but dramatic look at Indigenous cultures and struggles

Recordings and transcripts are popular items in any university archival collection, which has led to difficult conversations about access as tribes reassess what should be made public, said Jolene Manus, who is Diné/ Omaha/Tsalagi of the Navajo Nation, and the Curator of Native American Collections at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Manus oversees 700 recordings in this collection, about half of which are from the Navajo people. The audio of the recordings is not available online in the collection, but transcriptions of the English recordings formerly were. Although Manus obtained permission from the tribes, she withdrew some transcriptions from circulation, especially those detailing ceremonial or cultural practices that were never intended to be shared beyond the tribe. Access decisions are for sovereign nations to make, she said, not for the university.

“I have a lot of respect for the songs and what they’re about,” she said. “Even coming into contact with certain types of songs can have an effect on an individual, especially if you don’t know what you’re listening to. You need an expert, more of an expert than me. These are the people who are the cultural experts, in their communities. They are the ones who know exactly who should have access to it, when they should have access to it, why they should have access to it or not.

With digitization, the possibilities for future use are nearly limitless, said Susan Feller, president of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, an international nonprofit organization that oversees the new Duke grant.

“These records sat on a shelf and were not accessible, not even to tribes,” said Feller, who is Choctaw and based in Oklahoma. “People are hearing the voices of their ancestors for the first time. They learn new words in their language. So it helps them advance their tribal language programs because a lot of the recordings are in the original language. This helps them further develop their tribal stories.

Duke’s original program ended in 1972 with approximately 6,500 oral interviews from 150 indigenous cultures. Some state university systems were better able than others to use what they gathered. The 1971 book “To Be an Indian” emerged from oral interviews conducted by researchers with Duke Fellowships at the University of South Dakota and was used as a textbook in Native American studies courses.

In other places, however, recordings languished in boxes, on deteriorated tapes, sometimes without transcriptions. Other institutions that hold collections include the University of Arizona, University of Florida, University of Illinois, and University of Utah. The University of California, Los Angeles also received one of the first freshman grants from the Duke program.

Because the interviews were conducted in a pre-digital era by dozens of different people at multiple universities, the project never had a common index or bibliography. It was therefore difficult, until now, to assess the scale of a vast program that captured the lives of Indigenous peoples at a pivotal moment in American history.

READ MORE: How ‘Reservation Dogs’ Became a Breakthrough Hit for Indigenous Representation

Duke had varied interests and knew the power of recorded personal histories, according to his biography as well as an account of his oral history project written by anthropologist Dianna Repp. During World War II, the heiress worked for US intelligence in Italy and Cairo, where she recorded conversations with wounded US soldiers to share with their families. Twenty years later, one of Duke’s wartime friends with connections at the University of Illinois explained to him how endangered Indigenous languages ​​and other cultural knowledge were at the death of ancient Native Americans. , wrote Repp. That may have been as big an influence on Duke’s initial gift as his friendship with Brando.

“Doris Duke passed away 30 years ago, but we still want to be intentional and respectful and honor her wishes and the things that mattered to her,” said Rumeli Banik, who oversees the Doris Duke Charitable program. Foundation.

Among the so-called Dukies who collected oral histories during the early years of the program was Susan Penfield, who in 1969 was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Arizona, dragging a tape recorder with her. coil. interviews. At the time, she was intrigued by capturing moribund native languages ​​and chose to do oral interviews with the Mojave who resided at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation near Parker, Arizona.

Penfield thought it would be a relatively simple summer of fieldwork in anthropology, but it influenced his decision to become a linguist. She continued to work in the community for 50 years.

“You could see it shrinking,” Penfield said of the Mojave language. “When I first went there, you would hear people queuing at the market or the post office, everyone speaking Mojave. I took a grad student there in the 90s. He never heard the language spoken.

Ortega, the curator who heard her grandfather’s name mentioned in the tapes, said she continued to enjoy the variety of topics people talked about during their interviews in Oklahoma when the Duke program began. It’s just as charming to hear the accents of the time, which remind him of the way of speaking of his grandparents.

“It really reminds me of my grandparents, the way they spoke and even some of the terms they used that you don’t hear so much anymore,” she said. “So I always like to hear their voices just for that aspect. And I’ve had other people tell me that too.

This story was published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, on June 24, 2021. You can find the original article here.

About Elaine Morales

Check Also

Opération Enfant de Noël is getting ready for shoebox collection week | Church

Country the United States of AmericaUS Virgin IslandsU.S. Minor Outlying IslandsCanadaMexico, United Mexican StatesBahamas, Commonwealth …