Audiovisual documentation has been key to the preservation of the knowledge, culture and tradition of unjustly marginalized peoples. Western culture has often defaulted to ethnocentrism, and until the real value of cultural differences is appreciated, invaluable testimonies that enrich our shared human heritage may be lost.
Despite widespread prejudice, there have been individuals who value other peoples and cultures and have sought to preserve them. One such person was Frances Densmore (1867-1957), a music teacher who decided to preserve the voices and music of Native Americans. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States government was engaged in policies of assimilation and acculturation of native cultures, pressuring them to put aside their own languages and customs. Children learned English at school and native knowledge was considered to have no place in the modern world. Racial prejudice consigned to oblivion many a rich and complex cultural heritage.
Because of her musical training, Densmore, a graduate of Oberlin College, the first university to admit women and ethnic minorities, understood the cost represented by the disappearance of native cultural heritage. Her academic work was undertaken outside traditional channels and, equipped only with a phonograph, Densmore collaborated with native cultures throughout the United States in the interests of preserving their musical heritage. Her work was valued so highly by the indigenous peoples that Red Fox, a Sioux chief, adopted her as his daughter.
Her pioneering ethnomusicological work was first published in 1926. Today, her collection of wax cylinders is housed in the Library of Congress and, thanks to the process of digitization, we can still hear the voices and music of the First Peoples of the United States.
Zuriñe Piña Landaburu
Content Editor, Archivoz Magazine