Photographer Bert Crowfoot pictured with rolls of film in Edmonton Alta, on Saturday January 5, 2019. Crowfoot bought boxes of old audiotape and film for a dollar and has safeguarded them for decades and it’s turning out to be a priceless trove of Indigenous story, culture and language. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Bought for a buck, now priceless: Indigenous Alberta media archive digitized

The old reel-to-reels, VCR cassettes, 16-mm film and floppy discs sat in a warehouse for 36 years

He bought them for a dollar.

Now, “boxes and boxes and boxes” of old audiotape and film that Bert Crowfoot has safeguarded for decades are turning out to be a priceless trove of Indigenous stories, culture and language.

“This is a continuation of our oral traditions,” said Crowfoot, who’s helping direct a project to turn a roomful of old interviews, talk, music and movies from a defunct Indigenous media organization into a searchable digital archive.

In the early 1980s, Crowfoot worked for a group that had for 20 years produced Indigenous programming for a provincial public broadcasting network.

From a studio in west Edmonton, it beamed interviews with Indigenous leaders, stories from elders and talk shows. It also shot abundant video and film.

Recordings of the programs were saved, but only in poorly labelled boxes stacked in a back room.

In 1982, the society went under. To keep the archive together, Crowfoot bought it for a buck.

The old reel-to-reels, VCR cassettes, 16-mm film and floppy discs went into a warehouse. For 36 years, that’s where they sat.

“I always walked by and said, ‘Man, we gotta do something with this stuff,” Crowfoot said.

Enter the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sound Studies.

The institute has long experience in digitizing and organizing sound archives. When a member of the university senate who is also involved with Crowfoot’s Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta heard about that expertise, he put the two together.

“I reached out to Bert and we started building this project,” said institute director Mary Ingraham.

“Digitizing The Ancestors,” as the project is called, is a mammoth task.

Ingraham estimates there are 2,000 reel-to-reel audio tapes and about 1,000 reels of 16-mm film, as well as piles of other defunct and deteriorating analogue media and obsolete computer formats. Just finding the machines to play everything — and people to keep them running — is a challenge.

“When was the last time you used a floppy disc?” asked Crowfoot.

And that’s the easy part.

Once the tape has been digitized, the file’s content, speaker, context, date and keywords all have to be catalogued so that each can be used in a search. Most of that material is in Cree.

Ingraham estimates that every hour of analogue-to-digital is followed by five hours of logging. The results, however, are worth it.

The archive is an invaluable record of voices that have long passed, said Crowfoot. They tell stories both traditional and personal — tales of residential schools, for example.

There’s powwow music and there are country songs. Phone-in shows from remote Indigenous communities. Crowfoot thinks there’s a feature film as well. And it’s priceless evidence of how the Cree language has changed over nearly 60 years.

“People talk about Old Cree and New Cree,” Crowfoot said. “Language evolves.”

Not all the material will be public. Some has to be treated with sensitivity and will be accessible only to members of the community from which it came.

“You can’t put this on Facebook,” said Crowfoot. “It has to be treated with respect.”

Ingraham estimates the entire project will cost about $2 million. About $170,000 has been committed from the university and the federal government — money well spent, she said.

“I care about our voices and, for me, Indigenous voices have been missing. I care that the next generation has an opportunity to hear and understand.”

Other Indigenous media societies with their own archives are now looking at “Digitizing the Ancestors” as a model, said Crowfoot.

“Stories are important, images are important. It’s a way of preserving and reviving our culture.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

County of Wetaskiwin approves lots at Dorchester development

Lots located at Pigeon Lake golf course have strong interest says developer

UPDATE Hwy #2A north of Millet open after head-on collision

UPDATE Two drivers suffer serious, non-life threatening injuries on Hwy #2A

Wetaskiwin Leaders of Tomorrow youth awards kick-off

Nominations now open for Wetaskiwin youth leaders awards

Writer says government’s Bighorn campaign full of dishonesty

Bighorn plan is to destroy land, not protect it

2-for-1: Total lunar eclipse comes with supermoon bonus

On Sunday night, the moon, Earth and sun lined up to create the eclipse, which was visible throughout North and South America

Edmonton Police advise delays expected for Tuesday pro pipeline convoy

A pro-pipeline truck convoy is expected Tuesday morning on the Anthony Henday in Edmonton

Jason Kenney disputes expense allegations while MP

Questions over his residential expense claims from his time as a cabinet minister in Ottawa

Anti-pipeline group wants NEB to consider impact of emissions, climate change

Stand.earth filed NEB motion asking to apply same standard to the project as it did with Energy East pipeline

Teen in confrontation with Native American: I didn’t provoke

Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School said he was trying to defuse the situation

Kamala Harris opens U.S. presidential bid in challenge to Trump

The 54-year old portrayed herself as a fighter for justice, decency and equality in a video distributed by her campaign

Woman offers luxury Alberta home for just $25 and a flair for the written word

Alla Wagner ran into health problems, which forced her to list the 5,000-square-foot estate at market value

46% of Canadians $200 or less away from financial insolvency: poll

45% cent of those surveyed say they will need to go further into debt to pay their living and family expenses

Most Read