1909 Yakama Songs: Louis Mann as recorded by Edward S. Curtis


1909 Yakama Songs: Louis Mann as recorded by Edward S. Curtis

You can still hear Louis Mann sing from 110 years ago. He recorded these songs with Edward S. Curtis. Hundreds of wax cylinders from numerous tribes are still around.

These songs are available because of Indiana University’s preservation work. Due to the delicate nature of wax cylinder recordings, there is work to preserve these records at the university’s Archives of Traditional Music. Some recordings did not withstand the elements and time. Louis Mann’s voice survived to share with this generation.   

We will cover:

  • The reaction of a grandson about his grandfather singing
  • Support to digitize the songs and preserve them from a fragile state
  • Ongoing questions regarding sharing songs
  • Passing my history class, I get a flashback

Who was Edward S. Curtis?

According to the Seattle Art Museum, “These songs were recorded by Edward S. Curtis in the early years of the 20th century; they were shared with him by individuals who were the owners or caretakers of the songs.”

“They have very recently been remastered by Indiana University,” said  Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American Art at the Seattle Art Museum who partnered with the university for some of the digitized songs.

The Yakama Nation Museum currently has an Edward Curtis exhibit that includes numerous tribal members photos. It does not yet include Louis Mann. Even though he recorded his voice, he did not take his photo.

Curtis has some controversy about his work. He methods included removing clocks, a modern item for that time, from photos. The term vanishing was used in his work to Natives. The Beyond the Frame website states, “Edward S. Curtis began a decades long journey to photograph Native people he mistakenly thought were on the edge of extinction.”

Some of this has impacts on how we teach and learn the history of Natives. I took a trip to my old school and had a flashback about my history class.  

To the people with relatives he recorded, his work still has value.

Who was Louis Mann?

Louis Mann was a Yakama tribal member and Treaty Rights Interpreter, this includes fish and water rights. His work is still referenced by scholars and his words are in collections throughout the United States. This was discussed with his three grandchildren in Historic Examples of Treaty Rights Interpreter Louis Mann.

A Grandfather’s Voice Returns

Yakima Cleansing Song & Klickitat Medicine Song by Louis Mann were recorded May 30, 1909, on Yakima Indian Reservation, Washington. Upon hearing these recordings, Louis Mann’s grandson, Alvin Schuster is able to play by clicking a link.

“I was riding around with my son last night and we talked about the songs, I told him I heard that song before many times,” said Alvin Schuster. “This is the first time I heard them recorded or in my grandpa’s voice.”

This means the songs have been passed down in the oral tradition. There are other family members of Louis Mann alive.

“It’s rare for a historian or scholar to be able to get insight from the grandchildren of someone Edward Curtis worked with 110 years ago,” said Jon Shellenberger, Yakama Nation Archeologist.


Recording and Technology Advancements

“That gives us a lot of satisfaction to know descendants hear these songs,” said Alan Burdette, Director of Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University.    

“Many of the recordings we don’t know who the singer is, it’s remarkable we know it’s Louis Mann.”

In discussing the musical transcription, for our traditional songs, I shared this will be the first time many tribal members have seen our songs with notes.  “They were selective with what they would transcribe because it is a time-consuming practice,” said Burdette.

“He did write about the songs in his published journals, however, the descriptions vary.”

Sometimes, there is more information available in unpublished notes. “Unfortunately, we were told the notes he stored somewhere else were lost.”

The historic recordings that are not damaged from elements prior to them being at the University of Indiana are digitized. “The format commonly known today as the “wax cylinder” was originally launched by Thomas Edison in 1888 as the first commercially viable format suitable for recording and reproducing both speech and music. It consists of a hollow tube with the audio signal encoded around its exterior as a groove of varying depth,” states the Indiana University website.

“It’s a fragile format susceptible to heat and prone to damage such as mold and fungus.”

“National Endowment for the Humanities provided a grant for us to digitally preserve all 276 Edward Curtis collection of wax cylinders,” said Alan Burdette.

Sharing Songs

Many have not been able to travel to hear the recordings. This represents a new opportunity. One that also has ongoing discussions.

For those of us that know Yakama elders, they are strict about a good number of things. Therefore, some are uncertain about how this will be received. I spoke to several Yakama elders and their initial response is usually one word, “Oh.” It is one wrapped careful thought of having such a historic recording and fear for how it might be used. There is also hope and a heartwarming connection to the past.

In this timeframe, we had completed a Supreme Court fishing case U.S. v. Winans. We were trying to explain the Treaty of 1855 boundary included the mountain. Water rights had ongoing discussions. In 1909, there were still forcibly taking Yakama children away to boarding schools that were designed to strip them of Yakama culture and language. During this era, it might be easy to believe that future generations might need a record and some guidance. When Curtis came along saying “you’re going to vanish, put this on record.” Yakamas likely responded, “We need to share for those not yet born.”

 Louis Mann as recorded by Edward S. Curtis

Louis Mann as recorded by Edward S. Curtis

Some have not been taught these songs as a result of assimilation tactics by the United States government. These policies continue to negatively impact many Native people. Sometimes, this trauma catches you off guard.

My trip to Middle School

I recently went back to my middle school to present about Yakama culture and history. I walked by the classroom of my history class. No matter how much I learned, when I went home, my family would talk to me about our Yakama and other native histories. I was frustrated. “Why didn’t the teacher or books have this history?” Other Natives were in the class including my cousin. He put his head down most of the time feigning boredom during the history lessons that erased Yakama history. I looked over at him willing myself not to care about my grade. Some days were silently painful.

This is part of the pain of continuing the narrative “vanished” Edward S. Curtis used. When I hear Native people drop out in 8th grade, I wonder if they were confronted with lesson plans about Natives that only talked about us in the past tense.

I wanted to escape those lessons that erased us. I never told my cousin of my observations. If he reads this, he’ll probably laugh and tease me about my good grades in history. When he does, I’ll tell him, it was only possible because some days I pretended to be him. Head down resisting the removal of our people from history. When the teacher yelled at him, he would write notes, his head still down on the desk. Refusing to get up to even sharpen his pencil, he wrote pressing hard on the paper so that you could not even see the lead anymore. When I walked by that class recently, I got a flashback. I remember that moment like it was yesterday because on those days, that’s how big I felt. That tiny pencil stub. Painfully forced to record a history that was not accurate.

Today will be different in class. The teacher wrote an Ichiskiin greeting on the board, “Shiyāx Māytski.” A welcome that is much appreciated on so many levels. “I’m glad you shared this earlier, I was able to write it,” said the teacher. I taught students in four classes how to speak our language. I said, “I was once a student here and did not hear a Yakama present history while I was in school.” I looked at them recording the Yakama history I was sharing. I have so much hope for our youth.   

Where can I hear the songs?

We have a record of songs of one of our Yakamas tribal members for the current generation to hear, in a time they may need it most.

Please use respect and caution with these songs as they are considered sacred to Yakama people.

Want to learn more?

Edward Curtis and the people he recorded have exhibits and requests:

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