Special Guest: Knowledge Repatriation in Australia

This week's Special Guest is Dr. Myfany Turpin.  She is a visiting scholar of Aboriginal languages & song-poetry, phonology, semantics, lexicography, language documentation, language maintenance and education from Australia.  She is currently based in the Linguistics Department at UCLA.  I want to thank her for agreeing to share her story with the From the Archives readers. -- Maureen

Repatriation: You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s back

Like Tony Seeger, I hope that repatriating and archiving can ‘free the mind’ of the pain of ‘cultural erasure’ (14th September 2012 in "comments"). So I thought I’d recount a positive repatriation story.

At the time of colonisation in the late 18th century, Australia's Indigenous linguistic landscape had some 275 languages and 500 dialects. In the 21st century few remain and many of  these are severely endangered as people switch to more widely spoken languages, such as Australian Kriol. Many songs, cultural practices and knowledge are at great risk of "being disappeared," to use Tony Seeger’s phrase. The genres of music that were once the backbone of the economic, ecological and artistic fabric of Australian Indigenous society now struggle to find a place in contemporary life.

So why do we care? And what role does the archive have in all this?

Ethically, we should all be able to pursue our cultural and artistic practices. Cultural diversity also offers many benefits to society. You can read more about these issues at Freemuse, International Music Council: Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures and Griffith University: Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures.

For Indigenous Australians there are additional reasons that make the survival of their music even more pertinent. There are some songs that are inherited. These are a badge of membership to one's clan, its land and totems; a sort of audio equivalent to the tartan patterns of Scottish clans. In fact, most of these songs also include visual designs and dances, and so are often referred to as ceremonies rather than songs.

But back to the role of the archive. Many practitioners of Indigenous ceremonies seek forums in which to play and aspiring artists seek tuition. But with no formalised learning or teaching aids and the old way of learning through exposure diminished; budding artists are left to explore other avenues to develop the necessary musical ability. And in step the archives.

Alyawarr singers in central Australia recorded by Richard Moyle (Photo: 1976 Richard Moyle, used with permission)

I'm going to recount a touching, and I hope inspiring, archive repatriation story. It centres around an Aboriginal friend of mine John, who I helped to obtain a recording of his father made in 1965. His father was speaking and singing in Djarrwark, John's clan dialect from an area in northern Australia, no longer spoken and one that John wanted to know more about.

When he was a young man, John recalled a linguist recording his father speaking his clan dialect. Would those recordings exist and how would he find them? John has always valued Aboriginal languages and culture. He speaks numerous Aboriginal languages, plays didgeridoo and sings traditional songs. Like most people his age and from his region, John doesn't read or write. So I searched the catalogue of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the "world's most comprehensive collection of materials relating to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories."

The hunt was hindered by descrepancies in spelling and use of Aboriginal words. Then, after numerous false leads we struck gold! Then, for John to have a copy of his fathers recordings, we needed permission from the depositor who had recorded John's father. This would be granted if John could prove he was who he said he was. What constitutes evidence in a culture without literacy? So John and I drew a genealogy, which are notoriously complicated in Aboriginal Australia. Fortunately, I was able to meet up with the depositor (who was some 1100 miles away) where we discussed the genealogy and spoke of how John intended to use the recordings—to educate himself and his children. The researcher then granted AIATSIS permission to copy the materials, which were then sent to us on audio CDs.

When John played the CD for the first time he seemed transfixed. Tears in his eyes, perhaps no other sounds existed for him at that moment. As well as the emotion of hearing his father's voice after so many years, John learnt much from the recording. He had heard the dialect before—"I didn't know that was Djarrwark," he mused. His father talked of his totems, countries and sang his songs. Some of these John had heard and now he had the means to learn them. John was alerted to his father switching to a different clan dialect to converse with someone who must have been present during the recording. Through his knowledge John could summise who this might have been. Such information is appreciated by the archive holding these recordings.

Unfortunately, future repatriation is uncertain. Due to budget constraints AIATSIS can "no longer provide access to the moving image collection and only provide access to already digitized material from the audio and photographic collections." Currently I am working with a singer whose songs were recorded in 1980 and are held at AIATSIS. These recordings have not yet been digitized. As the last living singer on the recordings her commentry would be irreplaceable, but the clock is ticking.

Repatriation is beneficial in more than one way. People can access parts of their cultural heritage, much of which has already been "washed away by the tide of history," as Justice Olney found in an Australian Native Title claim in 1998. At the same time descendants such as John can fill in the gaps, enabling researchers to enrich the metadata, so highly valued by archivists and users.

Further documenting the 1976 recordings: Alyawarr singer Kiji Kemarr working with linguist Jenny Green. (Photo: 2012 Myf Turpin) Kiji Kemarr is leftmost in the 1976 photo

"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.