Fresh funding aims to revitalize Indigenous oral history

A major effort is getting underway at several universities, tribal museums and libraries around the U.S. to digitize the oral histories of thousands of Native Americans that were collected a half century ago as part of a project initiated by the late philanthropist Doris Duke.

The New York-based Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced Tuesday that it has awarded more than $1.6 million in grants to help with the translation, transcription and indexing of the recordings so they can be accessible to Native communities, students and the wider public.

The goal is to create a website that will act as a central hub where visitors can access the materials, some of which include reel-to-reel magnetic tapes that have been collecting dust in library archives and university repositories for decades. Plans also call for expanding the collections with contemporary voices.

Most of the recordings come from a pivotal time in U.S. history when the civil rights movement spurred greater visibility of minority populations, including Native Americans. It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Indigenous activism took off _ first with a nearly two-year occupation of Alcatraz Island in California by activists who were fighting for recognition of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, and later through protests in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

For the foundation, the work that began in 1966 is coming full circle because of a resurgence in Indigenous issues.

“We were really keen to bring new life to this collection because there has been a growing active movement within Indigenous communities to bring more visibility to their experience,” said Lola Adedokun, the foundation’s program director for child-wellbeing. “I think the movement in the last couple of years specifically has created a space where the experience of Native people is actually valued and where there’s a movement around particularly young people who are really driving that conversation.”

The coronavirus pandemic also helped to accelerate the push for breathing new life into the collections, she said.

Many Native American communities in the U.S. have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 infections, resulting in higher deaths rates among elderly tribal members as well as young people who have fallen victim to mental health pressures made worse by the pandemic.

“We thought now more than ever is it not only important to update and upgrade this collection but also to give it the national visibility that it deserves and then encourage more young people to contribute their stories to keep it moving over the several decades,” Adedokun said.

The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums will serve as the national co-ordinator for the project. The participating schools include the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, University of Florida, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of New Mexico, University of Oklahoma, University of South Dakota and University of Utah.

The collection at the Arizona State Museum contains hundreds of cassettes and typed transcripts that resulted from nearly 700 interviews that involved Tohono O’odham, Apache, Navajo, Pima and Yaqui tribal members. The collection also includes materials from tribes in California and northern Mexico.

Molly Stothert-Maurer, head of the museum’s library and archives, said the original researchers did not get permission forms signed at the time the interviews took place so use of the material has been limited to those who participated in the interviews, their relatives and tribal communities.

“For 50 years now, the permissions have never been resolved,” Stothert-Maurer said. “So we have so much work to do _ digitizing the recordings, translating them, transcribing them and getting buy-in from all the communities.”

With the grant, the Arizona museum will be able to hire an archivist for two years to focus solely on the digitization project. Part of that work will ensure that no restricted material is released without taking the proper steps and consulting with the tribes, officials said.

Ron Geronimo, co-director of the Tohono O’odham Language Center, first learned about the recordings during a trip to the museum as an undergraduate student. The tapes were inaccessible then and remained inaccessible when he asked again a decade later.

Geronimo was successful in getting funding in 2013 to start the process of accessing and organizing the 239 O’odham-related tapes in the museum’s Doris Duke collection. That work continues today as the Tohono O’odham Nation looks to grow the language program it started last year.

Even though the Tohono O’odham have speakers who are fluent in their native language, Geronimo said there are fewer young people who are bilingual. Aside from providing a glimpse into what life was like for past generations, he said the recordings can serve as a tool for learning more about the language and boosting cultural awareness.

“We’re trying to keep it from ever getting to the point where it would be critical, where it would be endangered.” he said. “We have to bring about that awareness.”

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