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Native American Cylinder Recordings at No Depression

Head and shoulders portrait of Francis La Flesche

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

As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been working with No Depression, The Journal of Roots Music, which is published by the nonprofit Freshgrass Foundation. They’re publishing a column called Roots in the Archive, featuring content from the American Folklife Center and Folklife Today. Find the series at this link, over at their website!

The latest Roots in the Archive column is about cylinder recordings of Native American music and storytelling, and the American Folklife Center’s work with different Native American communities to steward and repatriate their cultural materials. Find the article at this link.

In case you need convincing, here’s an excerpt:

If you’re wondering how so many Native American cylinders ended up in one place, it came about through an intensive effort involving many government agencies and private institutions. Before the creation of the American Folklife Center in 1976, the Library of Congress only had a small fraction of the cylinder holdings it now safeguards. One of the first and most successful efforts of the Center was the Federal Cylinder Project, which gathered most of these recordings at the Library of Congress, where they were copied onto tape by the government’s most accomplished recording lab. Private institutions such as the Peabody Museum also got in on the act, donating cylinders like the Fewkes collection to the Library’s effort. The idea was to document all of the ethnographic cylinder collections, to preserve those recordings never before copied, and ultimately to disseminate copies of the Native American recordings back to their communities of origin.

That part of the Federal Cylinder Project came to fruition in the 1980s, when copies of AFC recordings were given to more than a hundred Native American communities. Judith Gray, AFC’s current coordinator of reference, came to the Center as an ethnomusicologist for the Federal Cylinder Project. She described the pride she witnessed on people’s faces on some of her visits to communities of origin: “They listened to recordings nearly a century old,” she said. “They recognized the songs, and in some cases started to sing along. Despite all of the formal and informal pressures to acculturate that native people experienced over the years, their recognition of these songs on such early recordings documents not only cultural continuity, but their ownership of their cultural traditions.”

Four people listen to a tape recorder, wearing headphones.

AFC makes its recordings of Indigenous Americans available to communities of origin across the country and also in Washington, DC. In this photo, three Pawnee speakers, assisted by a linguist, listen to Pawnee recordings in the Folklife Reading Room. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The article also describes and points the way to two online collections of cylinder recordings. The first is the set of Passamaquoddy recordings made by Jesse Walter Fewkes in 1890, which are the earliest known ethnographic sound recordings, and which are online as part of the Ancestral Voices project. The second is a selection of  Omaha recordings made by Francis La Flesche and Alice Fletcher, believed to be the earliest recordings of Native Americans made by an Indigenous professional anthropologist, which are online as part of the presentation Omaha Indian Music. It presents an embedded video of Passamaquoddy elders Wayne Newell and Blanche Sockabasin performing their community’s songs, including some learned from the cylinders. Finally, it outlines the impressive scope of AFC’s Native American recordings, on cylinders and many other formats.

We hope you’ll head on over to No Depression and check it out–at this link!



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