Fifty years ago, a Navajo group recorded oral histories from 450 elders on 1,700 reel-to-reel tapes. Now, the collection is being preserved for future generations.
(Vida Volkert | Gallup Independent | The Associated Press) In this Thursday, June 14, 2018, photo, this tape is part of a special collection of more than 1,700 reel-to-reel magnetic tapes, containing interviews with Navajo elders and medicine people conducted in the 1960s-1970s, that are currently stored in the library inside the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
Gallup, N.M. • About five decades have passed since Etsitty Bedonie talked about the “Beginning of the Enemies.” His account about the enemies of the Navajo, as he heard it from his grandfather, was recorded with a reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder, most likely, at Bedonie’s home in the Crownpoint area around 1969.
The interviewer was Tom Ration, a member of the Navajo Cultural Center — a group of Navajos who in the 1960-70s traveled around all five regions of the Navajo Nation, interviewed about 450 Navajo men and women and preserved their oral history on audiotape.
Based on a translation of Bedonie’s account of the “Beginning of the Enemies,” which was transcribed by Darlene Peterson, Chief Mountain, known as Na-ta-Dzil in the Navajo language, rode on his horse from Huerfano Mountain to a squaw dance at Coyote Canyon to warn the people about the consequences of stealing horses and sheep from the Mexicans.
The people ignored his warnings and continued to dance and sing, so Chief Mountain got on his horse and rode in anger into the ash pile. He told the participants that because of their thievery, “even the bushes and stones around here will all turn into enemies now.”
According to Bedonie’s account, Chief Mountain’s predictions “came true,” and “the reason that various peoples became enemies of the Navajo is because of “Navajo thievery.” The enemies included Apache, Ute, Mexican, Spanish and Puebloans.
This story must have preceded the Long Walk (1863-1964) because in the next page of the transcript, Bedonie talks about a long journey that a group of Navajo took to Fort Sumner. He described the journey and encounters with armed men and said the people were very hungry and did not know how to cook, “so they mixed flour and coffee together and put water into it.” The Mexicans had to teach them how to make tortillas and bake them on a frying pan, and how to make coffee.
Bedonie must have learned the story from his grandfather, who was a medicine man from Huerfano Mountain. He said his grandfather took part on the Long Walk to captivity and at some point during the journey traded beads for a cow, “and this saved the people from starvation.”
Bedonie told other stories about Navajo history and culture, and they were all recorded in the same fashion.
His oral teachings, and those of 450 other elders, are preserved in more than 1,700 tapes currently stored in a special collection room inside the library at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock.
“This whole effort was a way to preserve the culture, the language and the belief system of the Navajo by putting it into reel-to-reel tapes,” said Deswood Tome, whose biological mother, Ruth Morgan Green, was part of the group of interviewers. She eventually became program director. “They went out and recorded more than 1,500 reel-to-reel tapes and spoke to several hundred men and women — they called them informants, but they were medicine people. They recorded chants, ceremonies, the stories, and a lot of that is in Navajo language that is archaic. A modern-day Navajo speaker would probably have difficulty with it.”
Irving Nelson, program supervisor with the Office of Navajo Nation Library, said he knew about the tapes since he started working for the department in the late 1970s but only learned about their importance when years later, in the 1990s, the late Navajo Code Talker Carl Gorman and a group of volunteers starting fundraising to build the Navajo Nation Museum, which was achieved and completed around 1993, and it’s where the library is now.
”[Gorman] had been the director of the Navajo Cultural Center, the group that gathered the oral history in the 1960s,” Nelson said. “He was talking about how important this was; that’s when I found out the complete Nine-Night Ceremony for the Yei Bi Chei was also recorded by the group.”
Nelson, whose father was a Yei Bi Chei dancer in Tuba City, Ariz., then understood the significance of the content in the tapes. He said the tapes were initially stored in an old jail cell in Fort Defiance, Ariz. Because they were in a “musky jail cell,” the plan was to move them to a better location where they could be preserved for future generations. He believes all of the people interviewed for this project have died, and the information preserved is priceless.
Nelson said his office met the board of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity in 1978 and made a request to have the tapes transferred to the Navajo Nation Library, which at the time was in the basement of the former recreation hall in Window Rock.
Eventually, the tapes followed Nelson to his current location. The information on the tapes has been transcribed and is stored in paper files in the same building, and over the years, scholars and authors from all over the country have accessed the files and used the content as reference in books and projects. Nelson said thousands of books have been written about Navajo based on that information.
Several years ago, the library had an agreement with Dine College and “they made copies of the entire tape collection, but they lost the collection, there was a big fire in the Shiprock campus. I understand they lost the entire collection.” This made Nelson more aware about the importance of protecting the tapes.
One way was transferring the data to digital format. In 2015, Nelson and his staff approached the Navajo Nation Board of Education to start looking at ways to secure funding to preserve the tapes for future generations. A couple of years later and several resolutions through the different committees of the Navajo Nation Council, he finally got the approval.
The Navajo Nation Council approved funding in the amount of $190,649 for the preservation of the tapes during the 2018 spring session.
“We got a lot of support for the preservation of the oral history collection,” he said, adding he is very grateful the Navajo Nation Council and President Russell Begaye, who ultimately signed the resolution into law, understood the significance of this project.
“I see this collection as the source for Navajo culture, lives and customs — an encyclopedia,” Nelson said, adding that in one of his presentations he used the tape where a Navajo man named Curley Mustache was interviewed. During the interview, Mustache talked about why he was in agreement with recording his oral history.
“He said he wanted to share his knowledge with further generations long after he was gone, and that was a powerful statement.”
Nelson, who is considering retirement after 41 years, said he didn’t want to leave the job until this was completed.
“This would be awesome for my people, and it won’t be lost. It will always be there … long after I’m gone. If we had waited more years, we would not have been able to transfer the tapes because they are old. So I think we got this project at the right time. I see this collection as a way of strengthening our language,” he said.
Nelson’s office is in the process of selecting a vendor to transfer the data. The project involves three major tasks, he said. “The first part involves copying everything from reel-to-reel, complete with background noises, dogs barking, people laughing or talking, that’s the master copy,” he said.
“The second part is where they clean the audio, they delete all the sounds, like people washing dishes in the background, and if they are talking low, to amplify the audio. The last part is to convert them to MP3,” he added.
Nelson said four companies have already submitted their bids.