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Native American Heritage Month: Bringing Native Voices to Light

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Dwayne Tomah performs at the Library on June 4. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation officer, stands behind him. Photo by Valda Morris.

On June 4 in the Madison Building’s West Dining Room, Dwayne Tomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine stood to sing a tribal war song at a celebration organized by the American Folklife Center. It was an emotional moment for Tomah — the song hadn’t been performed publicly in 128 years.

He was able to do so, in part, because of modern digital technologies at the Library that had helped uncover indistinct words from an 1890 recording of the song in the Folklife Center’s collections.

“For me to stand here before you in 2018, to be able to sing our songs … is very powerful,” Tomah said. “To know that our language is still alive. I want to thank each and every one of you.”

For the past several years, the Library has been collaborating with the Passamaquoddy to digitize, curate and expand access to content from 31 Passamaquoddy recordings made in March 1890 by anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes. In addition to songs, Fewkes documented folktales, origin stories, vocabulary, numbers and more using wax cylinders, the recording medium of the day. Those cylinders are the oldest ethnographic field recordings known to survive anywhere; in 2002, they were added to the Library’s National Recording Registry in recognition of their cultural importance.

To begin sharing recordings online, the Folklife Center launched the project, Ancestral Voices, on the Library’s website in the spring. Eventually, field recordings of other tribal communities will join the Passamaquoddy’s online.

Ancestral Voices builds on the Folklife Center’s Federal Cylinder Project. From 1977 to 1987, that project preserved early ethnographic field recordings of the sung and spoken traditions of Native American communities by transferring audio from wax cylinders to reel-to-reel tape. The Library holds about 9,000 such cylinder recordings, the largest collection in the U.S. Researchers — many from native communities — can access listening copies in the Folklife Center reading room.

Library audio preservationist Patrick Smetanick digitizes a wax cylinder using the Archeophone. Photo by Bryan Hoffa.

Ancestral Voices got started when former Librarian of Congress James Billington asked whether new digital tools at the Library might facilitate retrieval of additional content from aging media. For early Native American recordings, the query raised a question: “What does the Federal Cylinder Project in the digital age look like?” said Guha Shankar of the Folklife Center, an Ancestral Voices project coordinator.

The answer involved not only digital solutions but consideration of innovative ways to work with native communities to curate recordings — to the benefit of both the communities and other researchers.

The project began in earnest with the 2015 transfer of cylinders containing Native American field recordings from Capitol Hill to the state-of-the-art audio-visual conservation facilities at the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia. Soon after, audio engineers there began digitizing the Passamaquoddy recordings using a specially designed modern cylinder player called the Archeophone.

At the time of the Federal Cylinder Project, few machines existed dedicated to extracting information from cylinders. Instead, project staff used modified period equipment from the heyday of cylinder recording — the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Bryan Hoffa, a recording engineer at Packard.

Invented in France by a cylinder collector, the Archeophone’s components include a motor with variable speed control, modern stereo pickup and changeable styli that can fit wide cylinder grooves, all of which makes it possible to capture more information.

Hoffa recalls playing a Passamaquoddy recording on the Archeophone for the first time for Judith Gray, head of reference services for the Folklife Center and a longtime coordinator of the Federal Cylinder Project. “Her jaw just dropped; she couldn’t believe the difference,” Hoffa said.

After creating digital preservation copies of the Passamaquoddy recordings, Hoffa and his colleagues began the painstaking process of digital restoration. “You’re kind of peeling back layers of noise,” Hoffa said. “It’s like a surgical operation. … It’s subtle.”

Afterward, Hoffa said, it became clear what was being said on a few cylinders. On others, voices can now be heard where previously they could not.

As digitization proceeded, the Folklife Center began sharing files with Passamaquoddy community members. “They’re going through them to do translations, sort out the meanings that emerge from carefully listening to them,” Shankar said.

In turn, the Passamaquoddy are sharing their knowledge to help the Library correct and augment catalog records for digitized recordings — many records still include rudimentary descriptions supplied by early field recorders like Fewkes.

Two organizations — Local Contexts, a digital initiative based at New York University, and Mukurtu, a content-management system at Washington State University — are partners in helping to incorporate the Passamaquoddy’s perspective into Ancestral Voices.

Local Contexts developed digital labels for traditional knowledge released online to educate researchers about acceptable uses of the content; the Passamaquoddy adapted several labels for its Ancestral Voices recordings. Mukurtu hosts the Passamaquoddy’s website and arranges for transfer of data the tribe chooses to share with outside repositories like the Library.

“More than 100 years after these recordings were made, now they’re getting back into public circulation in a robust way, and the Library is at the forefront of leading that initiative in some really important ways,” Shankar said.

As for the Passamaquoddy, the Ancestral Voices project not only is helping the community recover its lost or forgotten history but also is building language fluency, which had seriously dwindled in recent years.

“This comes at an important time,” said Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. “It’s bringing a gift back to the tribe.”


  1. Wonderful news all around! Thank God for bringing this back. I will pray for more successes.

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