Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Voices of History: Frances Densmore’s Century-Old Recordings

Submitted by Ann Jenks on

Every day I work with records a hundred years old and older, and I don’t think much of it. But once in a while, the vast changes that transformed daily life since those days amaze me.

The Archives maintains the early SHSND Curator’s correspondence – he was the lone staff person in the old Capitol building collecting historical artifacts and documents and responding to requests for information. The letters in this collection tell the story of a very small organization, eager to document the history of North Dakota while the history makers were still alive.  Among those letters are some from ethnologist Frances Densmore, who collected wax cylinder recordings of various American Indian songs that have been at the State Historical Society since they were made around 1912-1915. They have been widely used by anthropologists, linguists, and by the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras to study the languages, music, and social organizations of the times.

0270-128 Charles Hall helps put up tent

In the summer of 1911, Orin G. Libby, secretary of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, met Frances Densmore in Fort Yates, where she had been employed by the US Bureau of Ethnology to record songs of the Lakota on the Standing Rock Reservation. Libby proposed that she come to the Fort Berthold Reservation the following summer and take down the songs of the Mandans. Letters between Densmore, Libby and Curator H. C. Fish detailed the arrangements for this project. Densmore agreed to work for $150 per month plus living expenses, but she asked for a female companion to share her tent and cook her meals, for, as she said, “I fear that I cannot do my best work and still feel that I must get dinner afterward.”

0270-129 Tent set up with cooking equipment

Densmore also took photographs throughout this process. She mentions bringing materials for developing photographic plates, and asked for ten dozen Columbia blanks for the phonograph - the ordinary twenty cent size.  She also mentions getting a gentle horse from Standing Rock.

0270-0125 Beginning to unload phonograph box seen in wagon

Densmore wrote, “The translations inserted in the text have been a matter of careful work by Rev. C. L. Hall (Gros Ventre), James Holding Eagle (Mandan), and Alfred Bear followed by Rev. C. L. Hall (Ree).”

At Fort Berthold in 1912, Densmore produced 48 pages of manuscript, 41 transcriptions of songs, 15 photographs, 141 phonographic records of songs, 28 recordings in Mandan and six recordings in English.

Densmore Wax Cylinders in State Archives

In the summer of 1913, Densmore continued work at Standing Rock and came back to Fort Berthold in 1915 to record songs of the Hidatsas and Arikaras.

I don’t know that many of us would have the physical and mental stamina to live and work in a tent for eight weeks in a sometimes very hot North Dakota summer, but I am very grateful that Frances Densmore and others affiliated with the State Historical Society did.

1952-1610-1 Indians singing for Miss Densmore at the site of the last Sun Dance south of Fort Yates

You can find a lot more information on Frances Densmore (like here, or by searching Chronicling America on the Library of Congress website), but here is a personal note through the eyes of one of her contemporaries:

Frank Fiske Diary July-August 1912 - August 21st—Monday

“Saturday was a busy day. Put in 3 or 4 hours reading Frances Densmore’s book on Chippeway Music. It was very instructive. She is a very capable woman, for she has done this: Secured a phonographic record of about 500 songs, and after verifying these records by repeated recording she has transcribed them, setting them down in readable music notation with the words in Indian. Accompanying each song is an analysis, describing the key or keys and the idiosyncrasies of the peculiar time and its relation to the drums, which is played with nearly all Indian songs.”

A Little Audio (and Visual) History

Not long ago, I listened to a woman describe how she ended up with a school bell in her yard from Sanish, a town that vanished beneath the waters of the Garrison Dam in the 1950s. I listened as a woman described how she and her twin, born prematurely in the 1920s, flourished because of a doctor who put them in a cigar box in the stove to incubate. One man described what it was like to see Earth from space. Another man, in the National Guard, described the feeling of dead weight he would always remember from carrying a fallen comrade in Afghanistan, while yet another man told me about flying helicopters in Vietnam.

Although we do not have one position here designated for doing so, as time allows, I conduct and collect oral histories to be stored in the archives. It’s truly a privilege. These stories, all from people connected to North Dakota in one way or another, are often very personal histories. They are sharing these stories—some good, some bad—with a stranger, and with future generations. At first when I meet with them, they are hesitant, often nervous, and often unsure of what to expect. By the end, we are friends, even family.

This photo, of the Nitschke family in front of a sod house in the Jud area, was donated as part of one of our major oral history collections from the 1970s. This image accompanied the oral interview from Mrs. Sibyl Hall, of Edgeley. (SHSND 0032-LM-15-63)

Everybody’s history, whether they played a big or a small role, has somehow affected someone, some place, some thing around them. We do have interviews with politicians, singers, actors, and writers, among others. However, the bulk of our oral history collections consist of the voices of settlers who built up this state, and the veterans who fought for it. This covers a great expanse o f time and very many formats. We have wax cylinders and records alongside cassettes, videos, reel-to-reels, CDs and DVDs. Some of these interviews were conducted by people like me, who worked for or through the State Historical Society, and some were by people who thought it would be interesting, were doing research for a project or paper, or who were relatives. Basically, anyone can conduct an interview…so here are a few things to keep in mind, if you decide to do one of your own!

It’s not about you. Your interviewee is the focus of your recording, and should be the primary speaker. Give them time to collect their thoughts and encourage them to speak freely and openly. Help them to orient themselves in their memories, but do your best not to color their memories with your own experiences.

While you can’t control all elements of an interview, you can take precautions. You want to find a quiet place so you don’t pick up the background noises. On the flip side, make sure you’re both still comfortable.

Interviews take some time. You may need to come back, or try again. It’s okay. You don’t want to exhaust yourself or your interviewee, or you won’t be able to collect the data you are hoping for. Plan on some visiting before and after (to set the interviewee at ease, and perhaps explain things).

You will want to consider the type of equipment you will use. Remember that two microphones are better than one. If you only have one, place that one nearer to the interviewee. You want to actually be able to hear them.

Another major collection we maintain consists of a variety of formats for different veterans: audio, video, photos, scrapbooks, manuscripts, and biographies. This image is of LeRoy “Nick” Nichols (far left), out of Dickinson; we have 8 mm film and multiple images from his time in the Air Force during WWII. (SHSND 10873-0176-12)

You can’t prepare for everything, but you want to try. What do you want to know? You can prep as many questions as you’d like, and may still go off track, but will have a base to return to. How will the interview be used? After it’s complete, where will it go? Do you want to donate it to a historical society? You may need to have the interviewee sign permission or release forms.

Have fun!
Overall, have fun! Interviews are a great way to connect to people, and you are saving their memory for the future. Don’t stress the little stuff; do your best, and the rest will fall into place.

I conducted a quick, unplanned interview with one of our longtime volunteers, Lillian Wilson, who is a war bride from England. She allowed me to tape and post part of our brief conversation. Since it was specifically for this, it is edited slightly for this format and posting, although that is not something I do with my interviews. You can see the equipment I like to use—a standalone mic (which is multidirectional, by the way), and a digital audio recorder. Note that I still place the mic in front of her! Listen to the interview!