Alberta archiving project works to digitize collection of Indigenous recordings

The Aboriginal Multi-Media Society has been working with the University of Alberta to digitize archival recordings for future generations.

Bert Crowfoot to talk about Digitizing the Ancestors project at York University symposium

Bert Crowfoot, CEO of the Aboriginal Multimedia Society of Alberta. (Submitted by Bert Crowfoot)

A room lined with shelves filed with video reels, VHS, negatives and processed photos in Alberta is in the process of being preserved and becoming accessible to future generations. 

Bert Crowfoot has been working to digitize these items that hold knowledge of Indigenous culture, traditions and ceremonies, a process and story he'll be sharing at York University as this year's Chamberlain speaker.

Crowfoot is the founder and CEO of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society (AMMSA), publisher of Windspeaker magazine and he also established Alberta's first Indigenous radio station CFWE-FM.

A couple of years ago Crowfoot was approached by the University of Alberta about digitizing some of the AMMSA archives. 

"I had a vision of them feeding this reel-to-reel into this machine and coming out the other side is just dust because it's so fragile and so brittle," said Crowfoot.

About 130 reel-to-reel tapes, containing recordings in both Cree and English, were successfully digitized as a pilot project.

Preserving a legacy

"I've been working with Elders the past 10 years and a lot of those Elders are starting to say, 'Wait a minute, a lot of us are passing away and we're taking all that knowledge with us,'" said Crowfoot. 

"We need to start preserving that."

Crowfoot said that some people have been apprehensive about recording and preserving particular aspects of their cultures such as ceremony. 

"A lot of that [comes] from residential schools, if we spoke our language or practised our ceremonies we were beaten," he said.

He said the fear of consequence for expressing Indigenous culture has resulted in the degradation and loss of ceremony and language. Now as Elders and knowledge holders begin to age it is critical to begin preserving these before they're lost, said Crowfoot. ​

Sharing knowledge

Once the process of digitizing the archives has been completed, the files will live on a server that is accessible to the digitizing team and the University of Alberta.

"I'd also like it to be set up so that the public has access to certain files," said Crowfoot. 

"If my grandfather was speaking and we had a 30-minute audio tape of it, I would love to be able to hear him speak again."

Contention around ownership and accessibility guidelines still need to be figured out as this process begins.

"I think the end goal is that a lot of this stuff needs to be shared with future generations," said Crowfoot. 

"That's where sharing with schools and being able to do that is important."

Symposium at York U

His presentation on Digitizing the Ancestors is part of a larger symposium happening at York University as part of the Connecting Culture and Childhood Project.

Andrea Emberly is an associate professor at York University. (Submitted by Andrea Emberly)

"[The project is] bringing together folks from a number of different countries, looking at their revitalization and sustainability of physical arts practices in different communities," said Andrea Emberly, an associate professor in the children, childhood and youth program at York University. 

"I think oftentimes non-Indigenous people sort of look at it in this deficit like what's been lost," said Emberly.

"It's still there and these kinds of transformations that happened are really important and still exist even though we might not be seen by the outside community."

The Connecting Culture and Childhood Project symposium is June 16-18 at York University. Crowfoot will be the keynote speaker Saturday at 10 a.m.