UTM professor advocates transferring ownership rights of Indigenous song recordings back to Indigenous peoples

Inaccuracies in Ts’msyen song descriptions resulted from lack of Indigenous consultation, says Dr. Robin Gray at Indigenous Education Week event

UTM professor advocates transferring ownership rights of Indigenous song recordings back to Indigenous peoples
Dr. Robin Gray, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UTM, argued at an Indigenous Education Week event that the full rights to ownership of song recordings of the Ts’msyen Indigenous people — many of which are legally owned by Columbia University as part of its Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional and Liturgical Music — should be transferred to the Ts’msyen Indigenous people.

The talk was titled “Access & Control of Indigenous Cultural Heritage: When the ‘Object’ of Repatriation is Song,” held in the First Nations House (FNH) on October 23. The event was part of Indigenous Education Week, an endeavour by FNH to celebrate Indigenous contributions and Indigenous presence on campus.

During her talk, Gray explained how ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton recorded songs of the Ts’msyen people — an Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest — in 1942, and then sold the recordings to Columbia University in 1962.

At the time she sold them, Boulton created metadata for each recording — descriptive information about each recording. But, as Gray found in 2012, Boulton’s metadata was inaccurate.

“Columbia University provided me with the metadata for the collection,” said Gray, “which created an expectation that the recordings would be in order and that the Ts’msyen collection would be complete. But after researching and listening to every file — about a thousand of them in the Laura Boulton Collection — I discovered that Columbia only had an audio file for half of the Ts’msyen content.”

Columbia University not only underestimated the number of Ts’msyen songs in existence, but was also unaware of mistakes in Boulton’s written descriptions of the individual Ts’msyen recordings, according to Gray.

Dr. Aaron Fox, the Director of Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology, clarified that Columbia did not make any claims that the collection included all traditional songs of the Ts’msyen overall, “only a complete version of Boulton’s very amateur recordings of them.”

Fox also said that he worked closely with Gray on the issue of finding the missing audio.

According to Gray, nine of the Ts’msyen songs were attributed by Boulton to a Ts’msyen man named William Pierce. Boulton described Pierce as, “Eagle by birth, but Blackfish by adoption,” and claimed he “sang clan songs for her.”

But Gray said that Boulton’s lack of precision about Pierce’s heritage made it impossible for Boulton to verify whether his songs were Eagle or Blackfish, or if they were even “clan songs” at all.

Gray also criticized the titles of Boulton’s recordings as being “overly simplistic,” providing examples of Boulton categorizing songs as “Indian Songs” and “Folk Songs.”

Speculating on the reasons for the imprecision, Gray said that Boulton may have forgotten details as she “created the metadata for the recordings 20 years after the time of capture,” and that Boulton’s results were “typical of overly simplistic labels for classification given by someone who did not really understand the content, or the significance of it.”

Gray said that the inaccuracies resulted from a lack of consultation with the Ts’msyen people.

“As is typical in the early years of capturing, preserving, and representing Indigenous cultural heritage, Ts’msyen were not informed or consulted in any of these transfers and transactions. In all instances, Ts’msyen and oral histories were given new meanings and values ex situ — divorced from the appropriate sociocultural contexts, without consultation from the community.”

“In the Ts’msyen worldview,” wrote Gray in a 2018 peer-reviewed publication, “ownership is more synonymous with responsibility than it is with possession.”

But in the “Western property view,” said Gray in her presentation, “Ts’msyen never owned the copyright to the knowledge product, the tangible recording. Laura Boulton, the researcher, claimed ownership of it, then sold it and bequeathed it, and now multiple institutions control the means of access to our songs.”

Such access to Ts’msyen songs without proper context can encourage erroneous beliefs about Ts’msyen culture.

To provide proper context for Ts’msyen songs, they “must be put into the appropriate cultural context,” said Gray. Such a context would accurately answer questions such as, “Who composed the song? What’s the composer’s lineage? Why did they compose the song? Where does the song belong? Who has the rights to sing the song, and in what context?”

On the issue of the missing and incorrect metadata for the Ts’msyen song recordings, Fox said that such knowledge gaps are not unusual when collecting recordings of songs of Indigenous people.

“Such problems are endemic to such collections [as the Center’s collections of Navajo and Hopi recordings] and do point to a larger issue of colonialist mentality in the archiving of Indigenous recordings for sure,” said Fox.

Explaining how Gray helped Columbia complete the Boulton collection, Fox said, “What happened with the audio for the Boulton Ts’msyen recordings is that some of it wound up at the Indiana University archive of traditional music unlabelled.”

Fox and Gray “were able to determine that those unlabelled tapes were some of the missing audio.”

“So the pieces have been recovered — but that was a serendipitous thing had [Gray] not begun her inquiry when she did, and had not several clues aligned to point to looking at Indiana for missing audio.”

Gray concluded her talk by outlining her position on who should retain ownership of Ts’msyen song recordings, saying that institutions with ownership of “Indigenous cultural material” must “be prepared to give up control of Indigenous cultural heritage if that is what the source community wishes.”

This ownership would allow the Ts’msyen people to ensure that any listeners of the songs would experience them in their proper cultural context.

Update (November 8, 7:31 pm): This story has been updated to include comment from Fox.

Truth and reconciliation grounds Indigenous Education Week

Wab Kinew visits U of T, supports Indigenous course requirement

Truth and reconciliation grounds Indigenous Education Week

Each year, the First Nations House (FNH) hosts a week-long series of events at the University of Toronto for students, staff, faculty, and the community to highlight the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the academy. The week also serves as an opportunity to learn about the diversity of Indigenous peoples, their cultural and religious practices, and their languages.

Running from February 22 to 26, Indigenous Education Week’s (IEW) provided audiences with the chance to take an honest look at Canada’s history of colonization and to reassess the responsibilities Canadians have to advocate for truth and reconciliation

What is truth and reconciliation?

Arthur Manuel, a First Nations political leader and chairman at the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, gave a presentation at the The 150 Years of Canadian Colonization and Our Right to Self-Determination event during IEW. In his presentation, he explained that colonization in Canada is ongoing and that it is still a major problem in the US, New Zealand, and Australia.

Manuel argued that there needs to be more conversation about what colonization is and its implications for Indigenous peoples, especially regarding the dispossession of land, the creation of a culture of dependence, and the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

Manuel believes that dispossession of land is the root of other related struggles: “A lot of people don’t understand how the dispossession happens, how the dependency happens or even how the oppression happens. But it all happens here in Canada and it starts with the constitution, the first constitution of Canada.”

The British North America Act instituted in 1867 was the piece of legislation in Canada that gave land rights to the British. This left Indigenous peoples with only marginal control over their land and resources.

Currently, Indigenous communities comprise 0.2 per cent of territorial Canada, leaving the bulk of the land and resources in the hands of occupiers to decide how it is managed, preserved, and allocated.

“I think most Canadians have some really distorted pictures of Indigenous communities. They know we are poor but they do not understand how systemic impoverishment really works,” Manuel said. “[They] try and say that our poverty is really because our chiefs are paying themselves too much money… That may be the case in a small minority of cases, but we are basically underfunded and we have no land base to solve the problems dispossession has caused us.”

Manuel believes that the current situation cannot and should not be solved without the support of all Canadians. He explained that establishing and maintaining a collaborative relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada is an important step towards reconciliation. 

“It is essential that both the colonizer and the colonized need to decolonize together,” he told The Varsity. “It will require the genius of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to create the massive amounts of pressure needed to make the fundamental change from assimilation to recognition of Aboriginal rights.”

Wab Kinew at U of T

The Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) collaborated with the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the FNH, the Department Of Aboriginal Studies, and the Department of Anthropology to bring Wabanakwut “Wab” Kinew to speak at the Isabel Bader theatre on February 24.

Kinew is a journalist, hip-hop artist, and associate vice president for Indigenous relations at the University of Winnipeg.

Kinew gave an overview of the history of the ongoing colonial project in Canada. “Persuade me how it’s consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that one group of children in this country gets an unequal shot at life because of where they start,” he challenged the audience.

Wab Kinew signs NSA petition to support mandatory indigenous education. Rusaba Alam/THE VARSITY

Wab Kinew signs NSA petition to support mandatory indigenous education. Rusaba Alam/THE VARSITY

“Convince me that it’s consistent with your ideals of what this country stands for — that one group of kids in this country gets a poor quality education, gets less access to health services, and in cases where there’s family breakdown, gets less access to assistance when they’re at their most vulnerable,” Kinew said.

He also spoke about his own family’s experiences with intergenerational trauma resulting from residential schools. These schools were a state-sanctioned system designed to “kill the Indian in the child” and were sites of widespread abuse and human rights violations. “That was not long ago,” Kinew said during his talk. “That’s within living memory.” The provisions in the 1876 Indian Act that created the framework for residential schools were not removed until late 2014.

“Consider what happens after a person leaves residential school… the overall dynamic of how [my father] was being socialized, of how he began to understand how an adult should relate to a child. His whole conception of what a parent should be, of how an adult should relate to a kid, was formed in an environment where he was raised by people who didn’t like him and in many cases, hated him. And then a few cases, were very abusive to him,” Kinew explained. “These model behaviours and these patterns of dysfunction become transmitted down through the generations.”

After his talk, Kinew took questions from the audience. Many people asked how they could better support Indigenous communities. Kinew said that listening to and respecting Indigenous experiences are among the best things that those wishing to help can do.

Activism on campus

The Native Students’ Association (NSA) has been pushing U of T to institute a mandatory Indigenous course credit for all students. They are circulating a petition that has garnered 1,400 online signatures, and roughly 3,000 on paper. Kinew signed the petition, adding his name to a list of prolific figures that also includes Carolyn Bennett, minister for Indigenous and northern affairs.

Speaking on the behalf of the NSA, Bear Clan leader Roy Strebel hopes that Kinew’s signature will increase support for their initiative. “When you have a high-profile Indigenous person like Wab endorsing what we are doing, it can be humbling,” he said. “It was great that he was able to speak about the need for greater content of Indigenous studies at the University of Toronto.”

According to Strebel, the NSA is still discussing a draft proposal on an Indigenous credit mandate to put forward to the university. “[The] response we have been getting is incredible, and our members are doing a great job at getting signatures,” said Strebel. “I think our members are to be commended for their ongoing commitment to what we have proposed, and the ongoing support is overwhelming.”

What can universities do?

Strebel believes the majority of the population is either “unaware, and/or misinformed about the relationship of First Nations, and the government of Canada.”

“Issues such as residential schools is something that all students should be aware of,” he said, adding that educating people on the effect the Indian Act has had on First Nations since its inception in 1876 is also crucial knowledge. “I think that these two issues should be discussed and considered in the university curriculum.”

The NSA is currently petitioning to have an Indigenous credit component as a part of every degree. “[The] NSA envisions U of T to an implement Indigenous content mandate to incoming undergraduate students to complete an Indigenous degree requirement before graduating from any of the Arts & Sciences department,” said Dhanela Paran, Loon Clan leader & CFO of the NSA.

“This does not mean all students would have to complete one newly designed specific course; rather students would take any existing course from any department, as long as there is Indigenous content in it,” Paran explained, adding that it would be best for the Faculty of Arts & Science to design and select the eligible courses for these requirements.

“[This] means putting the right people in place, and providing proper support and resources to implementing a requirement for the long term effectively,” she said.

“I think all universities should follow Murray Sinclair’s call to action he put in the Truth and Reconciliation Report,” Manuel said.

“I think working with Indigenous students and local Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders would help increase our capacity to build a better Canada.  I think the Indigenous Education Week is a really positive step for U of T to take and that more effort needs to be put in these events so they become recognized across Canada,” he said. 

“I think there’s always room for more conversation,” said Strebel.

Conscious learning

Wab Kinew's lecture event highlights the importance of indigenous education

Conscious learning

This year’s Indigenous Education Week on campus rightly emphasized the need for U of T to play its part in the reconciliation process in Canada. Notably, writer and broadcast journalist Wab Kinew spoke last Wednesday about improving the dynamics of indigenous-settler relations, especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report released last December.

It is unsurprising that, at a university, Kinew focused on the importance of education for social change. Specifically, he advocated for curriculums and pedagogies that are more inclusive of Indigenous worldviews and history. For instance, healthcare professionals should be taught about the specific social determinants of health that affect indigenous people, such as intergenerational trauma from residential schools.

These changes would not only be of practical use — in this case, improving a doctor’s chances of accurate and effective diagnoses and interventions  — but also reaffirm the principles of equality and reconciliation. Though some may argue indigenous studies are not relevant to their field, Kinew suggested that indigenous knowledge and presence is integral for understanding Canadian history. On a larger scale, it is relevant to any person who chooses to live in Canada. The word ‘Toronto,’ for instance, is derived from an Iroquois term meaning ‘where there are trees in water.’

Kinew noted that these educational changes can and should occur through mandating indigenous studies courses at U of T. Both the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University have already adopted this measure. U of T’s Native Students’ Association (NSA) has been circulating a petition calling for a mandatory Indigenous studies credit. In a meaningful gesture, Kinew added his own name to the NSA petition onstage at the end of his talk.

if years from now you are asked what you personally did while injustice took place around you, what will you say?

If, as members of the U of T community, we can agree that a university education should train students to be well informed and actively engaged members of society, then it’s time for more students to support the NSA’s efforts. Education for reconciliation is as much about understanding this country’s present and future realities as it is about acknowledging Canada’s past, as Kinew made clear when he cited examples of structural inequality affecting Indigenous communities today. Among other things, he pointed to the underfunding of schools and child welfare services on reserves, the latter of which the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently found discriminatory.

Certainly, it would be reductive — and dismissive of the powerful work of Indigenous activists in Canada — to suggest that taking a single indigenous studies course would enable all U of T students to understand the complex problems resulting from centuries of colonial governance, which continue to define indigenous-settler relationships today. Still, it can provide an important foundation for raising awareness of our colonial history and consequent responsibilities. As such, education can open up the possibility for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to combat the enduring realities of systemic inequality in Canada.

In turns graceful, devastating, and funny, Kinew’s talk painted an appropriately multifaceted picture of what reconciliation might look like moving forward at U of T. The talk remembered the injustice of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people, past and present and honoured the resilience of the communities that have endured and survived. Above all, it stressed the importance of working together now to build a more positive and more equitable future.

As we await the results of the U of T-wide steering committee on the TRC, let us remember to reflect on what it means for each of us to be Canadian citizens in an era of reconciliation. As Wab Kinew pondered: if years from now you are asked what you personally did while injustice took place around you, what will you say?

Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.