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Old cassette tapes spur preservation questions

June 23rd, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Hundreds upon hundreds of old cassette tapes holding some of the Northwest Arctic's most precious oral histories are getting closer and closer to falling apart.

Stories in the voices of Willie Hensley, John Schaeffer, Bobby Curtis, and dozens of Elders from the villages dotting the region are hanging on by a thread as they age day by day.

"There are oral traditions, stories about hunger or starvation, hunting and gathering practices, animal migration," said Aqqaluk Trust's Iñupiaq Digital Technician Hans B. Nelson. "They're all stories from the first of our Elders that actually were able to pass on this history in this way."

One set of tapes, in particular, documents the meetings of the Spirit Program, or the movement to develop and agree upon the Iñupiat Ilitqusiat—the Iñupiat values.

Cassette tapes are a form of magnetic media that are over time susceptible to what is called sticky shed syndrome.

"That means, when the tape fails, the magnetic media itself sloughs off of the polyester film support, so the image itself is lost, meaning the recording is lost," explained Randy Silverman, head of preservation at the University of Utah's Marriott Library in Salt Lake City. "They go from perfectly workable to completely failed in one fell swoop and you won't know that's going to happen until you actually play it back and then all of a sudden, it's failing as you're playing it. It's a vulnerable medium."

Silverman has come to Kotzebue as part of a grant awarded to Aqqaluk Trust, which is a language, culture, and educational scholarship arm of NANA Regional Corp.

Nelson applied for the grant on behalf of the trust with the help of local consultant Annabelle Alvite. Earlier this year, they were awarded $6,000 for a preservation assessment.

"What that means is taking all the oral history stuff, tapes and documents, and trying to assess their lifespan, the importance of their preservation, and the preservation options that are available to us," said Nelson.

That's where Silverman comes in. He's going to be working on the ground in town, examining the tapes and trying to build a basis for a follow-up grant that would bring a cassette preservation expert in to save the tapes' data.

"They are one-of-a-kind tapes. They are in the Iñupiaq language and they're of deep cultural significance because of their role in preserving the history of the region," said Silverman. "They have limited lifespan. You know that [tapes] can last for 25 or 30 years without much problem and after that we don't know exactly how long they will last. These tapes are well over that age. We are concerned if these tapes aren't duplicated to alternative media soon the information could be lost. So, I'm here to try and assess what the current condition is for a further grant proposal."

There are about 700 cassette tapes in total, recorded all across the NANA region throughout the early 1960s and 1970s. Many of the tapes are in Iñupiatun spoken by fluent first-language speakers, which could be a priceless resource for contemporary language learners.

"I think the hardship for us, as primarily English speakers, is we will never be able to understand their contents until we can get them to a medium where they're available for people to start transcribing and translating and digging into what's there," said Nelson.

In order to get it into the hands of the people, it needs to come off the cassettes.

Preservation methods like the ones that may be employed in saving the tapes are crucial to keeping alive the history of the region, the state, and the country, Silverman said.

That's why, as a component of his trip to Kotzebue, he'll be holding a workshop for community members who want to learn more about preserving their own cultural history at home.

"About 80 percent of the cultural property in America is in private hands, so taking care of people's personal property is also taking care of the national treasures that we own," said Silverman.

The event will begin with a lecture and slideshow. Silverman plans to talk about easy preservation methods for objects like books, papers, photographs, clothing, animal skins, and more.

"When we're looking at long-term preservation we try to control temperature: cold is usually better than hot. We try to control relative humidity: dry is usually better than wet. We look at the vulnerability of the media itself," he said.

He's inviting people to bring with them to the lecture any objects from their own homes they'd like to learn more about preserving. Anything goes, he said.

"People are invested in the solutions and what I try to offer are reasonable things people can do in the home to minimize the speed at which things are breaking down," said Silverman. "When people bring their own materials, booties, photographs from their grandparents, a christening gown, these kinds of objects have a story and have a meaning. It gets very real for people when we're talking about something that is a family heirloom and it's the only object we have from someone."

The importance of preserving family heirlooms is something Silverman has seen first hand, through its opposite: loss.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Silverman traveled to the Gulf Coast to help with the recovery and salvaging of cultural objects from disaster areas in Mississippi.

"What I found, universally, among people who had experienced tremendous loss, is the one thing they regretted was the loss of the family photographs. Being cut off from those photographs prevented them from ever again being able to share those with the next generations. It's far more meaningful than any kind of financial value. It's tremendous in terms of defining who we are," he said. "The same holds for the pair of booties, or the family Bible, or the diary. Those records are of huge importance to the people who own them and almost have no value at all in the open market. The idea of protecting them is very personal."

Now, he'd like to help the people of Kotzebue preserve some of their own family history, and that of their Elders, in as many ways as he can.

The public preservation workshop is scheduled for Thursday, June 22, at 7 p.m. at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue.

More information can be found through the Aqqaluk Trust by calling 442-8142 or emailing

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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