Edward S. Curtis collection

Wax cylinder recordings of Native American musical traditions

In 1906, Edward S. Curtis received funding from J.P. Morgan to photograph what remained of traditional Native American life. Over the next thirty years, Curtis captured the precolonial culture of tribes that included leaders such as Geronimo, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Medicine Crow. What resulted was The North American Indian, a twenty-volume masterpiece that the New York Herald hailed as "the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible."

Though renowned for his photographs, Curtis also documented these disappearing traditions through sound, film, and scholarship, believing "... the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost."

Curtis and his crew used wax cylinders to collect more than 10,000 recordings of language, music, and tribal lore and histories of 80-plus tribes, including the Haida people. Prior to European contact, nearly 15,000 Haida lived in Alaska and British Columbia. When Curtis arrived, their population had fallen to 880. Haida is now an endangered language with approximately 20 native speakers remaining.

Of Curtis' wax cylinders, only 276 are known to survive. All are held by the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University.

One of Curtis' wax cylinder recordings

Excerpt of “Skalan Hola (Song Sweet),” a love song performed by Stahmai (John Wesley) on May 20, 1913. Stahmai was a member of the Haida people of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), British Columbia.

Edward S. Curtis

Wax cylinders at IU

IU's Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) holds 7,000 cylinders made from 1893 to 1938. They were recorded in 60 countries and on every continent except Antarctica, with some holding distinction as the first recordings made in certain parts of the world. Two cylinder collections at ATM are also listed on the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Cylinders include recordings by:

  • Frank Boas, the father of American anthropology
  • Edward Sapir, a key figure in the early development of the discipline of linguistics
  • Melville Herskovits, an anthropologist who helped establish African and African-American studies in academia