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Collection Ancestral Voices

About this Collection

Among the very first activities of the American Folklife Center (AFC) -- created in 1976 -- was the Federal Cylinder Project (FCP), a large-scale initiative to preserve and provide access to historic and fragile field recordings captured on wax cylinders, many dating back to the late nineteenth century. The goal of the FCP (1977-1987) was to gather together thousands of such historical recordings held at the Library, in national and international repositories, at universities, and in private collections; produce catalog records; preserve the audio on reel-to-reel tape; and make the recordings available to communities of origin. In particular, the initiative focused on some 9,000 cylinder recordings of Native American cultural expressions, with the aim of sharing copies with those communities to further their work in linguistic maintenance and reclamation and ownership of cultural heritage. Between 1983 and 1988, thanks in part to a grant of $118,000 from the Ford Foundation, FCP project staff -- including scholars from the Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and public universities -- visited approximately 100 tribal communities and returned cassette copies of cylinder recordings (cassette being the most accessible format at the time).

Ancestral Voices is the successor to that pioneering project and utilizes emerging digital technologies and innovative approaches to address issues in preservation, co-curation, cultural representation, and intellectual access that are of critical concern for both cultural communities and archival repositories. The project seeks to mutually benefit both tribal members and the Library of Congress in these areas:

  1. digital preservation of an essential element of American and Native American heritage;
  2. repatriation, in digital form, of this heritage to Native American nations;
  3. collaboration of the Library with tribal communities in respectful presentation of this heritage;
  4. setting standards for future technical innovation and collaboration.

By working with tribal communities to determine what is missing from current collection information and adding that perspective to the catalog records, this effort repositions communities as authorities over their cultural histories and heritage, paralleling the earlier efforts of the FCP. AFC sees this as central to establishing new paradigms in classification, curation, and methods of access for indigenous materials. In the areas of cataloging and curation, the Ancestral Voices project is piloting the use of Traditional Knowledge (TK) labels to provide community-centered perspectives to enhance the description and presentation of the digital items. TK Labels are provided by the Local Contexts platform. Tribal communities adapt and apply them to digital heritage materials (audio recordings, images, documents, etc.) in the Mukurtu CMS a community content management system, in preparation for sharing community-authored information with institutional repositories, such as the Library. Labels identify culturally sensitive materials and thereby help end-users make informed decisions about how this material should be attributed and in what ways it should be used. For more information on TK Labels, see the Rights and Access page.

This first presentation in the Ancestral Voices project is the result of a collaborative venture among the AFC, the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine, and the creators of TK Labels and Mukurtu CMS. Passamaquoddy elders have provided cultural narratives and added traditional knowledge about Passamaquoddy recordings, which were spoken in a French-influenced dialect of the Passamaquoddy language in 1890. We hope to expand Ancestral Voices to include other tribal groups and historic recordings in future online presentations.

Jesse Walter Fewkes collection of Passamaquoddy cylinder recordings

The Jesse Walter Fewkes collection of Passamaquoddy cylinder recordings was created in March 1890 when the anthropologist Fewkes travelled to Calais, Maine, to undertake one of the very first experiments in ethnographic audio documentation with the Passamaquoddy Tribe. The Passamaquoddy Tribe is one of the indigenous communities of the region and is made up of communities from Pleasant Point and Indian Township in Maine and St. Andrews, New Brunswick, in Canada. In order to prepare for his forthcoming trip on the Hemenway Southwestern Expedition, supported through the patronage of Mrs. Mary Hemenway of Boston, Fewkes field-tested a significant piece of documentation equipment in Maine. This was the wax cylinder phonograph, patented in 1878 by Thomas Alva Edison. The device became a central instrument of early documentarians as well as gaining popularity among commercial producers of audio recordings. For a history of the cylinder phonograph, consult this article.

Over the course of three days, Fewkes recorded thirty-six cylinders of partial songs, legends, creation stories, and linguistic terms provided by Passamaquoddy community members, principally Peter Selmore and Newell Josephs (also spelled Noel Joseph or Noel Josephs). The short duration of recording on a cylinder, about two to three minutes, meant that only fragments of stories or songs were recorded, and the collection now contains just thirty-one cylinders because five of them were damaged. These recordings are the oldest ethnographic field recordings known to survive anywhere. Fewkes's recordings were eventually deposited in Harvard University's Peabody Museum, and then donated by the Museum to the Library of Congress in the 1970s for inclusion in the Federal Cylinder Project.

About the Recordings

In 2015, audio engineers at the Library's National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) employed up-to-date technology, notably the Archéophone cylinder playback machine (invented in 1998 in France by Henri Chamoux) to extract the content directly from audio cylinders to digital preservation master files. The digital files were then restored and enhanced, using the Computer Enhanced Digital Audio Restoration System - CEDAR, for short. Passamaquoddy community members comment that the digitally restored recordings have significantly enhanced their comprehension of their ancestor’s' voices and teachings. Accordingly, this site presents three versions of the digital files produced from each cylinder, to provide points of comparison of the restoration process: 1) a best quality enhanced audio recording; 2) a "flat" transfer of the cylinder to digital audio file; and 3) a digital copy of the tape recording made from the cylinder in the 1980s for the Federal Cylinder Project.