States return recordings of Indigenous oral histories to tribal control

There are more than 600 oral history records where Lina Ortega serves as Associate Curator for the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Libraries. Ortega speaks limited Seminole, one of the languages ​​heard on the recordings. But as she reviewed an ordinary tribal government meeting in 1969, she kept hearing a name she recognized.

The name was that of her grandfather, Thomas Coker, an elected tribal official who was active in Seminole Nation politics for more than 30 years. The recording captured the empowering historical moment as many tribes drafted new constitutions after the end of the Termination era, about two decades ago, when the US government stopped federal recognition of some tribes.

“I couldn’t understand all of that,” said Ortega, who is a citizen of Sac and Fox Nation and has heritage from Seminole and Muscogee Creek. “But I heard his name quite a lot, and that was a pleasure.”

Such are the treasures in the archives of the Doris Duke Indian Oral History Program, which paid anthropologists, historians, and linguists at seven state universities from 1966 to 1972 to record the histories, and in some cases the fading languages, of indigenous peoples across the United States.

The collection was supported by tobacco heiress Doris Duke with $200,000 in grants to each school whose friendship with actor Marlon Brando sparked her interest in collecting the oral histories, according to Duke’s gossiping 1992 biography, ” The richest girl in the world”. Brando famously turned down his 1973 Oscar for The Godfather in protest at the federal response to members of the American Indian Movement and other activists who occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for 71 days.

Fifty years later, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is continuing its original grants with a $1.6 million donation to digitize the materials held at the universities. This time, tribes will have much more control over access, which will be done through a centralized digital content management system, Mukurtu, created by and for tribal peoples.

More scrutiny may mean that some materials are not as readily available to the public as they used to be. But it also means that the descendants of the people on the tape — some of whom may not have consented to having their stories, songs or interviews recorded — decide what materials should be made publicly available.

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This will help achieve the original goals Duke envisioned – recording Indigenous history from an Indigenous perspective and then handing the materials over to the tribes that provided the records so they can decide how to use them must. Many archivists anticipate that the materials will continue to serve as a resource for cultural and linguistic revitalization efforts. Tribes may also add modern day oral traditions to their collections.

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The records and transcripts are popular items in all university archival collections, which has led to some difficult conversations about access as tribes reevaluate what should be released, said Jolene Manus, Diné/Omaha/Tsalagi of the Navajo Nation, and the Native American Curator of the American Collections at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Manus maintains 700 recordings in this collection, about half of which are from Navajo people. The audio of the recordings is not available online in the collection, but transcripts of English recordings once were. While Manus seeks permission from the tribes, she has withdrawn some transcripts, particularly those describing ceremonial or cultural practices that were never intended to be circulated beyond the tribe. It is up to sovereign nations to make admissions decisions, she said, not the university.

“I have a lot of respect for songs and what they’re about,” she said. “Even exposure to certain types of songs can have an effect on a person, especially if you don’t know what you’re listening to. You need an expert, more experts than me. These are the people who are the cultural experts in their communities. They’re the ones who know exactly who should have access, when they should have access, why they should or shouldn’t have access.”

With digitization, the possibilities for future use are nearly limitless, said Susan Feller, president of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, an international nonprofit overseeing the new Duke grant.

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“These recordings sat on a shelf and weren’t accessible, even to the tribes,” said Feller, who is a Choctaw and lives in Oklahoma. “People are hearing the voices of their ancestors for the first time. They learn new words in their language. So it helps them to advance their tribal language programs since many of the recordings are in the original language. It helps them develop more of their tribal history.”

Duke’s original program ended in 1972 with an estimated 6,500 oral interviews from 150 Indigenous cultures. Some state university systems were more adept than others at using what they had accumulated. The 1971 book To Be an Indian grew out of oral interviews conducted by Duke Fellow researchers at the University of South Dakota and was used as a textbook in the Native American degree programs.

Elsewhere, however, recordings languished in boxes, on deteriorating tapes, sometimes without transcripts. Other institutions that own collections include the University of Arizona, the University of Florida, the University of Illinois, and the University of Utah. The University of California, Los Angeles also received one of the early scholarships in the first year of the Duke program.

Since the interviews were conducted by dozens of different people at multiple universities in the pre-digital age, the project never had a common index or bibliography either. This has made it difficult to assess the scope of a vast program that captured Native American life at a pivotal moment in American history.

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Duke had wide-ranging interests and was acquainted with the power of recorded personal history, as revealed in her biography and an account of her oral history project written by anthropologist Dianna Repp. During World War II, the heiress worked for the US Secret Service in Italy and Cairo, where she recorded conversations with wounded US soldiers to share with their families. Twenty years later, one of Duke’s wartime friends with connections at the University of Illinois told her how Indigenous languages ​​and other cultural knowledge were endangered when Native American elders died, Repp wrote. It may have been as important an influence on Duke’s initial donation as her friendship with Brando.

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“Doris Duke passed away 30 years ago, but we still want to be very aware and respectful and respect her wishes and the things she was interested in,” said Rumeli Banik, who oversees the program for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Among the so-called Dukies who collected oral history during the program’s early years was Susan Penfield, who in 1969 was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Arizona and lugged a tape recorder to her job interviews. At the time, she was fascinated with recording dying Native American languages ​​and decided to conduct oral interviews with the Mojave people living on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation near Parker, Arizona.

Penfield thought it would be a relatively easy summer of anthropology fieldwork, but it influenced her decision to become a linguist. She kept returning to the community for 50 years.

“You could see it fading away,” Penfield said of the Mojave language. “When I first went there, you could hear people queuing at the market or at the post office, all speaking Mojave. I took a PhD student there in the 90s. He has never heard the language spoken.”

Ortega, the curator who heard her grandfather’s name mentioned in recordings, said she continues to be excited by the variety of topics people talked about in her Oklahoma interviews in the early days of the Duke program. It is just as appealing to hear the accents of that time, which remind you of the way your grandparents spoke.

“It really makes me think of my grandparents, the way they talk and even some of the terms they would use that you don’t hear that much anymore,” she said. “So I always enjoy hearing their voices just for that aspect. And other people have told me that too.”

This story was published on June 24, 2021 by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The original article can be found here.

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