Tribal Elder Hears Grandfather’s Voice in Archived Songs

(December 24, 2019)

lvin Schuster could scarcely believe his ears. He was hearing the voice of an ancestor whom he’d never met but whose legacy was a constant guiding presence in his life.  Schuster, 75, listened with wonder to the restored recording of his grandfather, Louis Mann—made more than 100 years ago.

And although his grandfather died before he was born, Schuster was raised hearing stories of his courage as a fighter for the rights of the Yakama people. That legacy influenced and guided Schuster’s life as a leader in local and national Native education. “It made me so happy to hear his voice; growing up, I knew him only by word of mouth,” Schuster says.

The recording was originally made in 1909 by photographer Edward Curtis. Although well-known for his photographs of Native Americans, Curtis also created several recordings of Native people on wax cylinders.

His recordings were recently restored as part of Indiana University’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, whose researchers are beginning to consider how to repatriate the sacred and controversial recordings, like those of Louis Mann.

In 2013, the university allocated $15 million, including funds from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, to digitally preserve recordings made on now fragile wax cylinders.

Curtis’ work is part of Indiana University’s extensive Archives of Traditional Music that includes 7,000 wax cylinders. According to Archive Director Alan Burdette, more than three-quarters of the cylinders held recordings of Native Americans made by Curtis, Franz Boas, who was considered the grandfather of modern anthropology, and others.  

“In inheriting the wax cylinders, we inherited the colonial legacies that influenced those who collected the recordings,” he says. “We’re aware that we have recordings of sensitive, sacred things so we don’t allow general access to them.”

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