Mon, October 31, 2016

Preservation of Valuable Aleut Recordings

By Karen Brewster (excerpted from the original story titled “Hidden Gems” on NEDCC’s website by Julie Martin with help from Jane Pipik and Frank Cunningham)

The Oral History Program at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently collaborated with the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts to preserve threatened glass recordings of Aleut voices.

Founded in 1973, NEDCC is the first independent conservation laboratory in the United States to specialize exclusively in the conservation and preservation of paper- and film-based collections. NEDCC’s Imaging Services department provides high-quality digital imaging and specializes in rare, historic, and oversize materials, as well as X-Ray Film scanning and reformatting for black and white and color negative films and color transparencies. 

In 2013, the Alaska and Polar Regions Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) received a large collection of the works and papers of anthropologist Dorothy Jean Ray (1919-2007), who was The contents of the glass-base lacquer disc were identified only by the handwritten label. Photo courtesy of Oral History Unit, known for her ethnographic studies of native Alaskan peoples.  The collection was comprised of Ms. Ray’s manuscripts, papers, and correspondence, and there was no further information provided about the four audio discs.

Robyn Russell, Collections Manager of the Library’s Oral History Program says: “I opened the archival box, and inside there were four 78 rpm glass-base records in faded paper record jackets. The only information we had was the hand-written labels. For example, “Aleut (ATTU) #7  12/4/1945 ‘Song sung by father to child upon return after long absence.’”

Robyn explains, “With audio collections, you can’t look in the table of contents – you can’t thumb through them like a book to find out what it contains. You have to have playback. We knew that these recordings were unique and we could see that they were extremely fragile.  We didn’t dare put a stylus to them.  They were essentially hidden gems.”

Before they could move forward, they had to try to try to identify the possible contents and significance, to learn what it would cost to preserve the recordings, then to research grant funding. “We were worried about keeping them too long,” UAF Assistant Professor and Oral History Program Curator Leslie McCartney says. “Discs of this time period are deteriorating rapidly, and the glass base makes them even more vulnerable.”

In the end, the University was able to fund the project without getting a grant, so saving precious time. The discs were sent to NEDCC to be transferred using the IRENEsystem, a new technology developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and tested at the Library of Congress. The IRENE system takes ultra-high resolution photographs of the grooves on discs or cylinders and then software translates the images into sound, all without touching the object’s fragile grooves.

glass-discs-in-folderAfter receiving detailed instructions from NEDCC’s Registrar Jonathan Goodrich on packing and shipping the fragile glass-base objects, Leslie McCartney and Robyn Russell sent them off to NEDCC in Massachusetts in April 2016. Soon, Manager of Audio Services Jane Pipik and Lead Audio Engineer Frank Cunningham began the IRENE imaging process.

The discs were in surprisingly good condition, except for one side of one of the discs on which the lacquer was beginning to separate from the glass substrate, a common problem with this type of disc. Upon examination, the intact discs looked as if they had been played rarely, if at all. “With IRENE you can actually see the damage caused by stylus playback by traditional equipment,”

“The guiding principle for this project was intelligibility,” explains Frank Cunningham, “since it was possible that these recordings were an example of a dying language.”  Several of the recordings were of folksongs. “We didn’t understand the language,” says Frank, “but the emotion of the songs came through. They were beautiful, haunting folk songs, and the label titles gave us an inkling of what the songs might be about, such as ‘Mourning Song for Deceased Lover.’”For the Aleut recordings project, the delaminating side of Disc 2 “Conversation Concerning Basket Making, Part 1,” presented a unique problem. Not only were delaminating pieces shedding from the glass substrate, but those still bonded to it were shrinking and cracking away from each other. Photo courtesy Oral History Unit UAF.

As the NEDCC Audio Preservation staff worked with the files from these recordings, they received an urgent message from Leslie McCartney at the University of Alaska. She had just learned that by an amazing coincidence, the 2016 Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang) was to be held in Fairbanks in June and July – just a few weeks away. (The CoLang Institute is held only every other year in different parts of the country.) An additional surprise came when they learned that one of the three-week practicum workshops was going to be about Unangam Tunuu (the language spoken in the Aleutian Islands) and led by Dr. Anna Berge, Professor of Linguistics at UAF, and Mr. Moses Dirks, a native speaker of Unangam Tunuu of the Atka dialect.  Leslie McCartney saw this as an ideal opportunity to obtain a basic translation of the recordings. The NEDCC IRENE staff prioritized the completion of the work on the files and sent the preliminary wav files off to Fairbanks.

The Story Unfolds

On July 13 and 14, 2016, “Mr. Moses,” as he is known, came to the Oral History department at the University to listen to the recordings. Leslie McCartney went into the listening booth with Mr. Moses and Dr. Berge and played back the audio files that NEDCC had sent, which feature a man and a woman singing or talking, and sometimes playing the guitar. As soon as he began listening, Mr. Moses thought he recognized the voices as Parascovia and Mike Lokanin, husband and wife and former residents of Attu, the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain. When they listened to the Mourning Song, the speakers actually identified themselves in the recording.  He noted that the couple was speaking in the dialect of Attu, which is similar but different than the Atka dialect, but he understood it well enough to provide a translation.

After conducting research in the weeks that followed, and with Mr. Moses’  knowledge, Leslie McCartney and Robyn Russell were able to piece together the story of the couple on the recordings:

  • Mike and Parascovia Lokanin and their six-month old baby Tatiana were among 45 residents of Attu who were captured during WWII by Japanese forces on June 7, 1942 on the island of Attu. They were sent to the Otaru War Prison Camp on Hokkaido Island, Japan for the remainder of the war.

    Parascovia Lokanin and her daughter Tatiana on arrival at the Japanese internment camp in 1942. From the book, "Attu Boy" by Nick Golodoff. © Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association

    Parascovia Lokanin and her daughter, Tatiana, on arrival at the prison camp, 1942. © Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association

  • Of the 45 Attu people taken prisoner, only 25 survived and were released after the war. Both the Lokanin’s daughter Tatiana and another child, Gabriel, born in the camp in 1944, died while in captivity.
  • The passenger manifest for the freed prisoners’ journey to San Francisco shows that the surviving Attu residents all noted “Attu” as their final destination. But they were never to live in their home on Attu again, since the village was destroyed during the war, and there remained the danger of unexploded ordinance from the battles there. The Attu people were sent to the Aleutian island of Atka instead. The United States later created a Navy base and a Coast Guard base on Attu, and the island remains uninhabited today.
  • During the fall of 1945, the returning Attu prisoners were kept at different relocation camps on the U.S. west coast on their journey north to the Aleutians. They were based in Seattle for a very short time in December, where anthropology professor Verne Ray (Dorothy Ray’s future husband) happened to hear about them and arranged for them to come to the University of Washington to make a recording in their native language.  The four unique, glass-base lacquer discs are the result of that session.
  • The different islands in the Aleutian chain each speak their own particular dialect of the Unangam Tunuu language, so the fact that the residents were never allowed to live on Attu again contributes to the scarcity of knowledge about this dialect and the fact that it is no longer spoken by anyone today.
  • Mike Lokanin died in 1961 and Parascovia died in 1994. They had six more children after the war.

The Story Continues to Unfold

The project will continue as more research is conducted about the lives and dialect of the Attu people. The recordings can be now be fully transcribed and the music studied. The manual tracking of the final image created by IRENE of the delaminated disc can be completed and the resulting audio and

Leslie McCartney and Robyn Russell of the UAF Oral History Program with the Aleut Recording Collection. Photo courtesy of UAF Oral History Program.

Leslie McCartney and Robyn Russell of the UAF Oral History Program with the Aleut Recording Collection. Photo courtesy of UAF Oral History Program.

transcription added to the resources. Leslie and Robyn have already located one of the sons of Parascovia and Mike Lokanin, and Leslie will be delivering copies of the recordings to them the next time she is in the city where they reside. (The family had no idea that the recordings existed!)  She also hopes to interview the son to learn more about Parascovia and Mike’s life after they returned from Japan.

Leslie McCartney comments, “I can’t thank NEDCC enough for this work to help us preserve these very precious historical recordings.  We are thrilled that they have been preserved for future generations.  We will be giving copies to the Alaska Native Language Archive and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association so that linguists and researchers will be able to listen to a dialect that is no longer spoken by anyone.”

Excerpt from Mourning Song for Deceased Lover:
Unangam Tunuu:
Asx̂alakan ayulakan ting as txin ukuux̂txin
Asx̂aakax̂ liidaĝulax asx̂aliidax̂ aan waya
Mas miiyang aqaqalix waliga ting as tin ukuux̂tin
Waĝaaĝan akuqngaan adalulakan hingaya

Don’t die. Don’t fall down.  You and I will look after each other.
Though you look invincible, you will someday die.
When going there, we’ll be together
As I was arriving in a boat, I found out you were true to your word.

For more about the IRENEsystem and preservation of the digital data, go to the original story titled “Hidden Gems” on NEDCC’s website by Julie Martin with help from Jane Pipik and Frank Cunningham.



“Attu Boy, A Young Alaskan’s WWII Memoir,” Nick Golodoff; University of Alaska Press.

“Journal of an Aleutian Year,” Ethel Ross Oliver; University of Washington Press.
(A personal story written by Mike Lokanin is included in the appendix, along with another Attu prisoner of war, Alex Prossoff.)


Meet Moses Dirks, An Introduction to the Unangam Tunuu Language

An Interview woth Nick Golodoff, author of: Attu Boy, A Young Alaskan’s WWII Memoir”

Web Resources:

Oral History Unit, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library
Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Alaska Native Language Center
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association
Anchorage, Alaska


This piece was excerpted from the original story titled “Hidden Gems” on NEDCC’s website by Julie Martin with help from Jane Pipik and Frank Cunningham. Special thanks were given to Leslie McCartney, Oral History Curator, and Robyn Russell, Collection Manager, Oral History Program, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, as well as to Mike Livingston and Millie McKeown at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.