'I can hear you': 1938 Indigenous recordings preserved in Ont. museum
When anthropology student Bimadoshka (Annya) Pucan heard the sounds of her ancestors coming from an 80-year-old wax cylinder, it was an emotional payoff she hadn’t anticipated.
“I just screamed ‘I can hear you!’ I was crying,” said Pucan, an Anishnaabe woman from Saugeen First Nation, Turtle Clan. “All of these years waiting and looking and learning.”
Pucan is a PhD student at Western University in London, Ont. She came upon a collection of aluminum-plated discs and wax phonograph cylinder recordings from 1938 containing the voice of her distant relative, Elder Robert Thompson.
They were recorded by Dr. Edwin Seaborn, founder of University Hospital in London and an amateur historian. He recorded the songs and stories to better understand Indigenous traditions. Officials with Museum London say Anishinaabeg stories and songs hold special significance and are considered to have their own spirit.
The audio recordings -- which include stories about fur trading and songs of love, religion and medicine -- are featured in the “Voices of Chief’s Point” exhibit at Museum London until September. Pucan hopes that once the current showcase ends its run that other communities may get to learn from the recordings, which she said help preserve part of her community’s history.
“Robert Thompson was able to bend time for us with these recording,” she said. “He did this on purpose. He knew we would need these songs, these stories. He knew we would need these connections.”
Pucan had been researching Seaborn’s recordings since 2011, but it wasn’t until last year that she made the surprising discovery. The recordings themselves had been under her nose all along in a Museum London vault. While they had been in the possession of Seaborn’s family until 1975, they were donated to the museum, which kept the recordings in a storage area for more than 40 years.
“We knew exactly where they were, it was not a problem,” said curator of regional history Amber Lloydlangston of Museum London. “What we didn’t know was what they actually meant.”
With the help of government funding and the museum, Pucan enlisted the Northeast Document Conservation Centre in the U.S. to digitize the recordings, a process that took months. Experts laser-scanned the cylinders’ grooves and converted the scans to digital sound files.
But for the important work of understandings the audio, Pucan worked with Saugeen First Nation elders and teachers.
“I knew immediately that these songs and stories belonged in my community with my people.”
Some people have CD’s, cassettes & records. We've got 80 year old wax cylinders! Hear them on the "Voices of Chief's Point' curator-led tour (June 23 @ 2 pm) with guest curator Bimadoshka Pucan. https://t.co/FOhV8IXk9O #ldnont pic.twitter.com/y1C1f5enmm— Museum London (@MuseumLondon) June 18, 2018
Recording rediscovery brings past to life; @WesternAnthro PhD candidate Bimadoshka Pucan is guest curator of Voices of Chief’s Point at @MuseumLondon; “I find myself now really proud of my community. This is really powerful stuff.”https://t.co/yvGeXkKZqA pic.twitter.com/yscnTwRgLP— Social Sci @WesternU (@westernuSocSci) June 7, 2018
With a report from CTV London’s Reta Ismail