Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Recovery of Lost Indigenous Languages by Optical Scanning of Old Wax Cylinders (openculture.com)
110 points by porsupah 32 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

"Due to the culturally sensitive material of the content on these cylinders, and out of respect for the contemporary descendants of many of the performers on the recordings, access to the majority of the audio being digitized is currently restricted."

I'd like to learn more about the cultures of the peoples in this country who came before me - but I am apparently not 'enlightened' enough to experience their words.

I live in southeast Alaska, and it's a pretty interesting place to live culturally.

Alaska Native people were hurt deeply by contact with outsiders. For those unfamiliar with the history, it was a series of events. First, contact brought diseases that native people had limited immunity to. Smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis killed on the order of 70% of the population of many villages in a single generation. Then missionaries told the survivors that their people died because they worshipped the wrong gods. Then missionaries and government agents told native people they were unfit to raise their own children, and forcibly placed their children in boarding schools. Then those children were physically and mentally punished if they spoke their own language or participated in any of their traditional ceremonies or practices.

Native ways of living were not perfect before contact, but contact brought significant trauma that has lasting effects.

There is a concept of ownership of stories, songs, ceremonies, and artifacts. It is quite appropriate to respect this.

There's a very concrete, contemporary rationale, as well. Our culture values and facilitates the commodification of other cultures above their preservation. Simply examine the way that Disney has presented (and profited from) depictions of various peoples of the world. In its latest iteration, even going as far as trying to trademark "The Day of The Dead"[1]

1. https://www.cnn.com/2013/05/10/us/disney-trademark-day-dead/...

Is a romantic point of view but also a biased one. Yes, I agree that Native People were victims of diseases and suffered a lot of abuses.

But would would be unfair not to mention that they received also some in exchange. They benefit of a new universe of human knowledge, around four thousand years of philosophy, technology and science and incredible advances on medicine and surgery that the native people couldn't even dream.

The grandsons of the Natives from American continent own also now three languages, English, Spanish and Portuguese that are a blessing and a world of new opportunities.

This is not being mentally punished, is being mentally boosted and rewarded with the keys of the planet.

This is the violent language of the usurper and invader: be grateful for what we bring you, for what you had before was inferior.

Honestly, very disrespectful. I think you've proven the reasoning behind keeping these recordings restricted; the respect is still not there, a hundred years later, for so-called 'cultures of lesser means'.

We (the defendants of the white people who conquered this land) are the net losers, we lost several millennia of oral history and tribal knowledge.

In my opinion, we also lost something else, the idea that land is not something just to be owned and used, but rather something to be shepparded over, and held in trust for the next generations. It took us 200 years or so to rediscover that cultural precept.

Funny. I grew up in Cordova and though I'm not Native, my step brother and my half sister are. I wonder how different things are up there these days because I never got the impression that Natives were protective of their stories and traditions in the way that you mention.

Then again, I moved away 20 years ago and the last time I visited was five years back. Things might have shifted in the intervening two decades, or perhaps I just wasn't as attuned to that as a 21 year old kid ;)

I’m sure there’s variation across groups, not to mention generational differences in assertiveness, but also consider the range of recordings which might exist. I was at the Museums and the Web conference a few years ago and there was a really interesting talk by a Canadian talking about the software they had to build to meet their agreements. Even with a single tribe you might have some recordings which were public but others which were considered tribal secrets (i.e. they restricted logins to verified members), some which were only for men or women, some which were only for elders or shamans, etc.

I suppose that the idea of Native is a homogenisation of many separate cultures and identities. Perhaps some of the peoples feel that their traditions are to be shared, and others do not?

It's not quite as simple as that. Around here, clans have ownership of stories and artifacts. But not all stories are held privately. Some are very public, and are published in books and are regularly rewritten, retold, and reillustrated. But some are quite private. It's up to each clan how closely to hold its stories.

Many of us have this structure in our own families. When I was younger I heard some stories about certain family members that I was free to tell anyone. I can tell you that I was born in Guam because my father was in the Navy and he and my mom were stationed there when I was born. But there are other stories in our family that it would be quite disrespectful for me to share in public.

With Native groups from southeast Alaska, these ownership issues have been much more formalized, over a much longer time period, than what I saw in my family.

Concern over the "intellectual property" of indigenous people within linguistics is mainly a North American thing, and the bureaucracy put in place to ensure that you follow all these guidelines is astounding. Unfortunately, North American academics have been pushing for these ethics rules to extend to all parts of the globe, even in places where the relationship between foreign scholars and local people is not the same as for parts of native North America.

I have done linguistics fieldwork among some indigenous people elsewhere in the world under a European university. There was no requirement to appear before an ethics board before or after. There was no requirement to credit my native informants at all costs – considering that the country in question was rather repressive of these minority peoples, my informants generally did not want it to be publicly known that they were interacting with foreigners. Once I had the data, it was straightforward to publish it. I would hate to see that ease in my particular subfield disappear because of historical-political disputes elsewhere.

I hope you don't respect copyright, trade secrets, patents or NDAs in general, not just the intellectual property frameworks used by cultures that you're not a member of. All intellectual property inconveniences someone; that's its entire purpose.

Not that you're making an argument here against native secrecy and privacy traditions being written into law, but you seem to be saying that you don't feel any obligation to follow them.

> I hope you don't respect copyright, trade secrets, patents or NDAs in general

No, I don’t really. I mean, I come from Eastern Europe where torrenting films/music/books is entirely mainstream. And within academia internationally, people are regularly using Sci-Hub and LibGen, or uploading papers of theirs to Academia.edu in violation of the publisher’s insistence that they can only distribute a few paper reprints. If you want to claim that intellectual property is sacred, you will have a hard time convincing lots of people in this field.

why are you trying to apply your irrelevant experiences with other groups even as you complain about americans doing so to you?

How is irrelevant to point out that there is disagreement within the academic community about the standards that the OP expresses disappointment with?

I had a Native American friend who asked me for help with digitizing cassette tapes of certain ceremonies. I transferred them, cleaned them up a bit, and burned audio cds for him.

I then deleted all my own copies as he requested. He asked that since the ceremonies were for his people that I not keep them for myself, and I respected that.

Paraphrases of what I've heard from Native American friends:

My gift to you is this song.

I cannot sing that song because it was not given to me.

Intellectual property is apparently an ancient social construct!

It's not about intellectual property, it's an "it's the thought that counts" type of thing that is hard to explain to outsiders. In several cultures, singing someone a song is a very personal act of gift giving in which the singer creates beautiful sound just for the listener(s) - it is as much an expression of the relationship between them as it is about music or poetry. That latter bit is often lost in developed countries that have established musical industries instead of a vast array of amateur bards.

Just like it is considered inappropriate to give away something that was a gift to you in many cultures, in some it is considered bad form to appropriate someone's expression of emotion unless you were invited to by the singer.

That makes diary's purchased at an estate sale or a photo album interesting.

What is the law on that?

That's great, but digitization and CDs are for our people. Why is he coopting our culture but won't share a free, non-material copy of his own?

For a non-snarky response: The difference between your scenario and the one from the article is that with yours, you were just performing a service for your friend, who presumably owned the recordings. In the article's case, the recordings are owned and created by UC Berkeley, which is a publicly funded learning institution.

"As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master." - Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iY57ErBkFFE)

What was contained in those cermonies that you were not to know? What offense would he do to his people by sharing their wisdom with you? What didn't they want you to know?

The answer is "Probably nothing". But in that vast empty space, there's a few corners where someone is hiding something, and those corners are really terrible. Look at cults like Children of God [1] - These cults are still really common.

I'm certain you would have reported if you'd heard anything dangerous on those tapes. I'm certain that your friends motive for keeping them private were not threatening and entirely pure. Societal standards - Like rituals and ceremonies - Aren't private, though, and should never be subject to secrecy. They should be held up and celebrated. And if they shouldn't be held up and celebrated, they should probably be left in the past, and remembered as mistakes.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Family_International#The_F...

Given the context, doesn't it feel a bit... tactless to talk about how Europeans in America used freedom of information to defeat other Europeans and succeeded in taking the continent for themselves?

The nauseating amount of disrespect for personal space you display truly terrifies me.

> Societal standards - Like rituals and ceremonies - Aren't private, though, and should never be subject to secrecy.

I guess the term "secret society" is an oxymoron.

I get this reaction. But it's worth remembering that, to a great extent, today's sensitivities are reactions to extremely callous treatment of native peoples in the past--including by scientists and other researchers (such as unauthorized exhumations for archaeological study). I also wouldn't conflate the researchers' willingness to allow the descendants of these people to control the recordings with stinginess on the part of those descendants in sharing them with the world.

"Enlightenment" likely has nothing to do with it.

There are a lot of tradeoffs involved in deciding who is and isn't allowed to listen to something, and I want to hear about them. But I think starting off by putting the concept in scare quotes is going to poison the whole thread.

It is sad that so much indigenous knowledge was lost.

One of the most infamous events in the Americas was when Roman Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa (1524 - 1579) burned thousands of Mayan codices, an event comparable to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The motivation was the extermination of Mayan culture.

To put things in perspective, how would you feel if all works written in the English language were piled up and burned? One thing is to disagree with the content of whatever document, another thing is to permanently suppress it.


Likewise, a lot of artifacts from the first civilizations like Sumer were lost over the last couple of decades because of wars in the middle east resulting in museum sackings. The artifacts that were not destroyed, are probably now contaminated and proving their authenticity will be very hard.

Some people do not support the presence of ancient artifacts museums in foreign museums, but in retrospective, the more distributed and safer those artifacts are, the better.

I was disappointed not to hear any audio from their proto-example, the 148 cylinders of Ishi's speech (in the Yahi language).

OTOH, the article did expand Ishi's story for me, if sadly, by pointing out that he was of mixed Indian blood - and so was not the last Yahi.

Maybe the most famous indian recordist was Frances Densmore, who made 2500 recordings of 'Chippewa' music. Today I searched in vain for 15 minutes to find a collection (more than a handful) of some of those recordings.

Once again, a glaring lack of appreciation for our own history. Which will probably be rewarded karmicly when our own, 'who cares' history is forgotten.

Is any package available to do optical scanning of vinyl disk records? I've heard of it but never seen it done.

My parents have a bunch of rare 78s which I would like to be able to listen to, but am afraid to poke a needle into.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact