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The “Tribal Drum” of Radio: Gathering Together the Archive of American Indian Radio

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Over the next few weeks, Sounding Out! is proud to offer a new Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, the kind of resources whose recognition and preservation could not only change media history, but also how we conceive of media history – and the voices that belong in it.

Our writers are part of an effort that is historic in its own right, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), part of the National Recording Reservation Plan at the Library of Congress. Over the past six months, under the guidance of Christopher Sterling (George Washington University) and Josh Shepperd (Catholic University), the RPTF has drawn together more than 120 faculty researchers and advisors from across the country who in turn have spread the word to create a network of more than 270 archives that hold recordings of broadcast radio, with the goal of creating a national inventory of finding aids and encouraging preservation and modernization through digital access.

If you’ve got archival broadcast radio that can’t be got online and maybe nobody even knows about — in any format or genre, national or local, high-powered or low, commercial or college, in a display or a shoebox – then we want you.

The coming months will see a second campaign of archive recruitment – I’ve taken on a role as Network Director to help coordinate that – as the RPTF rolls out a new working association with the American Archives of Public Broadcasting and gears up for a conference at the Library of Congress in early 2016, for which radio historian Michele Hilmes will be the Program Director.

Drawing on this vast effort, SO! will be bringing you stories of gaps in the record, voices we’ve long missed and need to recover, and some we are in danger of losing for good. We begin with a post by Josh Garrett-Davis, a PhD Candidate at Princeton University pursuing unique research into the long-unrecognized and uncatalogued history of Native American broadcasting.

Pursuing that history requires hard work and persistence; it also requires reimagining what counts as an archive in the first place.

— Special Editor Neil Verma

Despite dire poverty across most of the archipelago of semi-sovereign Native American land often called “Indian Country,” radio receivers had become a normal part of life there by the Great Depression. For example, as contemporary publications and later memoirs and oral histories reveal, after work hours in the camps of the Indian Emergency Conservation Work program (the Indian CCC) from northern Minnesota to the Southwest and the West Coast, many men and women listened to the wider world—even following Admiral Richard Byrd’s broadcasts from as far away as Little America, Antarctica.

Listeners, yes. But when did Native people take up the means of production, so to speak, and generate broadcasts themselves? In his history of Native radio, Signals in the Air, Michael C. Keith quotes several sources suggesting little sustaining programming existed until the first Native-owned and -oriented station appeared in New Mexico in 1972. As a sort of internal colony of the United States, Indian Country heard only imperial broadcasts for half a century. The “right to establish their own media in their own languages” in addition to “access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination”—as described in the U.N.’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—arrived remarkably late, and are still not fully granted to Native people. Quite recent are the 53 stations catering to Indian communities, and vital national programs like Native America Calling.

But Native people did speak and sing over the airwaves in earlier decades. In some cases a direct or indirect archive even exists, and undoubtedly more will emerge as radio archives more generally are preserved and cataloged through efforts such as the Radio Preservation Task Force of the National Recording Preservation Plan. The trouble is that the cumulative archive of early Indian radio has not been identified as a valuable record or really as a coherent archive at all, perhaps due to compounded misconceptions of radio as an inconsequential documentary record, and of American Indians as technological naïfs. In this post I call attention to the scattered fragments of this archive, which should be recognized as an important heritage for the recent progress in Indigenous media, echoing the various ways Native people seized limited opportunities once broadcast technology appeared.

Here is an initial attempt to quilt a few of those pieces into a pattern:

Widespread broadcasting started at about the same moment—the 1920s—as the first agitation toward tribal political sovereignty in the (constrained) twentieth-century sense. In March 1925, the Cayuga statesman Levi General, who held the ceremonial title Deskaheh, delivered an address from a Rochester, New York, studio. As transcribed in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy)–produced book A Basic Call to Consciousness, he began, “Nearly everyone who is listening to me is a pale face, I suppose,” and went on to appeal to those palefaces for Iroquois sovereignty on land that, like his radio signal, straddled the Canada–U.S. border (18). He urged his listeners to write to representatives in both governments and “ask them to tell you when and how they got the right to govern people who have no part in your government and do not live in your country but live in their own” (22). General certainly grasped the democratic and transnational possibilities of the new medium as he spoke directly to the citizens of two newcomer nations and plainly described to them a Haudenosaunee sovereignty that must have seemed radical.

Around the same time, the Yakama/Cherokee singer Kiutus Tecumseh (aka Herman Roberts) used his celebrity to perform on radio stations across the country, adding political commentary on Indian policy between songs. Often the songs he performed were Indianist compositions by non-Indian composers; Tecumseh was, in historian John Troutman’s words, “‘playing Indian’ with a pointed, political message” (250). Ojibwe bass singer Chief Roaring Thunder (aka George LaMotte), meanwhile, performed on KVOO from Tulsa in the 1920s, as mentioned in the contemporary press.

So far no audio transcriptions of any of these pioneering broadcasts have turned up, though in the 1970s the publication Akwesasne Notes produced a reenactment of General’s address and sold it on reel-to-reel, cassette, and cartridge.

"Soapsuds and Will Rogers" by Flickr user Granger Meador, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Soapsuds and Will Rogers” by Flickr user Granger Meador, CC BY-NC 2.0

One Native radio voice of whom an audio archive remains is the humorist Will Rogers (Cherokee). Historians Lary May and Amy M. Ware have convincingly argued that Rogers espoused Cherokee values—which informed his communitarian politics—and sometimes advocated directly on Native issues. Part of the task of creating and preserving an Indigenous media archive is to recognize Rogers’s place in a genealogy: He united oratory like Levi General’s with the vaudeville sensibility of Kiutus Tecumseh and Chief Roaring Thunder. (Rogers could also stand in for a number of mainstream performers whose Indian heritage was not widely recognized, from Lee Wiley to Hank Williams to Jimi Hendrix.)

World War II brought about vast changes in Indian Country, including increased exposure on the air. Great numbers of Native people served in the war effort—notably, in terms of radio, the Navajo and Comanche “code talkers.” But back home, the first sustained radio program, aptly named the Indians for Indians hour, began in 1941 on WNAD in Norman, Oklahoma. Don Whistler (aka Kesh-Ke-Kosh), the first Sac and Fox chief elected under the reforms of the “Indian New Deal,” created the show as a model of participatory programming and (fortunately for later generations) recorded more than a hundred programs on acetate discs before he died in 1951. Indians for Indians, which served and drew performers from perhaps twenty tribal communities and several Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma, persisted in various forms until the 1980s. The only show available online is one from 1976.

I have listened to most of the extant shows from the first decade—which are not endangered except insofar as they have been ignored—and it is a remarkable institution that adopted Will Rogers’s humor and brio while also foreshadowing the vibrant Native radio networks of today.

Archives are more scarce from elsewhere in Indian Country, but traces endure in archives and history books: The renowned Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser performed on the air in New Mexico as “the Apache Kid.” In the 1930s and ’40s, students from Santa Fe Indian School and Flandreau Indian School performed on radio shows in Santa Fe and Omaha, respectively. I have not found any recordings of any of these instances, but a few audio archives suggest transcriptions yet to surface: A Tuscarora farm family can be heard singing “By the Waters of the Minnetonka” on Major Bowes and His Amateur Hour on NBC in 1935. NBC also covered an American Indian Exposition and the Flagstaff All-Indian Powwow in the ’30s, which gave Native singers and speakers a national hearing. A non-Indian couple recorded Hopi and Zuni singers on an unidentified station in 1955 and 1956 from Parks, Arizona, a tape which was dubbed by an anthropologist and deposited in the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University.

There must be many other fragments, and we can hope that broad efforts like the Radio Preservation Task Force—as well as archival efforts originating among Indigenous organizations like Native Public Media, Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Native Media Resource Center, and Vision Maker Media—could turn up records of them.

Marshall McLuhan once wrote ominously of the “tribal drum of radio” leading the masses to totalitarianism. But that message, like the medium itself, could be interpreted in a much more constructive sense. When we gather together the early history of Native radio and assemble the intertribal quilt proposed above, the product seems to squarely refute the racial logic McLuhan implied. We may find instead that Indian people themselves recognized right away the importance this “drum” could and would have for maintaining vibrant language, musical, and oral traditions in the face of colonialism.

The Red Power movement is generally thought to begin with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969–71. Part of that action was the Santee Dakota poet and activist John Trudell’s creation, “Radio Free Alcatraz” on KPFA in Berkeley, California. We might hear these programs (preserved in the Pacifica Network’s archives) as heralding a new era of reservation stations and media advocacy by Native people. We could also hear them as descending from efforts—still unrecognized and uncatalogued—by Native innovators over the previous half century.

Josh Garrett-Davis is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University. His dissertation, “Resounding Voices: American Indians and Audio Technology, 1890–1969,” examines Native American use of phonograph and radio technology from the earliest ethnographic and commercial phonograph records to the founding of Indian-run labels and radio shows in the mid-twentieth century. He is the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains (Little, Brown, 2012), and a member of the collective M12, which promotes and creates art in rural places.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

A Tribe Called Red Remixes Sonic Stereotypes— Christina Giacona

Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms — Monica De La Torre

Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories— Alejandra Bronfman

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Featured Image: Navajo Code Talker Memorial — Window Rock (AZ) August 2013, Flickr User Ron Cogswell.

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Special thanks to Daniel Murphy for the RPTF Logo.

 

 

my mother’s voice, my father’s eye, and my other body: the sound of deaf photographs

Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf  Studies during February 2012. Read last week’s post by Liana Silva here–JSA


dizzy snapshots

Lately, I’ve been halted by a particular photograph of my mother. Like Roland Barthes’ wonderland photo of his mother in Camera Lucida,

this picture “corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical” (8).

It began when my father reorganized his photographs.  Since retirement, he’s taken on archival projects with renewed fervor.  He began with 1974 (the year I was born), made it all the way to 1984 and from there slipped back.  My mother, a freckled farm girl in South Dakota, standing in front of a box house and snow, lots of snow.  The year, 1957 or so.  My father in a high chair in Sepulveda, California.  Perhaps 1948.  By then my grandparents knew he was deaf.

And every couple of weeks or so my dad calls me.  I finished another year, come see the pictures, he tells me via the Iphone, his slow, thoughtful typing shaped by many years of TTY-use (TTYs, or “Text Telephones,” are increasingly receding from every day use, replaced by chatting and text messaging).  I imagine him at home in my old room, surrounded by generations of Waldners, Cardinales, Jensons and Ewings.  Eagerly, he fills an old stereoscope viewer with 3d slides.  His favorite is of my brother and me at the Buschart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. My brother is six and I am eight; our  young faces are carefully tilted towards the pale cabbage roses.   My father fits more years into fewer albums, filing the stray photos in new Costco cardboard photo boxes. And yet, as he reduces by putting old pictures into new boxes, he continually finds older pictures, older boxes.

The last time he called me, he was in 1984.  These pictures depress my dad; he won’t spend much time here.  In the photos I’m always on the phone or covering my face.  Perhaps he remembers, as I do, the times he would attempt to enter my teenage world of sound.   He’d follow the knotted coil of the cord, pick up the phone and say “huh-lllll-ooo,” exaggerating his lips in a comical lip-synch, emitting a low, guttural voice while I danced for the phone. We’d both laugh as if we secretly agreed: hearing language is silly, ugly; my father rarely uses his voice.

But within 1984 was a stack of black and white 5×6 matte photographs bound by a rubber band.  They were a series of still television shots of my mother.  We lived in Berkeley then, and my mother would drive to San Francisco to record the DeafNews; I remember being sleepy, confused, and excited when my mother’s face appeared on the TV. These photographs frame my mother the way I saw her: her face elongated by the distorting concave screen surrounded by blackness; in the picture she seems still to be floating in TV space.  I wonder, who stood in front of the television, through several barriers and captured these stills of language?

For sign language is precisely that: a language of signs in the purest semiotic sense.  And yet, it’s precisely everything but that.  In all of them, the movement of sign language is snapped still—like words on a page; the particular one I’m fascinated with has her name imprinted at the bottom of the screen in all caps—the letters bend around the television I no longer see.  This one I’ve framed, and put on my desk.

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yearbook photo

In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf  where my parents were chaperones.  It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus.  It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo.  “Careless Whispers” played as it did at all high school dances and embraced couples locked bodies in a slow sway on the dance floor.  The music, the discomfort of boys in pressed shirts and Drakkar Noir, it was no different than the stiff dances at Ramona High school down the street. But it was Deaf more than any silence could be. When my friends found out my parents were deaf they nearly almost always gasped:  “I bet your house must be so quiet!”; they nearly always got it wrong.  Here, in this cafeteria-turned “sea of love,” Deafness announced itself. Deafness was not mute.

These voices, this bass, was (to borrow the language of Josh Kun) a virtual audiotopia grounding our bodies on the parquet floor, making real Douglas Kahn’s artistic notion in Noise, Water, Meat, that
sound does not just enter the gateway of hearing; it can also be perceived through the sense of force” (77).

The song changed to M.C. Hammer, and the dancers on the floor continued slowly rocking.  A nervous looking redhead held his palm out with one hand and with the other shaped his hands to form legs; he put the two signs together and asked me to dance.

I was flattered, and acutely aware that I was the foreigner there.  As I took his hand, I was filled with adolescent shame forever demanding: “be quiet! People can hear.”

sonnet xvii

así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,/sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres/tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,/tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño–Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets Cien Sonetos de Amor

I am six, and eight, and thirteen.  The door is open, so I crawl into my parents’ bed, and the pull of the sheets awakens my mother.  She grasps my hand.  I whisper in sign language so my father won’t be disturbed by the light.  Then, I take her hand and listen, tracing the terrain of her fingers, following the curves to read her words. I fall asleep talking to my mother, her hand in mine, my father’s snoring vibrating the bed.

I am twenty-nine and I am watching her hands, her signing, and seeing my own.  Her name, signed with a sweep from a handshape “L” to a curved “C” down the shoulder to the wrist (my name, the same “C”)— “now I know your mother, you sign just like her.”  And my punctum—sting, speck, prick—the kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward ‘the rest’ of nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. Barthes again.

Her hands—her hands and my hands, let me see your hands she tells me.  She too sees herself on my body; we are both always looking at the blurrr of her hands.

And looking, I return always to a short story by Julio Cortázar, “Axototl” from Blow-Up and Other Stories about a boy who spends hours at the aquarium watching the axolotls; he is transfixed, haunted, obsessed, and keeps returning to watch these fish, no not fish.  The boy consults a dictionary and discovers that they are the larval stage of a kind of Mexican salamander.  I find the boy and his axolotls among my books, and discover highlighted in purple:


I was, I am, struck by this passage.  These atavistic creatures capture, compress space and being.  Identity breaks down—I, we, they are no longer discrete.  What side are you on?  Mother, Father Deaf.

non-negotiable photos

When I was eleven our family bought a deluxe conversion Dodge Caravan complete with metallic bronze customized paint job, rust colored velour captain’s chairs, and a boomerang-shaped television antenna.  I went with my parents to the car dealer on a sticky August afternoon.  “We want a minivan,” my mother signed to me, I voiced to the short man with greasy black hair and uncomfortably freckled arms.  He immediately took us past rows of suburb-like cutouts of vans and led us to the Las Vegas model of minivans—all the deluxe features and without a deluxe price.  A special deal.  I signed this eagerly—I wanted my parents to understand as I did—we were lucky to see this car.  It’s a familiar scene: father adjusting the seats and falling in love with cruise control;  mother insisting it was more than they budgeted; the dealer crawling in the back and hollering out through the nifty sliding third door all of the fantastic features.

Inside the car.  Tell them the back seat can be removed for more room.  Tell them there’s an acoustical equalizer for the stereo.  Tell them there’s air conditioning.  Tell them there’s a threeyearthirtythousandmilewarranty.  Tell them we do financing right here in the lot.  Tell them.

Outside the car.  Is this the best price?  Does he have anything less expensive?  Does it come with a warranty?  Do you have special discounts?  Are you telling us everything?

“Yes, they like all the extras.”  No—best price.

We left the dealer and got back into our happy orange VW van.  My bare legs stuck to the vinyl seats and I cried.  My mother was upset: “What’s wrong?  Did you want that car?”.

The salesman knew my parents didn’t care about the equalizer or the TV monitor in the back seat; but he didn’t know they understood.  “How nice of you to help your mother go to the store and do the groceries” while my mother writes a check, looking at the cash register screen for the correct amount. I am the mute one. “What did the lady say?” my mother asks; “nothing,” is my silent reply.  Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Yes, my mother has a college degree. Table 7 shows that the proportion of persons 18 years of age and over with under 12 years of education increases monotonically as the level of their hearing ability decreases.  A bachelor of library sciences.  No, she does not work in a library.  They were afraid of what would happen if she answered the phone.  They were afraid of hearing a deaf woman speak.  We moved several times when the rent for one reason or another had to go up; even being six you become familiar with friendly discomfort.  Interpreting for my mother when she caught my landlord in a contradictory lie—the distrust on both sides boomeranged off my nine-year old body.

In that parking lot, the traffic of misunderstanding and mistrust, all I wanted to do was to hide my lips, shield my transparent body so that neither side would see they were being betrayed.

talking pictures 

The stage is dark, but the theatre is  vibrating.  “Red hots . . .” lingers in the air.  My dad taps me on the shoulder.  What does the music sound like?

My father is sitting to my left, my husband to my right. It is between scenes at the DEAFWEST performance of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.   I’m thrilled to watch the interpreters peering from the balcony above; their voices float above the Deaf actors who take center stage.  Sign language takes center stage. The interpreters are for the hearing. The dividing line of the stage is several feet ahead of us.  Blanche Dubois begins signing to Stella on the stage.  But unlike the other Deaf actors, Blanche speaks with her own voice; the interpreters above are silent.  Her signs are stiff, they struggle to keep up with her vocal cadence.  I nod as I watch, transfixed: everything has been reversed.

I quickly sign to my father: She is speaking. She’s hearing! Then I lean over and whisper to my husband:  her signing.  It’s not Deaf.  She’s hearing.

I am signing Deaf.  I am whispering Hearing.

Cara Cardinale gives sound to her narrative with her mother’s voice–“sounding out” against audist notions of sound that keep Deaf voices silent and perpetuate the idea that deafness is interchangeable with muteness. She would like to thank her mother for sharing her beautiful voice, which to a CODA is a distinctive and comforting sound but often carries a stigma outside the home. Cara uses her own signing body here, not as interpreter, but as primary narration of this intimate photograph.

From his jacket pocket, my father pulls out his hearing aid still marked with red dormitory tape from his years at the residential state school for the Deaf; the opaque embossed letters have slowly curled back on themselves. He adjusts the petrified, squealing earmold then smiles at me.

 photo emulsion

Her hands are strapped to the hospital bed.  More violent than the search for willing veins to take the sedatives, is the silencing.  I cover my mouth to keep from gagging.  In the darkness, I watch the television screen as it shows the tour of my mother’s internal body: my face looking back at me against the glass.

The doctor freezes the image and points out the polyps clinging to the intestinal walls.  But I see gestation, birth—I am looking from the inside out:

If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.  When we experience this passage . . . intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (218).

It was my body in her body and I found myself looking for the lost baby from years ago; perhaps it was there, inside of her body, my body.

The intimacy, the motion still in the blurrr of the photograph. I am fascinated with a delightful dread, horror.  Her name in captions, my name.  Her body, my body.  That picture says everything about my body. Everything about sitting between my father and my husband: lines drawn between us in the newly reupholstered seats, steel blue like everything new, between the actors and the audience, close enough to see the eyeliner drawn in for emphasis, between the Deaf actors on the stage and the hearing interpreters peering over them on the balcony.

I am transfixed. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass.  Then my face drew back and I understood.

Florescent lights saturate the room.  I lean forward;  take a breath; faint.

center of vision

Sometime within the last six months, my father’s left eye has had an aneurysm.  This led to a detached retina and a burst blood vessel.  The blood has been slowly moving towards the center of vision. During the day, my father sees shadows.  And my mother has been hearing things.  Last week she was startled by a high pitched noise; moments later the light in the kitchen flashed indicating that the phone was ringing. Lines are bleeding.  The darkness is terrifying for my father in the same way that sound has become disorienting for my mother.  And lately I’ve been on the verge of vertigo.  It seems as if it were the moving forwards and looking backwards at the same time that’s been disorienting me.

I go with my father to see a retinal specialist.  Once in the examining room, I am in the dark again.  I am signing in the dark, but my father cannot hold my hand.  He is across the room, peering at me with one eye, seeing my signs with the shadow of the pinlight.  It must be dark, they explain, his eye needs time to dilate, to open so we can see inside.  He will be injected with a kind of serum so that the shadow can be seen.

While we  wait for the dizzy eye to dilate, I describe my vertigo to my father.  He notes with interest and nods, yes, mother took me to doctors in Washington D.C.  He looks at me.  Your age.  Even the emergency room.  Nothing wrong.  Gone—he signs with a shrug.  Maybe gone—he points at me—soon.

The doctor returns and looks into my father’s eye.  The serum has worked, and the image is transparent.

I see his eye, enlarged, disembodied, projected on the screen behind him.  It is beautiful and dark, a moonscape clouded over by an eclipse.  Everything is transparent, and I think of the axolotls.

C.L. Cardinale has a PhD in English Literature from University of California, Riverside.  Currently she is editing her manuscript on what she calls “look-listening”—deafened gestures—in twentieth century narratives.  She also publicly reads Proust, edits for Lettered Press, and sings with her one and six year old in California’s east bay.


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