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Members of the Passamaquoddy tribe sing in a scene from the film “Language is Life.” Courtesy of Providence Pictures.

“Language is Life” and Native American Historical Voices

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The anticipation in the small room in Culpeper, Virginia, was palpable as the stylus touched down on a rare 100-year-old wax cylinder recording. Chin in hand, film producer Daniel Golding sat while his son, Nate, stood behind him, hands in pocket.

A scratchy sound emerged, followed by a man’s voice, which Golding identified as his great-grandfather’s. He was singing a deer song in the language of the Quechans, a Native American tribe indigenous to an area along the Mexico border in Arizona and California.

“My great-grandfather was the last one to sing these songs,” Golding said. “There’s nobody left in the community that sings them.”

Golding brought a film crew to the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in July 2022 to document a collaboration between the Library and another tribe — the Passamaquoddy of Maine — to recover and share tribal language and cultural practices from wax cylinder recordings in the collections.

Golding’s film, “Language Is Life,” showcases efforts by three Native communities — the Passamaquoddy, the Cherokee and the Navajo — to revitalize their languages and, through language, to revive cultural heritage.

Narrated by Joy Harjo, the former U.S. poet laureate, the film premiered at the Library last November in advance of its broadcast as one of four episodes in the PBS series, “Native America.

Anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes documented Passamaquoddy folktales, origin stories and vocabulary in 1890 using wax cylinders, the recording medium of the day. The 31 Passamaquoddy recordings donated to the Library are the oldest ethnographic field recordings known to survive anywhere.

The Library holds a total of about 9,000 turn-of-the-20th-century field recordings of Native communities, the largest collection in the U.S. Between 1977 to 1987, the Library’s American Folklife Center transferred these early field recordings to reel-to-reel cassette tape as part of the Federal Cylinder Project.

Since 2015, using cutting-edge laser-assisted technology, NAVCC has been digitizing and restoring these recordings through a project called Ancestral Voices — informally dubbed Federal Cylinder Project 2.0. Ancestral Voices is part of a larger collaboration involving the AFC, Native communities and other cultural institutions to support revitalization of Native languages and cultures.

The task is urgent: According to “Language Is Life,” linguists predict that only 20 Native languages will be spoken in North America by 2050, down from more than 300 in 1492, if language loss isn’t reversed.

AFC is collaborating with communities to curate digitized recordings and release them selectively on the Ancestral Voices portal — communities do not want all materials shared publicly. The folklife center also provides copies directly to Native tribes.

In recent years, for example, it provided the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon with copies of out-of-circulation recordings that allowed the community to reincorporate content not used in 70 years and Sioux communities with copies of photographs and recordings that they said documented the proper way to butcher buffalo, an important cultural tradition..

When Golding heard the newly digitized recording of his great-grandfather in Culpeper in 2022, he immediately recognized a big improvement over a recording his parents had played for him in the 1970s. The speed was corrected, and the sound was much clearer.

For his son, Nate, then 16, the experience was more profound — he had never heard his great-great-grandfather’s voice before.

“I hope these traditions are passed down to the younger generation so the tradition can live on,” Nate said, holding back tears. “It gives me hope for our community to become stronger. It just gives me hope in my heart.”

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Comments (2)

  1. 9,000 recordings! That is amazing, what an incredible and important project.

  2. A small but important step to right the wrongs of our past. Thanks for sharing!

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