ROOTS IN THE ARCHIVE: Native American Cylinder Recordings Connect Cultures Across Time
Francis La Flesche, son of the last traditional chief of the Omahas, worked with ethnographer Alice Fletcher to record Omaha music on wax cylinders. (Photo courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress preserves roots music and traditional culture from across the country and around the world. None of our materials has a longer history or a deeper connection to the American landscape than the recordings we safeguard featuring songs and stories from Native Americans.
In particular, the AFC archive has the largest collection in the world of wax cylinder field recordings of Native Americans. These range from cylinders of anonymous singers and speakers to songs by famous Native American historical figures, and from recordings made by Anglo-American government workers in Washington to those made by Native American ethnographers in the field. To ensure that the recordings are well cared for, and that members of the communities of origin can access their own cultural treasures, the Center works with Indigenous communities all over North America.
Many of the traditions represented on Native American cylinder recordings are sacred, and some were never meant for public listening. So naturally, the Library of Congress is very careful to get permission from the individuals and communities involved before placing anything online. We have worked closely with the Passamaquoddy people of Maine, as well as the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa, to present two historically important collections of cylinders online. The Passamaquoddy cylinders have the distinction of being the oldest ethnographic field recordings of any kind known to survive anywhere, while some of the Omaha cylinders are the first such recordings made by a Native American ethnographer.
The Passamaquoddy cylinders date all the way back to March 1890, when the anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes traveled to Calais, Maine, to undertake one of the very first experiments in ethnographic audio documentation. The Passamaquoddy Tribe is one of the indigenous peoples of the U.S.-Canada border, made up of communities from Pleasant Point and Indian Township in Maine and St. Andrews in New Brunswick. In order to prepare for an upcoming field trip to the Southwest, the Boston-based Fewkes took a shorter trip to Maine to field-test a wax cylinder phonograph, which had been patented in 1878 by Thomas Edison. Over the course of three days, Fewkes recorded 36 cylinders of partial songs, legends, creation stories, and linguistic terms provided by Passamaquoddy community members, principally Peter Selmore and Newell Josephs (also spelled Noel Joseph or Noel Josephs). These recordings were deposited in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and then donated by the museum to the Library of Congress in the 1970s.
Standard cylinders could only record about three minutes of sound. In the world of commercial music, this led to the standard pop song being about three minutes long. But for ethnographic recordings, it meant that often only fragments of stories or songs could be recorded, and this is the case with the Passamaquoddy collection. Also, the collection now contains just 31 cylinders, because five of them were damaged. Still, the collection is a precious repository of Passamaquoddy language, storytelling, and song. Hear the Passamaquoddy Song of Salutation from an 1890 cylinder below!
You can find the whole collection of recordings, and more information about the Library of Congress and its work with the tribe, here.
The collection has been studied by Passamaquoddy elders for years, and they have provided the Library of Congress with added traditional knowledge about the songs and stories they document, which we’ve added to the web presentation. Two of the elders who have studied and learned from the recordings, Wayne Newell and Mary Blanche Sockabasin, appeared in concert at the Library of Congress in 2009. You can see their video right here; at about 23 minutes in, Wayne talks about the Fewkes cylinders and how the men of his tribe were learning the songs from them about a decade ago.
The 1890s also yielded our other important online collection of Native American cylinder recordings, which is a treasure trove of music from the Omaha tribe. Ethnographer Alice Fletcher began her Omaha research in 1881, inspired by her friendship with Francis La Flesche, son of the last traditional chief of the Omahas. Soon she was collaborating with La Flesche, who we believe to have been the first Native American professional anthropologist. Their fieldwork together yielded 95 cylinders of Omaha traditional music, the first of which were recorded in 1895. While the markings on the cylinders don’t tell us which anthropologist was using the phonograph machine, most evidence suggests it was La Flesche, making him one of the first Native Americans to document other Native Americans using audio recordings.
Fletcher and La Flesche went on to work separately, and each made hundreds more recordings of several other tribes, most of which are also in the Archive. But it’s about half of the ones they made together that are online, as part of the collection Omaha Indian Music, along with audio and video of Omaha powwows and concerts documented by AFC fieldworkers during the 1980s. Hear a Hethu’shka Society Song below:
(You can learn more about the Omaha Hethu’shka Society, and hear more songs, at this blog post.)
Find the rest of the Omaha cylinders here.
The collections we can place online only scratch the surface (no pun intended) of our cylinder collections; AFC has more than 7,000 Native American cylinders from all over the U.S., including materials from such illustrious fieldworkers as Frances Densmore, George Herzog, John Peabody Harrington, and Melville Jacobs. Add to this the vast amount of Native American material recorded on subsequent technologies, including discs, tapes, and digital files, and AFC has over 1,500 hours of recorded Native American music, speech, and song in its archive, ranging from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.
If you’re wondering how so many Native American cylinders ended up in one place, it came about through an intensive effort involving many government agencies and private institutions. Before the creation of the American Folklife Center in 1976, the Library of Congress only had a small fraction of the cylinder holdings it now safeguards. One of the first and most successful efforts of the Center was the Federal Cylinder Project, which gathered most of these recordings at the Library of Congress, where they were copied onto tape by the government’s most accomplished recording lab. Private institutions such as the Peabody Museum also got in on the act, donating cylinders like the Fewkes collection to the Library’s effort. The idea was to document all of the ethnographic cylinder collections, to preserve those recordings never before copied, and ultimately to disseminate copies of the Native American recordings back to their communities of origin.
That part of the Federal Cylinder Project came to fruition in the 1980s, when copies of AFC recordings were given to more than a hundred Native American communities. Judith Gray, AFC’s current coordinator of reference, came to the Center as an ethnomusicologist for the Federal Cylinder Project. She described the pride she witnessed on people’s faces on some of her visits to communities of origin: “They listened to recordings nearly a century old,” she said. “They recognized the songs, and in some cases started to sing along. Despite all of the formal and informal pressures to acculturate that native people experienced over the years, their recognition of these songs on such early recordings documents not only cultural continuity, but their ownership of their cultural traditions.”
About 45 years after the Federal Cylinder Project started, AFC is still working with many of these communities as we help each other understand the precious legacy of these remarkable old recordings of traditional Native American culture. Through the hard work of the Library of Congress, and the generosity and graciousness of the tribes, we can hear some of that legacy online.
Stephen Winick is a folklife specialist for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and editor of its blog, Folklife Today. Because the Library of Congress is federally funded, these columns are in the public domain, not subject to No Depression‘s copyright.