The Warm Springs Sound Preservation Project (2012-2016) spanned two grant periods and grew out of a request from Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ (CTWS) Culture & Heritage Language Department director, Valerie Switzler. She approached the UO Libraries with her concern for preserving and making accessible the many decades of sound recordings lying dormant—if not degrading—in the Department’s archive. The Oregon Folklife Network was invited as a fiscal and cultural preservation agent, to create a statewide public benefit. After hours of conversation, a site visit, and several months of research, the project was conceived, and the Oregon Heritage Commission grant was chosen for its funding needs.
The goal of the project was to preserve and increase access to CTWS Culture & Heritage Language Department sound recordings, focusing on the materials assessed to be most in danger of degradation, and also most valuable to the tribe’s current cultural programming. Our objectives included raising public awareness of a significant body of Oregon’s cultural heritage materials that is at high risk of being lost; supporting a centralized collection of Warm Springs' cultural recordings in a place where tribal members feel confidently that best practices are followed, and advancing an egalitarian, inter-agency collaboration model meeting the needs and resources of diverse partners: a statewide public program (Oregon Folklife Network (OFN)), higher ed institute (UO Libraries), and tribal government agency (CTWS Culture & Heritage Language Department). As final products, local policies and procedures for sound preservation were developed; a permanent digital preservation workstation was installed, and a Culture & Heritage Language Department Archivist was trained in preservation recording. The first grant project digitized 44 hours of reel-to-reel tribal sound recordings, preserving high quality archive files and also lower resolution access files, increasing usability and longevity of these heritage treasures. The second grant extended this process to over 200-hours of cassette tapes and video. The two projects produced two online training units on sound recording preservation (see Webcast #1 and Webcast #2), a public product available on the OFN website free of charge to other organizations and individuals with similar needs.
Cross-cultural collaborations are inherently challenging, littered with landmines formed from divergent cultural histories, assumed or unknown power differentials, ignorance of social mores, and misunderstanding of jargon, to name a few. We mitigated these challenges to the best of our abilities by having regular and even face-to-face conversations. Partners agreed early on that the project, initiated by Warm Springs, should primarily benefit Warm Springs, and thus should be led by Warm Springs staff. Having this clear focus helped guide the process of collaboration whereby all partners brought ideas, opinions, and resources to the table, and yet CTWS Culture and Heritage director, Valerie Switzler, had final approval of all decisions.
The next challenge came in creating a public product that respected cultural propriety and ownership of the primary source material we were preserving. The most obvious way to share the project with the public would be to publish the recordings. However, the reels in most danger, and of most cultural importance that were prioritized by the tribe for preservation were only generically labeled. Without knowing for certain what sounds would be heard on the tapes, Valerie could not guarantee that the recordings themselves could be shared broadly with the general public. It would be inappropriate, even culturally taboo, for example, to play or hear certain sacred or seasonal songs outside of their proper context or audience. Thus the team had to think creatively about how public dollars cold produce a public benefit without sharing the heritage material specifically. After deliberation, the preservation techniques became our new public product, and the training modules were the vehicle that could empower any person in the public to assess and manage a sound preservation archive.
After a site visit to the CTWS Culture and Heritage archive, the partners agreed that the most sustainable way to digitize their enormous and eclectic sound collection was to equip the Culture and Heritage Department with the proper equipment and training to begin and continue digitization independently. However, this posed an unexpected challenge for the fiscal agent whose purchasing authorities were unused to buying equipment that would not remain the property of the fiscal agent. While written and oral justifications were adequate for advancing beyond these gatekeepers, the experience revealed an expectation that the fiscal agent would bolster its own assets, providing the digitization service in-house for a fee. This shows how funding restrictions and bureaucratic policies can unwittingly promote a paternalistic “doing for” over a “doing with” approach that we were glad to circumvent.
These recordings have strong potential for use by tribal members and organizations but were inaccessible and at risk of loss due to the instable recording medium and nearly obsolete recording technology. The digitization of tribal council meetings, legends, oral histories, and songs not only respects and preserves heritage as inherently valuable to both Warm Springs and Oregon culture, the project is prized for “awakening those that had been silenced all these years through the reels,” as Dallas Winishut expressed. The digital files enliven contemporary culture with new language samples for the tribe’s immersion school curriculum and other language revitalization efforts.
Archiving project earns Oregon Heritage Excellence Award, March 18, 2014