Recording rediscovery brings past to life

Paul Mayne // Western NewsWestern PhD candidate (Anthropology) Bimadoshka Pucan is guest curator of Voices of Chief’s Point at Museum London. The exhibit showcases the Anishinaabeg songs, stories and prayers Robert and Eliza Thompson, residents of the Saugeen First Nation, shared with Dr. Edwin Seaborn in 1938. The recordings were made on wax cylinders and aluminum discs. Voices of Chief’s Point runs through Sept. 16.

Bimadoshka Pucan feels she was chosen to find the long-forgotten voices silenced in the basement of Museum London.

“It came at a time when I was questioning my identity as a Saugeen person, my personal growth and how I looked at the world,” said Pucan, a Saugeen First Nation Member and Anthropology PhD candidate. “I find myself now really proud of my community. This is really powerful stuff.”

Today, the voices contained on the handful of recordings she has unearthed are contributing to the ongoing cultural revival of the Saugeen First Nation – and to our wider understanding of how this country came to be.

In 1938, Dr. Edwin Seaborn, MD 1895, a founder of University Hospital who wrote about medicines of various cultures, conducted interviews with Robert and Eliza Thompson, residents of the Saugeen First Nation who shared Anishinaabeg songs and stories with Seaborn.

Presented in Anishinaabemowin and English, the oral history was recorded onto eight wax cylinders and seven aluminum discs. After passing through family and personal collections, those recordings were donated to the museum in 1975.

And there they remained in storage – and unheard – for more than three decades.

During a reading course in First Nations Studies, under Susan Hill and Rick Fehr, Pucan was pointed to Seaborn’s book, The March of a Great Man: Dr. Edwin Seaborn (1872-1951), which discusses the development of medicine in southern Ontario. In one chapter, he spoke about Indian medicine and the fact he made recordings with this gentleman from Sauble River.

“My professor said, ‘There are recordings out there somewhere. You should look for them.’ But, I thought, ‘What do I do?’”

As a single mom of three wrapping up her degree, she put the search for the cylinders aside. When she began her masters (Public Health), she was contacted by Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Vivian McAlister who came across the story when researching information on the first hospital in Ontario.

“He said, ‘C’mon, don’t you want to know what’s on them?’”

Seaborn lives on in Western Archives and Research Collections Centre, the London Public Library and Museum London. Pucan, then Western undergraduate student, came across the recordings in 2011. She knew her search was worth it when, for the first time in decades, the voices of the Thompsons and Seaborn were heard.

“I just screamed, ‘I can hear you!’ I was crying. Even as terrible as they sounded, being 80-year-old recordings, it was so exciting to hear them speak,” Pucan said. “That was super exciting. Then it was, ‘What do I do now? What’s next?’”

This rediscovery provided the starting point for Voices of Chief’s Point, a Museum London exhibition. Guest curated by Pucan, the exhibit features the recently digitized recordings. It runs through Sept. 16.

Anishinaabe culture is passed down from generation to generation using songs and stories. Residential schools and the 1876 Indian Act created a void in this intergenerational communication. The resulting loss of culture has had multiple negative consequences on Anishinaabeg individuals and communities, added Pucan.

She recognized the importance of retrieving the information from these cylinders and discs to fill these gaps. The stories, songs and prayers housed on them now contribute to the cultural revival of the Saugeen First Nation.

“There was a story about the death of Tecumseh and, as I was reading along, a couple sentences in, matched exactly to a story my grandmother would always tell me as a little girl,” she said. “When I heard that, the hairs just stood up.”

With music including the Canoe Song, the Chippewa Religious Song, the Medicine to Smoke in a Pipe Song and the Chippewa Love Song, among many more recordings, Pucan knew the next step was to find out what the recording meant and why these particular songs and stories were recorded.

She took her findings back to her community at Saugeen First Nation and made sure every elder received a copy of the recordings. Through a number of workshops, it was a great opportunity for Pucan to learn more and bring a bit of her history back to where it belongs.

“I really didn’t know this was going to be an exhibit, but it was listening to Robert Thompson’s stories, and his important messages for us that are relevant today,” Pucan said. “He said he wants elders and young people to work together with these songs, to relearn the language and that we’re going to be desperate for this knowledge today. He says amazing things.”

In fact, she added, Thompson actually spoke, on the recordings, of a young woman going to come looking for these recordings and not know what to do with them.

“I’m not young, but I’m young in my mind because I’m still learning and this new stuff,” Pucan laughed. “It was really bizarre. Thompson said it’s important to share this information and that he wants people to know. Part of the responsibility of being a good Anishanabee is to pass your knowledge on. So I knew I had to share it with more people.”

Pucan added it was Thompson’s refusal to register under the Indian Act that played a huge role in the existence of the recordings.

“I am grateful for that because, at that time, it was illegal for Indians to sing and dance, to pray, you couldn’t even wear Indian clothing, couldn’t speak the language, kids were being sent to residential schools,” she said. “By him refusing the Indian Act, that allowed him to sing these songs, to make these recordings. Had he registered, and been the ‘good little Indian,’ we would not have these today.”

With the help of the Museum of Ontario Archeology, Pucan hopes to produce 3D renderings of the cylinders and take them on the road. She will bring it to the Saugeen community first, followed by other First Nations communities.

“Every time I listen to them, and as my knowledge of the language grows, I learn more every time,” she said. “You don’t get much the first time, but the more you listen the clearer it becomes. I’m so proud of this. It’s giving us a whole new voice.”