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Our Undying Past

Learning, the native way

Imagine it. Three thousand hours of American Indian oral recordings, brought out of the archives after decades, digitized, and made available to the public – that means you -- for free. A database of six thousand traditional Iroquois names, now searchable by clan affiliation.

Those and other precious native holdings of the American Philosophical Society have been brought forth for sharing in a respectful new collaboration between that eminent Philadelphia institution and a host of native tribes across North America.
I knew nothing about this remarkable initiative, which was highlighted at a conference organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Looking to attend a good event on November’s Native American Heritage Month calendar, I happily located this one, which showcased what it called “innovative approaches to recovering and engaging with Indigenous knowledge in the classroom and in the field.” As a sign of this native partnership with the academy, a banner displaying the Hiawatha belt was prominent on the stage.

Timothy Powell, who directs the philosophical society’s Native American Project, told the audience how his team has been digitizing and sharing papers and other holdings with more than 100 native communities to help them revitalize their cultures and languages. For instance, a Penobscot dictionary has been disseminated into that community to help members revive and broaden use of their language. Recordings of Tuscarora “wisdom keepers,” made on a defunct wire-spool device in the 1940s, have also been digitized and shared: “from oral to wire to digital to oral again,” Powell remarked.

Similarly, recordings of traditional musicians, recorded generations ago on wax cylinders, are being digitized and shared. Creating the database of traditional names by clan affiliation has been a breakthrough for Iroquois groups, Powell said, because members are traditionally named by clan mothers but awareness of all the traditional names had faded over time.

Powell urged anyone to contact him to get online access to the philosophical society’s vast oral recordings. He’s reachable at tpowell@amphilsoc.org.

The convener of the Nov.7-8 conference, Penn anthropology professor Margaret Bruchac, explained that the university’s minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies has served to bring together the disciplines of anthropology, education, history, law, linguistics, religious studies, art history, folklore and even nursing. (Indeed, Powell said videos of native healers have been used in Penn’s nursing school.)

Bruchac is researching how a predecessor at the University Museum, famed anthropologist Frank Speck, embedded himself with native communities a century ago and was entrusted with masks, wampum belts and other sacred objects. The elders told him to regard every object “as a grandfather and to keep it until it was safe to return it to the community.” Some of the belts and other objects disappeared, however, and Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, is working hard to track them down. She chronicles her exploits in her outstanding “On the Wampum Trail” blog: http://wampumtrail.wordpress.com/tag/margaret-bruchac/

Another presenter was Doug George Kanentiio, a Mohawk activist who helped develop the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, based in Syracuse. The institute is named for the legendary figure crediting with establishing the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy centuries ago. The Hiawatha Institute aims to be a resource center and to ally with schools to offer classes and distance learning in “music, history, law, biology, theater, language and the fine arts, all from a distinctly indigenous perspective.” You can learn more at www.hiawatha.syr.edu.

A new day has dawned in the academy, at least in some corners of higher learning. Over and over the conference’s speakers expressed profound regard for traditional knowledge and cultural patrimony. A guiding principle has been the Iroquois ethic of looking seven generations forward and seven generations back. As Powell said, for something to be of lasting value “it needs to benefit people seven generations in the future.”
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