Old magnetophon in black and white

States return recordings of Indigenous oral histories to tribal control

There are more than 600 oral history recordings housed where Lina Ortega is an 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 while reviewing an ordinary tribal government meeting from 1969, she kept hearing a name she knew.

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 when many tribes were drafting new constitutions after the end of the Termination Era, roughly two decades when the U.S. government ceased federal recognition of some tribes.

“I couldn’t understand it all,” said Ortega, who is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation and has Seminole and Muscogee Creek heritage. “But I just heard his name coming up pretty frequently, and that was a joy.”

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

The collection was supported by $200,000 grants to each school by tobacco heiress Doris Duke, whose friendship with the actor Marlon Brando spurred her interest in gathering the oral histories, according to the gossipy 1992 biography of Duke, “The Richest Girl in the World.” Brando famously declined his 1973 Oscar for The Godfather, in protest of 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 following up on her original grants with a $1.6 million gift to digitize the materials stored at the universities. This time, tribes will have far more control over access, which will be through a centralized digital content management system, Mukurtu, created by and for Indigenous people.

More control may mean that some materials won’t be as readily accessible to the public as they once were. But it also means that the descendants of the people on tape — some of whom may not have given consent for their stories, songs or interviews to be recorded — will decide what materials should be in the public realm.

This will help achieve the original goals as envisioned by Duke — recording Indigenous history from an Indigenous point of view, then turning the materials over to the tribes where the recordings originated so they can decide how they should be used. Many archivists anticipate the materials will continue as a resource for cultural and language revitalization efforts. Tribes also may add modern oral histories to their collections.

WATCH: A Brief But Spectacular take on Indigenous cultures and struggles

The recordings and transcripts are popular items in all the university archival collections, which has meant some difficult conversations around access as tribes reassess what should be made public, said Jolene Manus, who is Diné/Omaha/Tsalagi from the Navajo Nation, and the Native American Collections curator at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Manus oversees 700 recordings in that collection, about half of which are from Navajo people. The audio of the recordings isn’t available online in the collection, but transcripts of English recordings once were. While Manus secures permission from the tribes, she has taken some transcripts out of circulation, particularly those that detail ceremonial or cultural practices never meant to be shared beyond the tribe. It’s up to sovereign nations to make access decisions, she said, not the university.

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

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

“These recordings sat on a shelf and were not accessible, not even to the tribes,” said Feller, who is Choctaw and based in Oklahoma. “People are hearing the voices of their ancestors for the first time. They’re learning new words in their language. So, it’s helping them advance their tribal language programs, because a lot of the recordings are in the original language. It’s helping them develop more of their tribal histories.”

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 gathered. The 1971 book “To Be an Indian” emerged from oral interviews conducted by researchers with Duke grants at the University of South Dakota and was used as a textbook in Native American studies courses.

In other places, though, the recordings languished in boxes, on deteriorating tapes, sometimes without transcripts. Other institutions that hold 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 grants in the first year of the Duke program.

Because the interviews were conducted in a pre-digital age by dozens of different people at multiple universities, the project also never had a common index or bibliography. That made it difficult, until now, to assess the sweep of a vast program that captured the lives of Indigenous people at a pivotal moment in American history.

READ MORE: How ‘Reservation Dogs’ became a breakthrough hit for Indigenous representation

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

“Doris Duke passed away 30 years ago, but we’re still very much wanting to be intentional and be respectful and honor her wishes and the things that 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 histories in the first few years of the program were Susan Penfield, who in 1969 was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Arizona lugging a reel-to-reel tape recorder to her interviews. At the time, she was intrigued by capturing moribund Indigenous languages, and chose to do oral interviews among the Mojave who resided on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation near Parker, Arizona.

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

“You could see it dwindling,” Penfield said of the Mojave language. “When I first went there, you would hear people in line at the market or the post office, everybody speaking Mojave. I took a grad student back there in the 90s. He never once heard the language spoken.”

Ortega, the curator who heard her grandfather’s name mentioned in recordings, said she continues to delight at the diversity of subjects that people spoke about in their interviews in Oklahoma, in the early days of the Duke program. It’s equally charming to hear the accents of the time, which remind her of the way her grandparents spoke.

“It really makes me think about my grandparents, about their ways of talking and even some of the terms that they would use that you don’t hear so much anymore,” she said. “So, I always enjoy just hearing their voices just for that aspect of it. And I’ve had other people tell me that too.”

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