Archives & Manuscripts

Languages Live in the Archives

Response to “Historic Recordings Revitalize Language for Passamaquoddy Tribal Members,” NPR’s All Things Considered (September 3, 2019)

In 1890, on a research trip to Calais, Maine, anthropologist Walter Jesse Fewkes used a phonograph to record tribal songs, stories, and phonetic pronunciations offered by three spokesmen for the Passamaquoddy tribe. Fewkes used the phonograph to record these sounds onto over 30 large wax cylinders which each held 2.5-3 minutes of audio. These recordings ended up buried in Fewkes’ family collections, then in the Peabody Museum’s archives. It wasn’t until ten years ago that digital technology allowed specialists to restore the recordings and convert them to digital audio files, making them accessible to Passamaquoddy tribal elders.

The relationship that these recordings fostered between Passamaquoddy tribal representatives and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center is, as NYU professor Jane Anderson notes in this NPR report on the project, “rare in the world of museums.” There’s been hesitation on the part of communities like the Passamaquoddy to partner with archival institutions that often refuse to return indigenous material to its community of origin. In the case of the Fewkes recordings, their return has sparked a renewed interest in the Calais Passamaquoddy tribal language.

As Native American communities seek out ways to bring life to languages nearly lost to colonial efforts at forced assimilation, I think it’s becoming urgent for archives to examine their holdings for resources–like these 130-year-old wax cylinders–that may help these communities reinvigorate a language that connects them to their past. Institutions should work quickly to make these materials accessible to their communities of origin. Experiencing language, as tribal elder Dwayne Tomah emphasizes, “is critical for passing Passamaquoddy culture to future generations.”

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