Digitizing a Century of Native Voice and Song at the Autry

Posted on: June 22, 2020

By Yuri Shimoda, CLIR Recordings at Risk Intern, Autry Museum of the American West

In September 2018, the Autry received a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk grant to digitize hundreds of Native American songs, oral histories, field recordings, plays, and lectures captured on sound and audiovisual media from 1898 to 2007. The recordings were made across such a vast period of time that there were many different formats that needed to be digitized – from open reel tape, wire, and four types of discs to audiocassettes, CDs, and VHS tapes.

These materials came from three different Autry collections. The first were sound and audiovisual recordings of readings and performances by Native Voices at the Autry. Founded in 1994, Native Voices is the country’s only Equity theater company devoted to developing and producing new works for the stage by Native American and First Nations playwrights. Native Voices became the resident theater company of the Autry in 1999, and its archives, which include the items involved in the digitization project, were deposited into the museum’s institutional archives in 2013.

Next were audiovisual recordings of California Indian Arts Association (CIAA) meetings that occurred from 1994 to 2000. The group gathered each month for programs dedicated to the arts, artifacts, and culture of Southern California Native Americans. In addition to meetings, CIAA visited museums and archeological sites. They captured it all on video, and the organization’s founder, Justin Farmer (Ipai), donated the recordings to the Autry in 2017.

Finally, the Audio Collection was comprised of recordings affiliated with 40 California, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and Plains tribes. All but two of the items were collected for the Braun Research Library’s Sound Archives between 1940 and 1989. These included field recordings of Luiseño, Serrano, and Hopi songs; a 1968 oral history of Tlingit elder William “Squindy” Paul; and rare commercial recordings from the 1940s and ’50s released on the first Native American-owned record labels (American Indian Soundchiefs and Tom Tom Records).

Once the digital files were created, each was reviewed to enrich their descriptions in the Autry’s Library and Archives Catalog and to create finding aids for the Native Voices and CIAA collections that will be posted to the Online Archive of California. All of the collection items were then placed in climate- and humidity-controlled vaults at the Autry’s new Resources Center. Researchers can request to review the Native Voices and CIAA files in person at the Resources Center, but access to the audio collection is currently pending tribal consultation because digitization was just the first phase of the plan that the Autry designed for these recordings.

Project staff intend to share the digitized recordings with affiliated tribes as part of the Autry's repatriation consultation process. The Autry will comply with any of the community’s requests to restrict access to recordings that contain sensitive content, as well as accompanying or newly acquired contextual information that is gathered during consultations. As a private museum, the Autry is interested in working with tribes to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive or significant tribal information. Moreover, the Autry wishes to collaborate with tribal representatives to share knowledge of what these materials hold, and to implement the use of Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels in the museum’s catalog records. Tribal communities ascribe meaning to each TK Label and determine which labels are assigned to particular recordings. The application of the labels to Autry catalog records will allow curators and other museum staff to make well-informed decisions on how to engage with the collection materials in the future.

Collaboration was truly at the heart of this entire project. Within the Autry’s Library and Archives, the Head of Research Services & Archives oversaw the day-to-day workflow being carried out by me, the project intern. We relied on the Head of Library Metadata and Discovery Services leading up to and during the description phase and worked closely with personnel from several other Autry departments—the Repatriation and Community Research Manager, the Director of Information Services and Technology, the Digitization Manager, and the Gamble Associate Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms—throughout the grant project. Further, the values and ethics embedded in the desire for integrating collaboration with the tribes into the archival process had to be supported by everyone at the museum.

The Autry is currently pursuing additional grant funding to cover research, hospitality protocols, and other work related to fostering a successful next phase of collaboration with tribal groups. The materials in the CLIR Recordings at Risk project are also going to play a significant role in the upcoming Autry exhibition, Resounding Voices. Through this project, the Autry hopes to provide tribal members, archivists, and researchers with valuable contextual descriptions to guide the use of the materials in the future and to forge strong collaborative relationships with tribal communities for many years to come.

Captions

  • Sampling the collection items digitized that represent a variety of formats and include field and commercial recordings.
  • Image of wire recordings donated by former Southwest Museum archeologist, Dr Charles Rozaire, of Spanish language and Native songs, recorded circa 1950.
  • Laquer disc, “Songs of the Kiowa People” part of the American Indian Soundmasters series, songs sung by Nathan Doyebi and G. Saloe, circa 1950. Autry Museum; R.0106
  • Yuri Shimoda, CLIR Recordings at Risk Intern