A Special Homecoming

Sitting with researcher Aaron Fox, Inupiat elder Martha Aiken peruses a photo from 1946 and recognizes her husband, Robert, at a young age. Photo: Chie Sakakibara When Iñupiat elder Martha Aiken first laid eyes on the digital rendition of the aged photograph, she squinted her eyes and examined the teenager in the image. From her kitchen table in Barrow, AK., with the assist of a magnifying glass, the proud native woman, then 81 years old, nodded her head in confirmation. “That’s my Robert,” she declared as her eyes welled with tears.

"Her Robert," Robert Aiken, circa 1944. Photo: The Boulton Collection

The Robert under the looking glass was the man who became her husband. Preserved in a photograph taken in 1946, his youthful smile and good looks mesmerized their observer, and Aiken momentarily lost herself in remembrance.

That was 2008, several months after researchers Dr. Aaron Fox (Music, Columbia University) and Dr. Chie Sakakibara (postdoctoral research fellow, The Earth Institute, Columbia University) first traveled to Barrow, Alaska, to conduct fieldwork for their NSF-supported project: “Community-Partnered Repatriation of Iñupiat Music.” They arrived bearing roughly 130 photographs and about 120 recorded songs collected more than six decades ago by Laura Boulton, an American ethnomusicologist.

nupiaq elder Fannie Akpik and Inupiaq educator Jana Hacharek reading through Laura Boulton's account (Music Hunter) on Barrow, Alaska. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

They sought entry into the lives of the tribal elders. Wanting to respectfully return the music and the images to their original owners, the two academics (Fox is an anthropologist of music and Sakakibara is a geographer) often found themselves in the kitchens and sitting rooms of the likes of Aiken, painstakingly reviewing each image, provoking memories, and collecting a rich and deep oral history.

An alternate copy of the photo reproduced in Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday).  Pictured, from left to right, are Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak. Photo: Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044, 1955)

“Many of the elders we interview were young when the recordings were made and have knowledge of these art and verbal traditions,” said Fox. “When they hear the recordings of their ancestors or see the pictures, it stimulates their memory in a really powerful way.”

Fox and Sakakibara have delved into the controversial world of repatriation with the goal of creating a new model that promotes collaboration between institutional archives and Native communities. By working closely with members of the Iñupiat community to describe, interpret, translate, and identify the historical features of Boulton’s material, they aim to gain insights into the geographical, historical and ethnomusicological problems and questions that extend beyond the materials. By treating the archives as a basis for building relationships and developing dialogues with members of the native communities, they hope to develop a ubiquitous model to assist in other repatriation projects.

“Photographs, like music recordings, are duplicable, so the underlying object is replicable and the repatriation is straightforward,” said Fox. “But it’s important the rights to the archives be restored to the community, and that we help the tribe develop consensus of how to maintain jurisdiction.”

The disbursement of heritage resources can be political and contentious, but reaching agreement with the Iñupiat has been “remarkably successful,” Fox said. To that end, the material has already begun working its way into the school curriculums and local cultural events. Fox and Sakakibara have presented the recordings to numerous schoolchildren and are working with teachers to develop future uses for these materials in the classroom.

Visiting Ipaalook Elementary School in Barrow to talk to pupils about Laura Boulton and historical recordings. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

And a group of young people formed a traditional dance group to learn and perform the songs on the recordings.  This group, called Taġiuġmiut dancers, which means “People of the Sea,” includes Riley Sikvayugak and Vernon Elavgak, two descendants of Joseph Sikvayugak, one of the primary performers on Boulton’s recordings. So far the group has had success, including winning first place at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

Dancers re-enacting the 1946 songs at Nalukataq (Whale Feast), June 2008. Photo: Chie Sakakibara)

“There is no cookbook or single prescription for how to do this kind of thing [repatriation],” Fox said. “You can set goals, but the important thing is to treat this as a relationship not a transaction. It’s a restoration of cultural resources rather than just a return of something.”

The archived music recordings date back to Boulton’s visit in 1946, during which her assistant John Klebe also shot photographs. However, some of the images are clearly not from the season she visited (October, 1946), and Fox said he believes it is likely those photographs were taken by Marvin Peter, a local, respected Iñupiaq photographer of the period.

“We presume he would have given them to Boulton, as that would be a very Iñupiat thing to do,” said Fox.  “We don’t know this for sure. We do know he was among the people she and John Klebe photographed while they were there.”

Fox and Sakakibara will return to Barrow at Thanksgiving to continue their field work, which has NSF funding for two additional years. They also hope to hand over the publication rights to the Iñupiat recordings to the tribe within the next year.