How a Viennese ethnomusicologist preserved Indigenous songs during potlatch ban

In Canada, one of the most important ethnomusicologists who explored Indigenous music was from Vienna. Ida Halpern came to Canada in the 1930s with the goal of collecting the music of First Nations in British Columbia. 
Ethnomusicologist Ida Halpern came to Canada in 1930s to record the songs of First Nation people in BC. (Submitted by Royal BC Museum)

Originally published on March 5, 2020. 

Throughout history, the field of ethnomusicology has brought to light the music of cultures from around the world. In Canada, one of the most important ethnomusicologists who explored Indigenous music was in fact from Vienna, Austria. 

Ida Halpern came to Canada in the 1930s with the goal of collecting the music of First Nations in British Columbia. 

"I was always very interested in folklore and when I came here, it was quite interesting, the immigration officer asked, 'Do you have any plans?' And I said, 'Yes I would like to collect Indian music,' and he just laughed," Ida Halpern told CBC's Otto Lowy in an archival clip from 1967. 

"People didn't take it really seriously and still, you have a culture here — an exciting culture — nobody tapped it, nobody did anything about it." 

Despite her best intentions, Halpern knew that collecting the songs of First Nations would come with its hurdles. 

"It was very hard to get to the Indians, because Indian music for the Indian represents a very sacred part, it is part of their tradition, it is part of their religion, of their ceremonies," said Halpern. 

"Therefore they are not allowing anybody to enter that and to participate." 

Halpern told the CBC that when she first came to Canada she went to an Indian Village near Anderson, BC to collect music, and spent days gaining the trust of an elder, who she was told had a beautiful voice.

"After 10 days of persistence and visiting her, finally she said, 'Today I will sing to you.' At the time we didn't have any tape recorders … so I took paper and pencil and excited, I sat down and listened," said Halpern. 

"She started singing, and what did you think that I hear? Christian hymns. Well of course I couldn't show her my great disappointment, I said, 'Oh no I would your old songs, your old Indian songs. And she said, 'Oh no … these are sacred you know.'" 

Eventually Halpern would meet Kwakwaka'wakw Chief Billy Assu from the We Wai Kai Nation, who at first was hesitant to share his songs with her. 

"At the time the potlatch was forbidden, the government didn't allow [First Nation people] to sing their songs, or to exercise their tribal functions," said Halpern. 

She asked Chief Assu what would happen to his songs when he dies, and he said they would be lost.

"I explained to him what I would like to do, I would like to preserve these songs and to keep the music alive," Halpern told CBC. 

"Finally he saw a reason for it, and he said, you'll come and I'll sing. He invited me to stay with him in Cape Mudge … and he sang for me day and night. He said, 'I'll sing you 100 songs,' and pretty close, he sang 88 for me." 

In the 1980s, Halpern donated her collection of tapes and notes to the BC Archives, which is housed at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.

But Halpern, who had developed deep bonds with the communities she recorded, set very strict rules for how her collection was to be used. 

"From what I can understand from researching her, she was very very aware that she was being invited into another community's sacred space and culture, and invited to witness it," said Genevieve Weber from the Royal BC Museum. 

"In her donor agreement … she made it very clear that the songs are first and foremost for the Indigenous communities from which they came."

"She also states in her donor agreement that [the recordings] should never be allowed to be used for anything that could cause harm to the communities that they are from." 

Since she started working at the museum three years ago, Weber has been working with the descendants of the people Halpern recorded. 

She has connected with the family of Chief Assu, and is working on an agreement with the family for how these songs are preserved and shared with the public. 

"Although the Royal BC Museum is considered the owner of the material, we are working with [the families] to recognize that the songs themselves are sacred," said Weber. 

"And that control should be handed back, into the family." 

The Royal BC Museum has submitted the Halpern collection to the UNESCO Canada Memory of the World Register, which is a collection of artifacts of great importance for Canada.