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A Treasure Trove Of Rare Recordings Return To Native American Groups

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The music on the Smithsonian Folkways collection 'Navajo Songs' is some of the music returning to the Native American groups. The music on the Smithsonian Folkways collection 'Navajo Songs' is some of the music returning to the Native American groups.

Lately, the big stories in the art museum world have revolved around works of art from all over the world -- and how the countries of origin want them back. Some of these repatriation deals can get pretty contentious. But Columbia University’s Center for Ethnomusicology is voluntarily returning a treasure trove of rare recordings of traditional songs and dances to several Native American groups.

Aaron Fox, an associate professor of music at Columbia and former director of the Center, tells Soundcheck how the center worked to return these recordings and how a Columbia student was sent to find her own grandfather's recordings.


Interview Highlights

Aaron Fox, on the unexpected ties of the rare recordings to a Columbia student:

It's a very long story that starts with a Navajo family in Alburqueque, N.M. gathering for a family funeral. One of the daughters of this family was a young woman named Nanobah Becker, who has gone on to become a well-known Navajo filmmaker. At the time she was an MFA student in film at Columbia University. She had returned home for the funeral of her grandmother. Her sister from Chicago had picked up a record called Navajo Songs, which featured a set of tracks of recordings by the collector Laura Boulton.

The girls' mother said, "I hear my father and grandfather on that record." It turned out that she was exactly right. The record featured an elder Navajo medicine man named Pablo Wellito and his son. These were in fact Nanobah Becker's great-grandfather and grandfather. They googled Laura Boulton, whose name appeared in the notes to the collection along with a credit to Columbia University. Since Nanobah was a student, they sent Nanobah in pursuit of her grandfather's recordings.

On anthropologists' presumptions on "dying languages:"

In the middle of the 20th century any number of collectors or scholars set about documenting what they perceived to be dying languages and cultures. In most cases those presumptions were quite wrong. Take something like Alaskan Eskimo dance which Laura Boulton recorded in 1946; she believed as did her Inupiaq consultants that the music she was documenting was in serious trouble.

It couldn't be healthier now. It's explosively important to the performance of Eskimo and Inupiaq identity in Alaska and more broadly around the world. Virtually every young person in Alaska's North Slope participates in traditional dance.

On how you add value to returning these recordings:

It's my argument that Native communities and artists gave freely of their creative work to people like Laura Boulton, who collected this music, or Alan Lomax or any of the other famous collectors. They did so in the reasonable expectation of reciprocity. The collector who recorded these songs and about 115 others did not speak Inupiaq, spent a week in town, had minimal contact after that with the community and the culture.

With National Science Foundation funding, my collaborator Chie Sakakibara and myself have spent a number of years re-documenting this collection by listening to it systematically with the leading elder experts on Inupiaq traditional music in the Inupiaq community. We're able to produce an oral historical account of the recordings that provides a far, far richer account of what they are.


Music played in this segment:

Hopi: "Spanish Song"

Singer: David Monongye

Recorded in Hotevilla, Arizona in 1940, by Laura Boulton


Iñupiaq: Untitled dance song

Singers: Joseph Sikvayugak with Leo Kaleak, Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak.

Recorded in Barrow, Alaska in October 1946, by Laura Boulton.


Navajo: "Moccasin Game Song"

Singers: Pablo and Frank Wellito, from Ojo Encino, New Mexico,

Recorded at Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago in 1933, by Laura Boulton


Hopi: Lullaby "Puuva."

Singer: Unknown

Recorded in Hotevilla, Arizona in 1940, by Laura Boulton

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