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.