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Director's Column
Reproduced from Folklife Center News 6:2 (April-June 1983): 2-3.
Captions Below
Host Drum Singer
August 14, 1983.
Mike McCauley Listens to Recording Made Sunday Afternoon
August 14, 1983.

This column has been devoted to the subject of documentation before. I have been a bit preoccupied with the subject of late, partly because of its place in the Folklife Center's mission, partly because it has emerged as a theme in our Cultural Conservation Report, and partly from an anxiety that professional students of culture had grown so enamored of theory that "mere" documentation was in danger of being neglected. This last concern--that we understand the efficacy of documentation itself in the larger workings of our civilization--was wonderfully pointed up by folklorist Henry Glassie during one of the Cultural Conservation meetings. He had visited the Choctaw community in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and noticed an old Bureau of American Ethnology report on the bookshelf. Inquiring, he found that they were enthusiastic about having the report in their community. But they had no more enthusiasm than the present generation of scholars for the volume's turn-of-the-century theories about Choctaw culture. Rather, they were grateful for the carefully described and transcribed ceremonies, which would have been lost but now are being relearned.

The documentation, one might say, had outlived the theories for which it had been accumulated, and had been put to cultural uses the earlier collectors never imagined. Though such collectors might have expected that future researchers would use earlier field data to develop fresh conclusions, they can hardly have foreseen that the fieldnotes, photographs, sound recordings, and published descriptions they painstakingly created would re-enter the very cultural process they described, would be prized, studied, and at times readopted by the very people they had studied. To the later 20th century was reserved the gradually dawning realization that we are a part of and thus affect all we study.

The efficacy of documentation was powerfully brought home to me during a recent trip to Nebraska. The Federal Cylinder Project, with the assistance of the L. J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation, has recently plunged into its dissemination phase with plans to issue published recordings (in LP disc and cassette form) selected from the early cylinders. Our first published recording will feature Omaha Indian music recorded by Alice C. Fletcher and (Omaha Indian) Francis La Flesche about 1896. My Nebraska mission: to present these historical recordings to the Omaha tribe and to ask their support for the idea of the recorded publication.

I left town on Washington's Birthday, flew westward to Lincoln, Nebraska, and spent the afternoon at the Nebraska State Historical Society researching early Omaha Indian photographs. The next morning folklorist Roger Welsch drove me up to Macy, a ride of about two hours through the flat-to-rolling countryside of eastern Nebraska. We pulled into Macy, a small community near the Missouri River, and walked into the Omaha Tribal Administration Building to find Dennis Hastings, the young Omaha who has been working on cultural projects for the tribe. He was bustling about getting ready for our presentation to the Tribal Council. We were introduced to a few people, then ushered into the Council's meeting room.
Caption Below
Dancing to Wax Cylinder Recordings
August 13, 1983.

Dennis Hastings gave an initial talk, then I made a fairly lengthy presentation describing the project, the Fletcher/La Flesche collection, and the Folklife Center's publication plans. The Council members seemed interested but were curious to hear for themselves. At that point I excused myself to run out to the car and retrieve my cassette recorder. When I came back, I discovered that the Council had sent for two old men to join us. One of them was 80-year-old John Turner, whom I later recorded. I played examples from the cylinder recordings, concentrating on the helushka (warrior songs) category. When John Turner began singing along with some of the 1896 recordings, I knew we were home free. After a few pieces we stopped and Mr. Turner offered supportive comments. The Council members closed the meeting with a resolution for the Vice Chairman, Mark Merrick, to draft a letter of support.

After the meeting we adjourned to the school across the street, where we had lunch in the gym/cafeteria. Then Dennis packed us into the car and drove us to the elderly center. They were having a gathering and had been alerted that we would be coming. I was introduced to the group leader, who in turn translated my description of the cylinder recordings into Omaha. I played the same batch of helushka songs, and they seemed to make quite an impression. I noticed two old men near the back whose hands were beating along with the drum rhythm; they began talking to one another and pulled cassette tapes out of their pockets. It was a fascinating session for me and a good start in our efforts to share the recordings with the tribe. Then we went over to the hospital and-- after Roger Welsch regretfully took his leave-- repeated the performance for a group gathered for the occasion. I saw that the return of the cylinder recordings to the Omaha was shaping up as quite a community event.

Next Dennis took me to a housing project where we visited Charlie Edwards, a 91-year-old man who had been an active singer for much of his life. We played the same helushka songs for him, and I used a Nagra tape recorder to record his responses.

The next day after lunch we stopped by the Tribal Building in hopes of finding John Turner there. Sure enough, there he was waiting in the lobby. I asked if he would be interested in a recording session where he would comment on the cylinder recordings. He seemed quite willing, so we started looking for a room to appropriate for recording purposes. Most of the rooms had ambient noise from the air circulation system, and before we knew it our search became a major project involving several administrators. Finally we selected an office which seemed to have less ambient noise, at which point the Vice Chairman authorized shutting off the air system altogether for a while. I set up the Nagra and Mr. Turner was ushered in, accompanied by Dennis and various other people from the administrative offices. Our recording session had become a public event.

We recorded for over two hours. Mr. Turner listened to nearly all the cylinder recordings on two cassettes which Maria La Vigna (formerly of the Federal Cylinder Project) had selected as a representative sampling from the entire collection. The tapes I recorded with Mr. Turner include the original recordings together with his translations, interpretations, spontaneous songs, stories, and other commentaries. A singer, player of the traditional Omaha flute, and traditionalist in cultural matters, he clearly enjoyed the session, joking and singing spontaneously as the case presented itself. His interpretations (as well as his cautionary words regarding certain sacred or secret ceremonial songs) represent invaluable supplementary documentation for the cylinders. I was thrilled at his interest and secretly began to scheme about recording him again.

The next morning we encountered Mr. Turner again at the Administration Building and expressed a vague hope that we could record him again. We got into a lively conversation where he told an etiological story about the Omaha flute, using as its hero the ubiquitous Orphan about whom many Omaha stories are told, and shared some of his repertory of jokes. But events prevented our launching another recording session. John Carter of the Historical Society, representing my ride back to Omaha, arrived on the scene, and the next thing I knew I was saying a round of goodbyes.
Caption Below
Dance Honoring John Turner
August 14, 1983.

Two months later, I find myself still mulling over the experience. It certainly confirmed all my beliefs about the cultural power of documentation. The interest and enthusiasm of the Omaha people was electric, and the recording session with John Turner dramatized the fact that the cylinders are not simply documents of the past, but a legacy from the past. My personal presence may have helped--one cannot satisfy the responsibility for dissemination simply by mailing off some tapes. Yet we could not have created such interest if the cylinders were not inherently interesting. The recording session with John Turner in many ways symbolized the whole effort. It yielded precious information about the 1896 recordings, and, as a semi-public event, it dramatized the "living" quality of the traditions preserved on the cylinders. Mr. Turner provided the symbolic link between past and present as he listened, laughed, interpreted and sang. The turning tape-reels, recording the cylinders side by side with his commentary, attested to the symbolic importance of the event as a contemporary effort toward cultural conservation.

In early April John Turner passed away. Not all that he knew survived him; yet his legacy to the Omaha people is rich. Part of that legacy is imbedded in the recordings he made, and in the memories of all of us who attended that recording session. As I listen once again to the tapes we made, I hear his voice juxtaposed with voices from before his birth--but also juxtaposed with the younger voices of those of us who were there, and whose task is now to carry on.

[Alan Jabbour]

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