Friday, April 15, 2016

The NRR Project #5: Passamaquoddy Indian field recordings

Passamaquoddy Indian field recordings
Jesse Walter Fewkes, recorder
30 cylinders
March, 1890
For the first time in this survey, the audio material in an entry of the National Recording Registry is unavailable; however, it’s for a very satisfying reason.

It’s unclear how hard it will be find many of these recordings in advance. I have faced this problem once already in my older, similar “National Film Registry Project” at Film Patrol. (Here is the entry onthe missing item, the 1909 film “Lady Helen’s Escapade.”) Normally, I’d again be irritated that I couldn’t access and evaluate the recordings. I’m not. But, the back-story first:

Anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was slated to join a folklore- and –life-gathering expedition to the American Southwest in 1890. He sought to test out his crank-powered cylinder recording device closer to home beforehand, so the Bostonian visited the Passamaquoddy people of the Maine/New Brunswick region. There, Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore told tribal tales, sang songs, and recited vocabulary, all in Passamaquoddy, for Fewkes on a set of 30 cylinders.

They represent the first field recordings, as well as the first recordings of Native Americans. Initially, the recordings joined the heap of other materials gathered from American natives, snatched from oblivion just as the “taming of the West” was completed. As such, they were the province of folklorists, ethnologists, and linguists – everyone but the people to whom the sounds belonged.

Finally, in 1985, the American Folklife Center completed its safety transcription of 10,000 cylinders-worth of data, and began repatriating the recordings to the tribal descendants of the respective recording artists.

It turns out there’s a lot of sensitive data on these recordings. There are sacred songs on these cylinders, never meant to be recorded, or even heard by the uninitiated. The Center staff visited more than 100 tribes, letting them know about the recordings, making them available, and turning over control of them as well. Here are two excellent essays about the process, one by Judith Gray of the American Folklife Center and the other by Peggy Bulger and Michael Taft of the same institution.

Today, permission from the Passamaquoddy is needed to access these recordings, as it should be. Do we have a right to peer into the secret souls of those around us? Nope. Nor should we. The fact that we can’t pore over these represents an evolution in the treatment of native people in the United States. Treasure your heritage, Passamaquoddy – there are many other songs to be heard.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection Recorded at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago.

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