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Preserving Oklahoma's ancestral voices

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NORMAN, Okla. - While there has been a lot of publicity on the preservation of film, sound recordings are just as fragile, and often even rarer. Every electronic medium, from turn-of-the-century cylinders, to records, tapes, and even CDs are in a constant state of deterioration; the chemicals that make up the medium (the tape or record) slowly react to each other over time and create a chemical soup.

One of the major resources for Native American studies is the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, where Don DeWitt, curator of the Western History Collection, oversees these delicate pieces of history.

"The preservation of any format, whether it's paper or sound recordings, or a digital format, or even fabric, is one of the biggest problems institutions face around the world," DeWitt said. "It's difficult to get the funding to really address it on a large scale."

While the American FolkLife Center of the Library of Congress has the funding to digitalize their entire collection and keep it on a server, it is one of the few organizations with such resources. DeWitt says that the university is keeping their unique collection on tape at the moment.

One of the most significant collections is the University's recordings from the radio show "The Indians for Indians Hour." The program is legendary in Oklahoma for being the first major source on the air for Native people, and often jokingly referred to among tribal members as "Indians for Themselves." The show was also on television briefly, and the name has been reused many times in homage to the original broadcast. "We have a number of recordings that have at least portions of the show," DeWitt said. "We have 69 recordings that date from 1943 through 1964, when it went off the air. It was a weekly public service-type of show, broadcast from a radio station that was here on the campus at the time, WNAD. They would come on and talk about events that were going on in Oklahoma among the various tribes. There would be special announcements, especially during World War II, of Indians who were serving in the armed forces. In each program there was a group that was invited to come on and do a performance of some kind. It's these portions of the program that had been retained, what they called the 'entertainment,' as opposed to the news, which was edited off sometime in the past. I don't know why it was edited or when, but it's not on there. Fortunately, what people really come to listen to is the music. Frequently, many of the people come to listen to shows that have a relative performing in it."

The historic show was preserved on disc, and later reel-to-reel tape. "We have converted all of them to cassette so anyone who wants to can come in and listen to them," DeWitt said. "We have been transferring them to digital formats as we can, but it's a difficult decision because digital is not that stable a format either; no one knows for sure how long they are going to last. Right now the tape recordings are pretty stable so we feel like that is probably the best preservation medium we can use until we become a little more certain of the digital medium's longevity." One hundred and twenty discs from the early period of the show, 1943 - 1950, hosted by Don Whistler, are also in the American FolkLife Center collection in Washington.

Another major holding in the university's recording collection is the Duke Indian Oral History Collection, which features 695 recordings dating from the late 1960s and early 1970s. "The University of Oklahoma was one of seven universities in the United States to receive a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation," DeWitt said. "The grant was given in an attempt record the oral history of American Indian tribes. The universities that received the grants were scattered around the country and the interviewers talked to Native Americans in their areas. The purpose was to get an Indian perspective on oral history, and I'm not sure at how successful they were, but what resulted was a very substantial body of information about tribes from all parts of the country. It has turned out to be a very useful tool for anyone studying Indian culture in any way."

While a few songs appear on the collection, most of it is narrative, so it has been possible to preserve the information in print. "The tapes have also been transcribed and are available on microfilm," DeWitt said. "We have not only our own recordings that were done in Oklahoma, but also the tapes from Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah. It amounts to thousands of interviews from that project."

The university also houses the 105 recordings that make up the Ralph Cooley collection that focus on the Delaware Tribe. "The Cooley collection contains information about legends and historical events of the tribe, and a lot on the Delaware language itself," DeWitt said. "It is available, but you have to listen to it, there are no transcripts."

As audio technology continues to advance, the process of preserving these documents will be an on-going process. For more information in the university's collection and how to access its resources, visit ou.edu on the web.