‘By doing this, you’re keeping them alive’
The project aims to transfer analog recordings of Indigenous culture and history
U of A project using technology to save Indigenous voices from fading away
An Indigenous media group and researchers are racing the clock to save a slice of history before it turns to dust.
Their project, dubbed Digitizing the Ancestors, is a joint venture of the Sound Studies Institute at the University of Alberta, and the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA), an organization behind digital and broadcast news outlets serving Indigenous communities throughout the province.
Together, they’re trying to copy old audio and video tapes saved by Indigenous news media over the years and convert them to a digital format for posterity.
CEO Bert Crowfoot said in the 1980s AMMSA bought the liquidated archives of its predecessor, the Alberta Native Communication Society, which published a newspaper and provided broadcast programming and news for Indigenous communities in the province with studios in Edmonton, Lac la Biche, Fort Chipewyan and Wabasca-Desmarais in northern Alberta.”
The cache includes thousands of reels of tape — dating back to the 1960s — containing Indigenous music, stories, and audio and video interviews with elders and community leaders, such as the late Anne Anderson, Crowfoot added, an author of Métis history and Cree language books, including a Cree dictionary.
“We own all of these archives, and we did nothing with them for about 33 years,” Crowfoot said of the stockpile, which was, until now, stacked and stored in boxes in a spare room. “But if it sits on a tape that deteriorates, and we can’t digitize it, then that’s lost information that we have no access to.”
Much of the store is saved on fragile magnetic tape nearing the end of its shelf life, a reality that prompted the partnership between AMMSA and the Sound Studies Institute, directed by University of Alberta musicologist Mary Ingraham, to catalogue and transfer the tapes to digital media. After an inventory, the first step was to flag and triage the most sensitive tapes needing urgent action, Ingraham said, “meaning magnetic tape that was starting to deteriorate, because it does that after 50 to 60 years.”
Reading reel-to-reel tape that’s old and brittle could just spit out dust during the transfer process, Crowfoot added. Fortunately, many of the tapes are still in good condition, with only a few showing signs of old age.
“If they have this vinegar smell, that means they’re starting to deteriorate,” he explained. “We only have four or five reels that were starting to smell.”
“To be able to preserve some of the elders speaking in their language, and have that available to the community is really important,” Ingraham said. “These are voices that would not be heard anymore, because (many of them) have passed on.”
Bert Crowfoot, CEO of Windspeaker, shows off some of the records of indigenous culture that he is digitizing in Edmonton.
Photographer Bert Crowfoot bought boxes of old audiotape and film for a dollar andit's turning out to be a priceless trove of Indigenous story, culture and language.