Bringing the Songs Home: Columbia University Begins Musical Heritage Repatriation Project in the North Slope
Figure 1: A photo taken from Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday) shows the adult Iñupiat musicians recorded in Barrow by Boulton in October, 1946. The identified singers in the photograph are: (standing, left) Leo Kaleak, Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak. Not in the photo, but identified on the recordings, are three children: Mary (also known as "Eva") Ahvik, and Harold and Eddie Kagak (identified as "Eddie Orson" in Boulton's notes). Not in the photo, but prominently featured on the recordings, is singer Joe Sikvayugak (spelled "Sikvayunak" in Boulton's notes).
This photo appears in two published locations. A better-quality print (see below) was also published in the liner notes to Boulton's 1955 Folkways recording, now available from Smithsonian Global Sound, entitled The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska. However, this earlier print was cropped to remove the woman and three children in the background, whom we have not identified definitively. We thus reproduce this version in hopes of identifying these people. Prof. Aaron Fox is actively searching Laura Boulton’s personal papers, housed at Indiana University, for other photos from her visit to Barrow in 1946.
Associate Professor of Music
Director, Center for Ethnomusicology
Columbia University, New York, NY
Chie Sakakibara, PhD
Lecturer in Native American Studies
Oklahoma University, Norman, OK
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In October of 1946, the Iñupiat community of Barrow, Alaska was visited by Laura Boulton. Boulton was one of the most eminent (and widely traveled) folk music collectors of the 20th century. Over the course of a week, from October 11th to the 17th, 1946, Boulton recorded performances of approximately 120 traditional drum-dance songs and oral narratives, with seven adult male performers, and at least three children.
Boulton’s recordings are now owned by Columbia University, and Columbia intends to return them to the Iñupiat community. The Barrow Arctic Science Consortium’s (BASC) outreach program recently co-sponsored a visit to Barrow by Prof. Aaron Fox, (Director of Columbia University’s Center for Ethnomusicology), and Dr. Chie Sakakibara (Oklahoma University’s Department of Native Studies) to begin a process of community-partnered repatriation of the recordings.
Boulton’s 1946 Barrow recordings are a small part of a large collection of recordings made over Boulton’s lifetime. Boulton spent much of her career, between the 1920s and the 1970s, traveling around the world recording the music of traditional and tribal peoples, whose cultures she (like many of her era) believed were “vanishing” and needed to be documented for posterity. She was a public figure, sought after as a lecturer and expert on world musics, and she produced numerous commercial releases of her recordings and several films. (Boulton would later write a colorful account of her life’s work, and specifically of her visits to the Arctic, in her 1968 autobiography, The Music Hunter, now out of print.)
Figure 2: Laura Boulton at Point Barrow, 1946.
Figure 3: Laura Boulton (far right) with pilot Sid Wien and unidentified passengers.
(Both photos from The Music Hunter, 1968, Doubleday)
After her 1946 visit to Barrow, Boulton never returned to the North Slope. However, she remained interested in the Arctic, and in 1955 she did release a commercial recording on Folkways Records (later purchased and still distributed by the Smithsonian Institution), entitled The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska (Folkways FW04444).
Figure 4: Cover of Laura Boulton’s “The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska” LP Record released in 1955
(Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044)
Figure 5: Fairchild Presto Disc Recorder Used By Laura Boulton to Record in Barrow
This recording featured six songs recorded by Boulton in Barrow in 1946, as well as thirteen tracks recorded on an earlier trip to the Canadian Arctic, with liner notes by Boulton and a superb print of the only known photo of the performers she recorded during her Barrow expedition (which also appears in The Music Hunter, see the caption to IMAGE 1 above for explanation). The record has been commercially available ever since, most recently as a download for purchase on the Smithsonian Institution's “Global Sound” website.
In the early 1960s, Laura Boulton sold most of her collection of field recordings (comprising hundreds of hours of music recorded around the world) to the Library of Columbia University in New York City, including her Barrow recordings from 1946. Following the sale of her archive to Columbia, Boulton, who passed away in 1980, spent the 1960s and early 1970s at Columbia organizing and annotating her life’s work, before retiring to Arizona in the mid-1970s.
Columbia University established The Center for Ethnomusicology in the late 1960s in part as a home for Boulton’s archive. In the early 1970s, Boulton’s original recordings (many on acetate or aluminum discs using the Fairchild disc recorder) were sent to the US Library of Congress, because their fragile condition required special care; the Library made three high-quality copies of the original master recordings on tape, two of which went back to Columbia, and one of which was given to Laura Boulton herself, and left by Boulton after her death to the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. So there are three complete copies of Boulton’s collection in public archives. However, the publication rights in the recordings continue to be legally owned by Columbia University.
In 2003, anthropologist Aaron Fox became the Director of Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology, and the new curator of Laura Boulton’s music collection He sought to clarify the cultural ownership of these recordings and to begin the repatriation of both the recordings and the ownership rights to the recordings to the communities (around the world) in which they had been made in earlier decades, but especially to Native American communities.
Columbia University’s Provost provided funds to support several experiments in what Aaron calls “community-partnered repatriation.” He hoped to involve descendants of the performers Boulton recorded -- and their contemporary communities -- in deciding how recordings should be returned to these descendants and communities – how the rights should be assigned, and to whom, where recordings will should be deposited, and how they should be preserved for the future. Aaron also hoped to help develop innovative uses for these recordings that would be valuable for contemporary educators, students, musicians, and others in contemporary Native communities. He began to look for promising candidates for such projects among the many sets of recordings Boulton had made in indigenous communities.
Figure 6: Dodge Hall, Columbia University, New York City, NY
(Home of the Center for Ethnomusicology)
The prospect of working with the Iñupiat community in Alaska arose immediately. While Aaron was considering possible “test case” projects, he received an inquiry from Dr. Chie Sakakibara. Chie was then a graduate student in Cultural Geography at the University of Oklahoma. She was about to begin her own NSF-funded doctoral research on whaling culture and climate change in Alaska, with Iñupiat communities in Barrow and Point Hope. She had discovered the existence of Boulton’s recordings, and wanted to find out more about them. Aaron asked Chie if she would help him locate living descendants of the singers identified by Boulton as performers on the recordings. Chie agreed, and when she conducted research in Alaska in 2005, she quickly began to identify many descendants, and other interested members of the North Slope community as well. Aaron began contacting these descendants, and sending copies of the recordings to any descendant who wanted them – eventually sending out several dozen sets of four CDs and related materials (including Boulton’s notes, and two chapters dealing with her Arctic travels from her 1968 book).
Figure 7: Tagiugmiut Dancers Rehearsal
(photo by Aaron Fox, with permission)
Remarkable things have happened since these recordings began to circulate among descendants. A group of young musicians and dancers in Barrow, led by Vernon Elavgak (a descendant) and his wife Isabell Elavgak, began to learn and perform songs from the Boulton recordings. The group they formed was called Tagiugmiut Dancers. They have achieved remarkable success, including recently winning the 2007 World Eskimo Olympics contest for drum-dance groups, as well as performing at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention this year; in the spring of 2008, they will bring these old songs to the Gathering of Nations inter-tribal pow-wow in Albuquerque. Other descendants and members of the community were also listening to these recordings, and expressing interest. And many of the descendants – and especially young people -- contacted Aaron seeking more information.
This fall, Aaron made his first personal visit to Barrow. He asked Chie (who had just earned her PhD) to join him on this visit, which lasted from November 20th to 25th. We came to Barrow with several goals, the most important of which was to begin discussions with the North Slope Borough, the NSB Commission on History, Language and Culture, and Native Village of Barrow, and with the Iñupiat Cultural Heritage Center, about a formal return of Columbia’s “ownership” rights in the recordings to the community and the Iñupiat people. We also hoped to introduce people in Barrow more deeply to the project and the recordings, identify more descendants of the original singers, develop better genealogies for the singers, and begin to work on amplifying the supporting notes and materials prepared by Boulton in the 1950s and 1960s, by interviewing local elders and experts.
Aaron and Chie's Trip to Barrow, Nov. 2007
Fig. 8: Aaron Fox and Chie Sakakibara assist in the Thanksgiving Feast at the Presbyterian Church in Barrow.
(Photo by Roy Nageak)
Fig. 9: Aaron Fox presenting at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium’s Outreach Program“Schoolyard Saturday”
(Photo by Chie Sakakibara, with permission)
Fig. 10: Aaron and Chie with the PK-13 Crew (Roy and Flossie Nageak and family)
We kept up a hectic pace in Barrow. We made presentations on our project for descendants, young people, and community leaders and elders at the Hopson Middle School, at Barrow High School, at the Heritage Center, and at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium’s Outreach Program’s “Schoolyard Saturday” lecture series, with translation help from Priscilla Sage. We also appeared with Earl Finkler on KBRW so that we could reach out to the community, and across the North Slope, with news of the repatriation project and an invitation to participate. And we met with dozens of descendants, elders, bilingual educators, and community leaders (including Prof. Fannie Akpik of Ilisavgik College, President and Executive Director Tommy Olemaun of the Native Village of Barrow, NSB Museum and Cultural Affairs Coordinator Dorcas Stein, and elder Warren Matumeak, who provided over ten hours worth of commentary and interpretation on the original recordings). We recorded a rehearsal of the Tagiugmiut Dancers, participated in the Thanksgiving distribution of whale meat at the Presbyterian Church, and spent many hours with Chie’s friends and host families, especially Roy Nageak and his family, and Jeslie Kaleak, Sr. and his family, both of whom were extraordinarily gracious hosts. The warmth and generosity of this reception, and the support of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium for this work as well, was overwhelming to us. We were delighted that our project had found such an enthusiastic response in Barrow.
Fig. 11: Aaron Fox interviews elder Warren Matumeak
(photo by Chie Sakakibara, with permission)
Fig. 12: Warren Matumeak listens to the Boulton recordings during an interview
(Photo by Aaron Fox, with permission)
By week’s end, we realized that the project had grown bigger – at least potentially -- than we had imagined possible. We saw how important these recordings were to many descendants, to elders, and to the educators and activists we spoke with, and especially how important they were to young people. We even met teenagers with songs from the Boulton recordings on their iPods, mixed in with hip-hop and pop songs! It was as if these 60-year-old recordings, long forgotten on a shelf in an archive, had come back to life in just the few years since they started their journey home to Barrow.
The willingness of so many people to participate in this project was thrilling – we could not thank everyone individually in this short article! (However, you can Listen to Chie thank a long list of individuals on Earl Finkler's Dec. 6th KBRW program, at the 3:20 mark.) Warren Matumeak, especially, helped us to make dozens of discoveries about the songs on the recordings – who sang them first, which communities they came from, which families or singers some of them belonged to, what the songs were about, how they would have been danced or sung in the 1940s when they were recorded, and much more.
We are planning the next steps of this project, which will include the formal assignment of Columbia’s ownership rights to the Iñupiat Cultural Heritage Center, and the development of a multimedia DVD of the recordings and all of the many supplementary materials, additional elder commentaries, photographs, notes, and archival history we are gathering and discovering through our work in the community. We hope to develop this resource in partnership with community educators so that the resulting production is of value for the efforts to sustain the Iñupiaq language and the community’s musical heritage into future generations. We were impressed by the strength of the cultural educational effort in the North Slope, and by the energetic teachers, activists and community leaders who are leading it. We’d like this project to be valuable to the whole community, but especially valuable to those educators – and their young students.
Above all, we hope our visit will lead to more collaboration between Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology and the Iñupiat community. Aaron and Chie are committed to continuing this project, and to working extensively in the future in Barrow and elsewhere in the North Slope with educators, elders, community leaders, and young people to fully restore, and not just return, the songs Laura Boulton recorded so many years ago. We once again wish to thank everyone in the Barrow community, and at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, who assisted our research and enabled our visit in November, and we plan to return again from March 14 to 22d, and again in the June.
Fig. 13: An alternate copy of the photo reproduced in Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday). This version of the photo was published in the liner notes of Laura Boulton’s “The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska” LP Record, published by Smithsonian/Folkways Records in 1955. Though the quality of this copy is better than the one reproduced in Boulton’s book, it has unfortunately been cropped. Leo Kaleak, who appears standing in the original photo, does not appear in this reproduction. Pictured, from left to right, are Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak
(Photo Credit: Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044, 1955)
Aaron A. Fox
Chie Sakakibara, PhD
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