Historian captured sounds of First Nations

This is one of a series of columns by specialists at the Royal B.C. Museum that explore the human and natural worlds of the province.

The Royal B.C. Museum and Archives has in its custody the remarkable Ida Halpern collection of audio-visual, textual and photographic records documenting the songs, ceremonies and culture of the Northwest Coast of Canada.

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Between the 1940s and 1980s, Halpern, an ethnomusicologist originally from Vienna, captured an unprecedented volume of sound recordings of valuable cultural creations from leading elders in Kwakwakawakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haida and Coast Salish communities.

Her textual records include musical analyses of the songs and a wealth of information about the ceremonies derived from interviews with elders. No equivalent collection exists that so thoroughly documents the ceremonial arts of West Coast Indigenous Peoples.

Many elders recorded by Halpern were willing to offer songs, naming ceremonies and other musical creations because they recognized the generational decline in the common use of their Indigenous culture. These recordings are invaluable to the families and communities that hold the intellectual rights to the songs and ceremonies.

The collection is vital for language-revitalization efforts and as evidence of the globally unique, enduring cultural identity of the Canadian northwest coast. Its existence ensures First Nations contemporary musical culture remains a genuinely vibrant component of today’s communities. For many, access to these songs and the traditional beliefs captured within is a vital link to healing from the traumas inflicted by government-enforced attempts to assimilate.

The Royal B.C. Museum and Archives is preparing to submit the Halpern collection for inclusion in a United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization program titled the Memory of the World Register.

The mission of the program is threefold: 1) To facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage; 2) To assist access to documentary heritage; and 3) To increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage.

To qualify for the UNESCO Register, the proposed documents must meet certain criteria. These include:

Is the document evocative of its time (which might have been a time of crisis, or significant social or cultural change)? Does it represent a new discovery? Or is it the “first of its kind”?

Does the cultural context of the document’s creation reflect significant aspects of human behaviour, or of social, industrial, artistic or political development? Or does it capture the essence of great movements, transitions, advances or regression? Does it illustrate the lives of prominent individuals in the above fields?

Does the subject matter of the document represent particular historical or intellectual developments in the natural, social and human sciences? Or in politics, ideology, sport or the arts?

We believe the Halpern collection fits these criteria and it would make a worthy addition to the Memory of the World Register.

UNESCO sets a number of requirements for institutions to complete before submission. Two of the main concerns relate to preservation and accessibility of the records.

The B.C. Archives has safeguarded the preservation of the records through a combination of digitization and special storage for the originals. For conservation reasons, all of the original song recordings were digitized in 2014 and stored on CD for secure preservation.

This migration was performed from the originals for the best, most reliable copy of the recording. The digitized recordings are being transferred to broadcast wave format (BWF) files, the present-day standard for digital preservation of audio files. BWF files add a layer of metadata to facilitate the seamless exchange of sound data between different computer platforms and applications.

The Royal B.C. Museum and Archives is planning to create a trusted digital repository for the secure, long-term preservation of its digitized and born-digital archival material. The original tape reels are kept in secure cool storage (5 C) to ensure the longest possible preservation of those media.

Master cassettes and CDs, as well as reference copies of each, are kept in a secure area in the archives with limited, staff-only access. Finally, the digital-preservation masters are stored on a secure server. They are made available temporarily on a digital listening station in the reference room when access is requested and permission has been granted. These copies are removed once the researcher has finished using them.

In addition to the sound recordings, many of the photographs have been digitized for preservation and ease of access.

As a public institution, the Royal B.C. Museum and Archives strives to make its holdings easily accessible to researchers. However, many of the Halpern recordings are taken from performances of ceremonies forming part of sacred Indigenous social protocols and are not meant for public performance or general access.

The repository has implemented an ongoing consultation process to identify those recordings that are of a sacred nature and what, if any, level of access restriction should be placed upon the recordings. In most cases, it is possible to provide researchers with permission to listen to the recordings without allowing reproduction and distribution rights.

To that end, the institution continues to work with Indigenous communities to establish permissible levels of access on a song-by-song basis. The Royal B.C. Museum and Archives is also dedicated to providing full access to descendants of the Indigenous collaborators on the recordings, and makes digital copies for those who self-identify as descendants free of charge.

Consultation with stakeholders (in this case, the communities represented in the collection) is fundamental to the success of the submission. The Royal B.C. Museum recognizes that true, meaningful community consultation is essential to building trusting relationships with Indigenous communities that will foster reconciliation.

We have endeavoured to include each Indigenous community represented in the sound recordings in the preparation of the nomination.

In addition to local government support, the Royal B.C. Museum sought support from descendants of the singers and their families. As ownership of songs and ceremonies is hereditary, it has been important to speak with community members who might not participate in their government.

Whenever possible, consultation has been conducted in person.

Genevieve Weber is an archivist focusing on First Nations records, liaison and outreach activities in the B.C. Archives, meeting and working with people from all over the province. Before joining the Royal B.C. Museum she worked with the Nisga’a Nation, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Government Records Service.

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