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UW Ethnomusicology Archives: Repatriating

The UW Eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy Archives has been col­lecting and curating unique ethnographic music recordings, films, and video since 1962.

On Repatriating

Ethnomusicology has long fought to amplify the musics, sounds, and cultures of marginalized and minoritized peoples. It has often done this from within academies that privilege a white, male, art music canon. At the same time, ethnomusicology and its archives have been complicit in colonialism and acts of misappropriation. After all, both the field and the archives were forged during the colonial period. As ethnomusicologist Tony Seeger writes,

Ethnomusicology, and archives themselves, are inextricably part of the colonial period. The establishment of sound archives was part of an epoch that saw the consolidation of the mercantile and political expansion of Europe and the United States throughout the world. Although the motives may have been different in each case, there is no doubt that the material wealth, musical instruments, and recorded sounds of much of the world were accumulated in the Occident. Similarly, the music of the rural poor is preserved by, and largely accessible to, middle-class urban populations” (Seeger, Anthony. "The Role of Sound Archives in Ethnomusicology Today." Ethnomusicology 30, no. 2 (1986): 261-76). 

The UW Ethnomusicology Archives actively attempts to redress this legacy. It is committed to digitally and, if needed, physically returning collections UW holds to Tribes, families, and communities of origin. Returning and repatriation have thankfully been cornerstones of the Archives since its founding by Robert Garfias in 1962. This core value continued to thrive under the subsequent stewardship of Laurel Sercombe and continues today with current archivist John Vallier. That said, we realize that simple returning neither absolves the field from this problematic tradition of extraction nor assuages harm that may have resulted from past unethical collecting practices. Sociologist Robin Gray, who is Ts’msyen from Lax Kw’alaams, B.C. and Mikisew Cree from Fort Chipewyan, A.B., writes,

"The politics of Indigenous repatriation—whether it involves human remains, objects, or songs—requires that it be restorative so that the source community can find a sense of resolution from historical injustices…. " (Gray, Robin R.R. 2018. “Repatriation and Decolonization: Thoughts on Ownership, Access and Control.” The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation. Oxford University Press). 

Indeed, we agree that return is but one part of a truly restorative repatriation project and acknowledge that such projects require us to center community voices and work collaboratively with the people who represent a community, Tribe, or family. At the same time, we recognize that "collaboration" itself can be a fraught term. As Beverly Diamond and Janice Esther Tulk note in their work on the ethics of repatriation,

“While community collaboration is assumed to be positive, our ... experience indicates that there are many kinds of collaboration, and issues are neither simple, straightforward, nor inevitably benign" (Beverly Diamond and Janice Esther Tulk. 2018. “Rethinking Repatriation and Curation in Newfoundland: Archives, Angst, and Opportunity.” The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation. Oxford University Press).

In our minds, true collaboration requires listening and understanding, flexibility, patience, and a willingness to recalibrate expectations. For our collections at UW, it may require ditching institutional claims to copyright in support of ownership claims made by the Tribes, communities, and individuals represented in the collections, as well as a willingness to rethink long established protocols for collection access. These conversations are by no means easy or straightforward, and the resulting decisions may not be wholly satisfactory to all parties concerned. However, these kinds of reparative collaborations are vital for the ethical stewardship of the Archives moving forward. 

Please see below for a small sampling of our returning efforts in the Archives. We share it to both highlight this work and underscore how much more we have left to do. On that note, if you support these kinds of reciprocally spirited initiatives, please let us know. We will pass on your thoughts on to administrators in the hopes of both raising awareness and budgets for such projects. 


Melville Jacobs Collections

The Ethnomusicology Archives and Special Collections co-led a CLIR-funded Recorded at Risk grant to digitize and preserve wax cylinder and instantaneous disc recordings from UW Libraries' Melville Jacobs Collection. Jacobs (1902-1971) is known for documenting Native American languages and musics in the Pacific Northwest. His collection of fragile recordings comprise the only extant documentation of specific linguistic, musical, and folkloric practices. Copies of these recordings have so far been digital returned to members of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Tulalip Tribes, Puyallup Tribe, Coquille Indian Tribe, The Duwamish, among others. You can read more about the Jacobs Collection here, as well as see its geographic coverage here. Thank you to Nicholas Bergh of Endpoint Audio Labs who provided expert digitization and restoration services for this project. 

Return to The Hopi

The Ethnomusicology Archives initiated the physical return of both a 16mm film and VHS copy to the Hopi Nation. Both items were held in another part of UW Libraries but identified by the ethnomusicology archivist as portraying a Hopi dance and ceremony that should not be viewed by outsiders. The Hopi's Tribal Historical Preservation Officer confirmed this and requested the film and video be sent to them. The archivist followed through, deaccessioning the items from UW Libraries and sending to them to the Hopi. New Yorker columnist Author E. Tammy Kim notes this return and places it within a larger context of digital reparation in her article, "The Passamaquoddy Reclaim Their Culture Through Digital Repatriation" (2019).  

Garfias and Sakata

At the initiative of UW Ethnomusicology founder Professor Robert Garfias, digitized copies of his unique and extensive Korean films were set to the National Gugak Center (국립국악원), South Korea's primary institution of learning for Korean traditional music (gugak). Contents cover both court and folk music, including Chon P'e Hi-Mun (Royal Ancestor's Music), a solo on the P'youn Kyong (Stone Chimes), and Yo Min Rak (Chamber Music). To watch them online, go here and search for "Garfias." Professor Garfias has also returned copies of his other recordings and films to individuals and institutions in the Philippines, Romania, Mexico, and beyond. Professor Emerita Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, a onetime student of Garfias and faculty member at UW and UCLA, has also worked with the Archives to digitally return the recordings she made of musicians performing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. 

Native Northwest Online

From 2022-2025, the Archives is leading UW's participation in a 3-year, $334,000 Mellon and CLIR funded collaborative curation project. Called "Native Northwest Online," the project is directed by Kimberly Christen, WSU Professor and Director of the Digital Technology and Culture Program. It  extends 5 years of work between institutions (American Philosophical Society, National Museum of the American Indian, University of Washington, Washington State University) and nine partner Tribes: Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Spokane Tribe of Indians, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, and The Yakama Nation. During this time, in-depth research and culturally responsive digital tools (e.g., Mukurtu, TK Labels) and workflows will reconnect Native communities with collections at non-Native repositories. Click here to learn more.



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