The Cultural Conservancy - Indigenous Languages Restoration Project – the repatriation of legacy recordings of native story, song and endangered languages.
|Apache recordings from the Guy Tyler Collection cover|
In 2000, the estate of amateur ethnographer Guy Tyler contacted the Storyscape Project with an intriguing proposal and a unique opportunity to assist with Native American cultural preservation and revitalization.
Guy Tyler was an amateur ethnographer who conducted ethnographic audio recordings of Native Americans primarily in the American Southwest over a forty-year period of time.
In one room of Tyler’s Southern California home were shelves of aging reel-to-reel tapes of native stories, songs and native speakers in 22 different languages, some of which were thought to be extinct. Tyler’s estate asked that we assist in archiving this invaluable legacy. We agreed, but on one condition, that the next of kin of those recorded determine the conditions of the archive, and that copies of the recordings be repatriated to the tribes and native communities where the languages were spoken.
The Berkeley Language Center (BLC) at the University of California at Berkeley generously offered to restore the reel-to-reel tapes by transferring them onto a digital format. The BLC has state of the art archival facilities with climate-controlled vaults and archival capabilities on duplicate computer hard drive systems. Some of the tapes were so old, they had to be baked in an oven to adhere the magnetic strip to the tape. The BLC provides written content sheets of each recording and depending on the conditions of archive and access, visitors to the Center can either listen to or duplicate the recordings.
Through the assistance of grant funds, The Storyscape Project was able to repatriate over 600 compact disc recordings to over 70 tribes. Native songs, stories, and languages are returning home to be used in their cultural education and language immersion preservation and revitalization programs.
Awakened Voices: recordings of indigenous language and song find their way home.
(Reprinted in part from News from Native California, 2000)
|Guy Tyler – Photograph courtesy of the Guy Tyler estate.|
"I have good news and bad news," she said. "We found Guy Tyler, but he passed away a couple of months ago. We talked to his family, he left behind a room full of old audio tapes and they would like to talk to you. Who knows what treasures are there?" National Public Radio was working on a program about The Storyscape Project's efforts to restore indigenous story, song and language. One of the producers called to tell me the results of their search for the ethnographer who spent his life diligently recording Indian languages throughout the Southwest. Guy Tyler had left behind photographs, films, field notes and recordings representing an invaluable body of cultural materials. The radio program led to an invitation by Tyler's family to help them preserve, archive and repatriate a library of Native American heritage.
Guy Tyler was a transplanted Texan who found his way to Los Angeles to work as a camera man for ABC television. His passion was ethnography and he spent his weekends and vacations traveling to reservations throughout the Southwest to record long lists of words and songs and stories from elders, cooks and waitresses, medicine women and renowned singers. He had interviewed Sitting Bull's grand daughter in the Hunkpapa dialect and a Chemehuevi medicine woman with great powers of healing. He recorded the sacred song cycle from the last of the Mohave Creation Song singers and captured languages in peril of extinction. I was honored to be asked by Tyler's family to become the steward of his legacy and disappointed to learn that I had just missed meeting the man whose work I knew so intimately. While listening to hours and hours of tapes I discovered Tyler's motivation in his own words; "To let the Indian languages die out would be such a sad thing."
I was familiar with Tyler's recordings (see News from Native California, "House of Night" Fall 1999) since the Storyscape Project had assisted Mojave elders in the preservation of the audio tapes of Emmett Van Fleet, the last of the Mojave Creation Song singers, recorded by the amateur in 1972.
The twelve-hour, 525 song cycle recounts the journeys of the Mohave's spirit mentors along the Colorado River from Avi Kwa Me or Spirit Mountain (Mt. Newberry, Nevada) to Avi Kwahath or Greasy Mountain (South Mountain, Arizona) endowing the natural landscape with multi-layered stories of both the everyday and the supernatural.
The songs begin by recounting the death of the great God Mutavilya and contain his instructions to the Mohave people for his own cremation thereby establishing Mohave death rituals in practice today. The rediscovery, restoration and translation of the songs are a major contribution to Mohave culture and have helped the tribe in their efforts to defeat the proposal for a nuclear waste dump on their sacred aboriginal lands by establishing historical evidence of sacred lands though a description of the landmarks described in the songs. One of the central goals of the Storyscape Project is to protect native lands, believing that the preservation of the story in the landscape will help keep the land alive. Tyler also recorded word lists of the Mojave language are now used in language recovery programs on the reservation.
Tyler had no formal training in anthropology, as evidenced by his random methodology, but he was tireless and meticulous, taking copious notes during sessions that lasted for hours, and was intensely interested in comparative indigenous language and culture. Tyler took hundreds of photographs and was careful to send copies back to their subjects. I called Tyler's next of kin, nephew Otho McNabb and his wife Beverly, to inquire about the man and to tell them of his important work with the Mojaves. They enthusiastically described the contents of a few of the hundreds of aging reel-to-reel tapes lining the walls in one of the rooms of Tyler's house. "Help us to make the most of Uncle Guy's work," they said.
I met Otho and Beverly at Tyler's four bedroom house just outside of Los Angeles. They were sifting through piles of Tyler's belongings as they had every Saturday for months. The interior of the house was full of boxes of slides, photographs and films. Indian memorabilia, some traditional, some downright kitchy, lined the walls interspersed with photographs of television and movie stars. The dish washer still held its instructions since this bachelor ate all his meals in local restaurants. Upstairs in one of the rooms, tape boxes were arranged on shelves and in piles on the floor. There were fifty tapes labeled Gypsy Language and Gypsy Music, recordings of African and Arabic music and language, and Pow Wows in Oklahoma. I counted sixty-seven tapes of indigenous languages, stories and songs labeled Athapaskan, Apache, Cahuilla, Chamorro, Chemehuevi, Cherokee, Cupeño, Digueño, Eskimo, Hopi, Hualapai, Isleta, Kiowa, Mojave, Navajo, Paiute, Papago and Pima, Serrano, Sioux, Tewa, Yaqui and Zuni.
The McNabb's wanted the tapes to be used in the best way possible way to realize Tyler's life work. The family wanted the tapes restored and archived. We recommended that the recordings be returned to where they came so that these awakened voices could help breathe life back into communities that have suffered from systematic attempts to strip them of their language, land and culture. The McNabb's embraced this plan as a way to fulfill Tyler's desire to preserve Indian culture and to make a positive contribution to Indian people. But the process of cultural repatriation can be complex.
As we developed protocols for the repatriation of the recordings, questions of access and ownership emerged across a cultural divide. Competing perspectives on ownership, the power and place of the voices of the deceased, even the disposition of the tapes themselves surfaced. Academics wanted the recordings available with little restriction. Some tribes wanted exclusive control. After much research and consultation with our board of advisors comprised of linguists, anthropologists, Indian elders and cultural workers, indigenous scholars and Native American rights activists, we settled upon a plan.
With the help of the University of California at Berkeley Language Center, we are using state-of-the-art equipment to transfer the deteriorating tapes onto a digital format and archive the recordings at the Center's climate controlled vaults. Although they will be available for listening, the recordings cannot be used for commercial purposes and cannot be duplicated without the permission of the individuals recorded and their tribes. Our plan is to return the recordings to these individuals or the estates of the people recorded and their tribes for their own use. In this way, we feel that the voices will return home to find their way into the hearts and minds of their people and be rewoven into the tribal fabric.
ndigenous stories, songs and languages, are vanishing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that nearly 80% of the indigenous of North American are moribund (not currently taught). Elaborate oral literatures are disappearing as older generations pass on and young people become assimilated into western industrial society through the pressures of cultural, political and economic colonization and homogenization, in schools and other institutions, which fail to teach traditional ways to younger people. The storehouses of ethnic-biological knowledge on the healing properties of natural resources, harmonious ways of living with the natural world and time-tested sustainable land management practices are threatened. For many tribes, there are no organized cultural preservation programs, due in part to the paucity of materials. As elders pass on, without a systematic program of cultural preservation, the life body of cultural material is severely diminished or lost.
In addition, economic pressures on tribes can lead to habitat destructive development. Indigenous people have been forced to forfeit most of their aboriginal lands to the federal government through force and treaties. The Indian Claims Commission proceedings of the 1950's and 60's facilitated the loss of tribal lands since the government settled land claims that acknowledged only a fraction of the territory confiscated at a fraction of its true worth. The settlement prohibited any future claims. This loss cut deeply into the foundation of tribal sustenance and identity.
The Storyscape Project was founded in 1998 as part of The Cultural Conservancy, a non-profit indigenous rights organization working to assist indigenous communities safeguard their lands and culture. The Indigenous Languages Restoration Project involved in the restoration and repatriation of Tyler's recordings is only one of The Storyscape's Project's efforts to preserve indigenous culture and lands. We are working to record the last speakers of endangered languages, the rich songs that describe ancient lands and the native landscapes that serve as guides. We help preserve indigenous songs that serve as oral maps describing aboriginal territory and the landmarks and lore and the stories embedded in the culture. Our goal is to make the connection between cultural preservation and environmental protection; the relationship between cultural and biological diversity. And we believe that all intellectual property rights should be retained by those we record.
We are currently working with the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe to record their ancient Salt and Deer Songs. The project will assist in the efforts of the Native American Land Conservancy, a consortium of four tribes, to obtain 2,500 acres of aboriginal territory to protect the ecology and culture of the Old Woman Mountains wilderness in the southern Mojave desert region of California. Our work with the Kashaya Pomo includes historical documentation of land use dominion and enabling the oral histories of contemporary elders to establish land rights. Our recordings of the last Kashaya Pomo speakers will be used in language restoration programs on the reservation. We are in discussion with the Western Shoshone Nation of Nevada to record invaluable and hauntingly beautiful traditional Sunrise and Water Songs. The songs will be used to protect their lands from nuclear weapons testing.
In the darkness of the sound studio I watch an ancient song transformed into a sound wave on a computer screen as we transfer the aging tapes onto a digital drive. I listen to a deeply aged voice recount a shared history. The song has a memory rooted in granite mountains and wide fans of sand and its age is like the furrowed lines in the palm of a hand. I find the nature of the story in the landscape of the song, meaning in the texture of its sounds. The image on the screen reminds me of a heart beat, a current that has persisted through history and is now seeking its future.