By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — For decades, she has fretted over these boxes and worried about their safety. They have been like family members she was entrusted to protect.
The concern is predicated on the contents. Inside these containers are stacks of cassette tapes recorded from 1989-’99 by a local organization called The Idaho Mythweaver. As the interviewer, Jane Fritz felt responsible for their safety and longevity after the fact.
Because they now hold the voices of tribal elders who have since passed, she also feels a growing urgency to archive the interviews before the fragile magnetic tape recordings are no longer usable.
“It’s a huge chunk of tribal history in these boxes,” she said. “All of the elders that we interviewed at the time are pretty much deceased.”
There was a time when Fritz despaired over the fate of these recordings. Recent events, however, have given her hope that the group’s goal of preserving the interviews by transferring them to digital format — including complete written transcriptions of the stories held on them — can be achieved.
Its important work, she stressed, because the contents touch on the heart and spirit of seven different tribes: The Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Shoshone-Bannock, Shoshone-Paiute, Swinomith and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. At a deeper level, the conversations hold a treasure Fritz wants to pass on to future tribal generations.
“The things these elders were talking about are their values — the natural world and the management of natural resources from the Native American point of view,” she said. “They’re sharing how stories of the land taught them how to live and the consequences of not doing so.”
Diane Mallickan, Nez Perce tribal member and Idaho Mythweaver board president, said this project keeps that message alive.
“Chief Joseph once said, ‘The Earth and myself are of one mind,’” she noted. “There are so many voices. If you were going to compare all those voices, put them into a bundle, they are all going to say pretty much the same thing: If we don’t protect Mother Earth and if we don’t protect the things that are part of our body and everything that we are, we aren’t going to be able to survive.”
The turning point for saving this archive came when Idaho Mythweaver launched a campaign called the Native Voices Preservation Project. A pledge drive began on Nov. 1 to raise $5,000 in order to receive matching funds from the Idaho Forest Group. On Dec. 21 — a portentous date, according to Fritz — the money was raised and the match was ensured.
“For it to occur on the Winter Solstice was truly remarkable,” she said. “It’s the Native American New Year and a very powerful time.
“We received support from $5 to $1,000, from individuals and businesses,” she added. “All of those donors are now part of a circle that’s going to make this happen.”
With the match in hand, Idaho Mythweaver has reached roughly the halfway point in its ultimate goal of raising $57,000 to complete the transferral and transcription of hundreds of hours of taped interviews. That work will begin in January — another symbolic turning of the page — and Fritz looks forward to diving into the stories and hearing voices she hasn’t heard, in some cases, since the time the original interviews were conducted.
“Exploring the oral literature on these tapes and going back to these interviews again is going to be like uncovering gold,” she said.
Once the entire catalog has been transferred, the original cassette tapes, digital recordings and transcriptions will be presented to cultural departments of the tribes involved. Fritz hopes that future generations, just as past ones have, will benefit from the stories that were shared.
The original Idaho Mythweaver project resulted in a series of public radio programs and documentaries on the tribes, tying their myths and legends into environmental education. Following that, the organization spearheaded a radio training program for young tribal members, some of whom went on to careers in broadcasting.
“In retrospect, this project had a major impact on how the tribes began to see themselves and their traditions like storytelling,” said Fritz.
With preservation work about to begin, Fritz senses momentum building for a project that, at one time, she feared might never happen.
“I’m overwhelmed and in awe of how people have come forward,” she said. “Hope, faith, trust — it’s all coming together in this. In the past, it felt lonely. Now it feels like an amazing circle of friends.”
On the surface, a plea to help fund the shift from analog tape to digital recordings and transcriptions is, to use Fritz’s own words, “not a sexy sounding project.” But, when people learn what’s at stake in the possible loss of the recordings due to the impermanent nature of the aging tapes, they seem to understand.
“This project has spirit; it has soul,” Fritz said. “We’re documenting the wisdom of Native Americans in Idaho.”
According to The Idaho Mythweaver, tax-deductible donations for 2017 can still be made today by going online to: www.gofundme.com/native-voices-preserve-recordings
Donations can also be made by mail (which would fall into the 2018 tax calendar) at: The Idaho Mythweaver, PO Box 2418, Sandpoint, ID, 83864.