Sacred Lakota Music from 1896 Returned to Tribe

Courtesy Oglala Lakota/Former Oglala Lakota tribal Chairman John Yellowbird Steele receiving the newly digitalized copies of traditional sacred and secular music from National Endowment for the Arts chairman Jane Chu.

Ancient voices and songs from 1896 enter digital world thanks to NEA.

When Mike Carlow Jr., a ceremonial leader among the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge Reservation, attended the annual Lakota Dakota Nakota Language Summit in Rapid City on October 8 in Rapid City, South Dakota, he received what he called “a wonderful surprise.” Carlow a founder of language and culture organization, Tusweca Tiospaye, a participant at the summit, discovered his organization would be one of two caretakers of newly digitalized recordings of sacred Lakota music, some of which dates back to 1896.

The Summit agenda’s last item was “A nation-to-nation digital repatriation ceremony.” During the ceremony, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman Jane Chu and a representative from the Library of Congress (LOC) returned “Oglala Lakota audio artifacts” housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. There to receive these materials was then Tribal Chairman John Yellowbird Steele, and Oglala Lakota college archivist Tawa Ducheneaux, whose job it will be to catalog and store the recordings in the college’s Woksape Tipi archives for community use.

“Apparently, the Library of Congress was transferring old wax cylinder recordings in their archives to newer recording mediums and they came across these recordings,” said Carlow. “These songs are the same, these songs have not changed, it’s just the words that we have changed as we have needed to,” said Ben Black Bear, Sicangu Lakota, and an attendee at the summit.

The repatriation ceremony culminated a process that began last March with correspondence between the Library of Congress, Steele and Oglala Lakota College President Tom Shortbull, said Ducheneaux.

On October 5, Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, wrote to Shortbull and Steele: “I am honored to present hard drives containing newly digitized copies of rare sacred and secular Oglala Lakota songs to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “These historic recordings include nine Sun Dance songs sung by George Fire Thunder and Thunder Bear that were recorded on March 31, 1896, by ethnologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher. The recordings were made on two wax cylinders and last 7 minutes. These are likely the earliest recordings of Oglala people.”

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress digitized, at no cost to the Oglala Lakota Nation or to Oglala Lakota College, two collections of materials for repatriation.

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Chu, acting on behalf of the NEA, and as an ex-officio Board member of the American Folklife Center (AFC), presented the collection at the ceremony on October 8.

Hayden went on to note “the second collection was made on the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1941-1947, runs roughly eight hours, was recorded by Willard Rhodes and features both sacred and secular music.”

Courtesy Oglala Lakota/Tusweca Tiyospaye founder Mike Carlow Jr. receives digitalized copy from former chairman Yellowbird Steele.

Accompanying the return was a note from the Library of Congress which reads: “In the 1880s, the United States government began documenting and collecting cultural artifacts of Native American communities. This was done in concert with Federal programs as part of what was then a systematic process of subjugation and assimilation of American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Field documentation was carried out so that museums, historians, and anthropologists would have permanent record of indigenous cultural life before assimilation.

“Two of the foremost fieldworkers/ethnographers for the US Government were folklorist Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923) and ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes (1901-1992), both of whom were associated with the US Bureau of American Ethnology which is now part of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.”

Fletcher and Rhodes carried out fieldwork at Pine Ridge during two different spans of time: Fletcher in the 1880s, and Rhodes in the 1940s. The artifacts Fletcher collected at Pine Ridge Sun Dances now reside at the Peabody Museum at Harvard, but two rare audio recordings (made in Washington, DC) of Oglala Lakota sacred music (1896) reside at the American Folklife Center, as do all of Rhodes’ recordings and field notes.

From a statement by the Library of Congress: “This repatriation of rare audio recordings of traditional Oglala Lakota sacred and secular music accomplishes mutual goals of the White House/US Government and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which is to build nation-to-nation collaboration [and] to strengthen tribal sovereignty…”

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