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Indigenous American Cylinder Recordings and the American Folklife Center

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Francis La Flesche, the first professional American Indian ethnologist. Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph No. 4504.

As November is Native American Heritage Month, it seems a good opportunity to talk about some of the services the American Folklife Center provides for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and for those who wish to learn more about them.

The archival collections of the Library of Congress include the largest body of early recordings of indigenous American music recordings in the United States: about ten thousand wax cylinders of  songs and stories. The majority document American Indian cultures. Among these are the earliest known ethnographic field recordings, documenting Passamaquoddy songs and narratives by Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore, recorded by Jesse Walter Fewkes in Calais, Maine, in March 1890.  An example of a song preserved on a wax cylinder is from the Menominee story of the culture hero Manabus, who tricks ducks into dancing with their eyes closed so that he can kill and eat them. It is sung by Louis Pigeon and was recorded by Frances Densmore in 1925.

The ethnographers making recordings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sometimes indicated their belief that they were preserving aspects of cultures soon to disappear. Various circumstances, including widespread programs intended to assimilate Indian children, were expected to create future generations of native peoples who spoke only English. These predictions did not entirely come true, but some American Indian languages are no longer spoken, or are spoken by very few people. An example of a recording in a language no longer spoken today is this lullaby in Konomihu, a language related to Shasta, sung by Ellen Brazill Grant in California in 1926.

Although early recordings on wax may be scratchy and the sound may be faint, they nevertheless provide an invaluable resource for the preservation and revitalization of indigenous cultures and languages.  Even though the majority of the cylinder recordings contain songs rather than spoken language, they still can provide valuable information about language.  Some languages that were no longer spoken are now being spoken again, owing to recorded and written documentation of languages by ethnographers and linguists in the past and the diligent efforts of native people who wish to bring back their languages.  The Library has hosted meetings sponsored by the American Folklife Center and other archives in the Washington D.C. area especially for indigenous archivists and researchers, in the United States and elsewhere, wishing to locate and preserve such archival holdings or to do further research on native languages and cultures.

Providing access to early collections, particularly the wax cylinder recordings, proved to be a huge undertaking. In 1979 the Center launched the Federal Cylinder Project, which transferred fragile cylinder recordings onto preservation tape in cases where that had previously been done, and (in one of the earlier efforts of what is now described as “musical repatriation”) also sought to make copies available to tribal archives so that the members of the groups represented on those recordings would have an opportunity to hear them close to home, as well as at the Library of Congress. Efforts to make recordings available continue today.

Because of cultural sensitivities among indigenous Americans about the sacred nature of many songs and stories, appropriate use of the recordings, and appropriate audiences for them, it is not possible to present the majority of these archival recordings online. The American Folklife Center has worked with several American Indian nations, however, to select items that can be presented online with appropriate contextual information. The largest presentation is Omaha Indian Music, featuring songs from wax cylinder recordings made by an Omaha ethnographer, Francis La Flesche, and Alice Cunningham Fletcher between 1890 and 1910, along with a performance by the Hethu’shka Society at the Library of Congress in 1985, and documentation of a 1983 annual powwow in Nebraska.  Interviews with tribal elder Rufus White, conducted in 1999, provide further cultural information about the recordings.

Francis La Flesche, who lived from 1857-1932, was the first professional American Indian ethnologist and a member of the Omaha Nation. He published several books on the Omaha and the Osage.  He had relatives who used the same “English” name as he did, and he documented some of his own family members as part of the work he did with Alice Cunningham Fletcher. This example is a recording of the ethnologist Francis La Flesche’s  uncle, Francis La Flesche, Sr., whose Omaha name was Minxa’ska, and Minxa’ska’s son, Francis La Flesche, Jr., performing a Hethu’shka Society song and dance (the Hethu’shka society is an Omaha warriors’ society).

These cylinder recordings of indigenous Americans’ songs and stories are used by both native and non-native researchers.  Their greatest value lies in the the cultures and languages they help preserve, and they also provide a trip back in time, allowing us to hear voices of the past.  Finally, they have another kind of value: they have become a symbol of the durability and resilience of indigenous cultures.


The American Folklife Center, an Illustrated Guide

Gray, Judith A., 1996. “Returning Music to the Makers: The  Library of Congess, American Indians, and the Federal Cylinder Project,” Cultural Survival: Partnering with Indigenous Peoples to Defend their Lands, Languages, and Cultures, Volume 20, no. 4.

Hall, Stephanie, “Narratives of Women and Girls: the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection,” Folklife Today, March 26, 2014.

Hall, Stephanie, “Omaha Hethu’shka Society Songs and Dances,” Folklife Today, November 26, 2014.

Hall, Stephanie, “A Sampler of Caribbean American Recordings,” Folklife Today, June 19, 2014.

Hawaiian Song, an essay that forms part of the presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

Native American Heritage Month and Asian and Pacific Heritage Month, 2013 include additional information on American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian collections and resources with links.

Saylor, Nicole, “Moving Day and a Major Anniversary,” Folklife Today, March 13, 2015.

Taylor, Lisa, “American Indian and Alaskan Native Veterans Served Proudly Too,” Folklife Today, November 24, 2014.

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