British Columbia·Audio

B.C. museum hopes this rare Indigenous music will gain international recognition

The Royal B.C. Museum is seeking UNESCO designation for its collection of over 300 sacred Indigenous songs recorded from 1940 to 1975. It says the songs tell an important reconciliation story.

'They’re so important for language revitalization and culture revitalization,' museum archivist says

The Royal B.C. Museum is seeking UNESCO recognition for its collection.

The Royal B.C. Museum is hoping an impressive collection of music will get international recognition.

The museum is seeking UNESCO designation for its collection of more than 300 sacred Indigenous songs from B.C., recorded between 1940 and 1975 by Austrian-born musicologist Ida Halpern.

"We really believe this collection of records ... is such a robust illustration of the culture, but also, it is so important to those communities," archivist Genevieve Weber told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"People often request access to those records from those communities, because they want to relearn the songs and use them in modern day ceremonies.

"They're so important for language revitalization and culture revitalization and we really feel that should be recognized."

Listen to Kwakwaka'wakw Chief Mungo Martin sing the "mink song:"

Precious songs

The decision to share — or not share — many of the songs has required care from the museum over the years.

Many of them are sacred or protected in some way and can't be respectfully shared with the broader public.

"We're very cautious about the songs we make accessible," Weber said. "We won't share them until we've contacted someone from the community."

She says the museum's mission now is to contact people from the songs' origin communities to get more information about them: the meaning and cultural relevance of them, for example.

A key aspect of that work, she said, is building relationships and sharing the songs with the communities first.

Halpern's story

Ida Halpern was a Viennese woman who, in the late 1930s, fled the looming war in Europe, and came to Vancouver.

She earned a music PhD, became an ethnomusicologist and taught music appreciation courses at the University of British Columbia.

She was interested in "music of the folk" and became enamoured with Indigenous music in B.C., which she considered the equal to the music of European composers.

"She reached out to elders and chiefs but initially they were reluctant to share their songs with her because many of them are considered very private or scared," Weber said, adding many of the songs are associated with ceremonies or contain information about names, ownership and rights.

But in 1947, she convinced a chief of the Cape Mudge community, on Quadra Island, to share about 100 songs with her.

Once that happened, Weber said, other Indigenous leaders were willing to share songs as well.

Listen to Kwakwaka'wakw Chief Mungo Martin sing a "thank you song:"

Unpleasant past

But Weber says these records and their collection also are part of an unpleasant aspect of B.C.'s past.

She says many of the chiefs and elders only did so because government policies like the Potlatch ban and residential schools put the very existence of their culture in jeopardy. They wanted to make sure someone would preserve it.

Weber says she hopes a greater prominence for these records will allow Canadians to have more meaningful conversations about these policies and the importance of reconciliation.

Listen to the full interview:

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast