Navajo Nation Library To Digitize 1960s Oral History Archive

The Navajo Nation Library (NNL) is working to secure the funding necessary to digitize and catalog thousands of hours of stories, songs, and oral histories of the Navajo people, originally recorded in the 1960s by the Navajo Culture Center of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity (ONEO).
Sample tape from NLL oral history collection Photo credit: Irving Nelson

Sample tape from NNL oral history collection
Photo credit: Irving Nelson

The Navajo Nation Library (NNL) is working to secure the funding necessary to digitize and catalog thousands of hours of stories, songs, and oral histories of the Navajo people, originally recorded in the 1960s by the Navajo Culture Center of the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity (ONEO). The tapes hold personal accounts by Navajos of their daily lives in the rural towns of the Navajo Nation, as well as songs, legends, stories, and religious music, including a recording of the sacred nine-night ceremony. The collection of 300 reel-to-reel tapes was acquired by the NNL in the late 1970s, after they were discovered in storage in an unused Fort Defiance, AZ, jail cell. Although the tapes were assessed in 2007 and found to be still viable, they are extremely fragile. The digitization process needs to happen as soon as possible, says NNL program supervisor Irving Nelson, as it is only a matter of time until they deteriorate to the point where they can’t be transferred to another medium.


The federally-funded ONEO, established in 1965, contributed to a number of initiatives and anti-poverty programs within the Navajo Nation, including small business development, legal aid, resources for migrant and agricultural workers, and the Navajo Culture Center. The oral history project was one of the Culture Center’s initiatives, although, Nelson told LJ, the original plan behind it has been lost and the elders interviewed are most likely all dead. The five filing cabinets of tapes were also thought to be lost for years, but were eventually recovered from storage in that empty jail cell. After some deliberation the ONEO board of directors gave the collection to NLL in 1978 or 1979, according to Nelson. In the early 1980s NNL received federal funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity to transfer the fragile recordings onto cassette tapes, but the money ran out before the project was finished. The incomplete collection of cassette tapes was stored at the Shiprock, NM, Campus of Diné College, a tribally-controlled community college, until a 1998 fire destroyed the building where they were held. (Diné is the Navajo word for the Navajo language and people.) Fortunately, NLL had kept the originals.


The reel-to-reel tapes are currently sealed in a fireproof safe at NNL, protected from direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, and dust, until they can be converted and cataloged. Because they are now too fragile to listen to, their exact content is unknown, but according to the subject headings accompanying the tapes it includes history, folklore, religion, mythology, linguistics, genealogy, rituals, legends, and other subjects. Nelson has only listened to a tiny portion of one tape, and has not had the chance to look through the working documents stored with them, but hopes to investigate them early this year. "I see [the tapes] as very valuable in terms of preservation of our language,” Nelson told LJ. “I view it as a Navajo Nation encyclopedia. And I know the collection contains a wealth of…materials that can be generated to support Navajo history, Navajo language, Navajo culture." Hearing the language spoken in context will be of critical importance for linguists, Gwyneira Isaac, director of the Smithsonian Institute’s Recovering Voices program, told Arizona PBS affiliate Cronkite News. “Scholars will also get an opportunity to study history from a Navajo perspective,” she said, adding, “It’s unusual, you don’t always have this rich record…it’s very important for this to be part of a healing process if parts of [Navajo] history have been hidden or lost.” “Sometimes there’s a story we’re reading as a class and I can tell it’s an elder speaking based off how the person worded a phrase,” Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, a professor of the Navajo language at Arizona State and Stanford universities, told Cronkite News. “But it’s complicated to pick that up…it can be very subtle…so being able to hear the difference will be nothing but positive.” An additional oral history collection promises to complement the ONEO tapes. Nelson was contacted in summer 2016 by Zonnie Gorman, daughter of the late Carl Gorman, a Navajo artist and one of the original 29 Navajo code talkers during WWII. He had conducted oral history interviews, the tapes of which were still available. "Apparently he was hired as a recorder, and he traveled across the Navajo Nation and recorded from the informants,” explained Nelson, although he is not sure when they were made. Zonnie Gorman offered to donate to the collection to the NLL, he said, and he will have more information about the tapes once NLL has taken possession of them. (NLL also owns two paintings done by Gorman's son, R.C. Gorman, a well-known Navajo artist, donated by a Colorado family last fall.)


The NNL provides library and reference services to residents of the Navajo Nation—an area of about 27,000 square miles—as well as to anyone with an interest in Native Americans. It was founded in 1941 by wives of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees, and was originally housed in a BIA building at Window Rock, AZ. The library eventually moved to a former bowling alley in the basement of a nearby recreation hall; there was a movie theater on the floor above. In the mid-1980s, when the Window Rock Public Library was condemned, NLL absorbed half its collection. Nelson started work in the NNL in 1977, when he was 17, as the bookmobile driver. The library moved to a new facility in Window Rock, with shelf space for 100,000 books, in 1997. “The library was virtually empty when we moved in” with 11,000 volumes, Nelson told LJ. “Now we have over 90,000 books on the shelves, and I cataloged every single [one]." (Nelson does not have an MLS.) Much of the collection was built with the help of the Native American Library and Museum Project (NALMP), a nonprofit organization that provided books and educational materials to tribal libraries and museums until it dissolved in 1997. These were review copies collected from companies like the Washington Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, and Time Life, many of them about Native Americans or associated subjects, and weeded books from libraries in Washington, DC, NALMP’s home base. The process of getting the materials was hands-on. From 1991–97, recalled Nelson, twice a year he and a colleague “used to drive to Washington…in the tribal vehicle, rent the largest U-Haul, and we would fill it up with all the boxes of books that were gathered.” The journey took five working days, he told LJ. “We left Window Rock at six in the morning, we drove 24 hours, and on Tuesday at about 7 or 8 we would arrive at Washington…and we would spend the night on a Tuesday night and we would load all day from about eight to about four or five.” They would then leave the same night, drive 24 hours to Oklahoma City, and spend the night at a hotel there. “And then from there was a ten hour drive back to Window Rock Arizona on a Friday." In 2006, NLL began working with Reader to Reader, Inc., which similarly provides new and gently used books twice a year. While last year the NLL did not have the funds for the trip to Hartford, CT, to pick up materials, funding was restored this year. An NLL staff member—not Nelson, whose health no longer allows for such intense travel—will make the trip in April. "It is time for the young folks to step up and do that task," he told LJ. In addition to its main location in Window Rock, NNL operates a branch library two and a half miles to the north at Kayenta, AZ. However, since federal funding was cut in 1994 it no longer maintains the two bookmobiles that formerly served the 110 chapters of the Navajo Nation across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.


Even though the tapes are kept in a controlled environment, Nelson hopes to transfer them soon. An earlier set of oral history tapes, the Navajo Land Claims collection, were also acquired in the late ‘70s, but these disintegrated before NLL could digitize them. They had been stored in an old mobile home in Window Rock Park, where Parks and Recreation employees stayed. The tapes, kept on an open shelf by a wood stove for several years, “just deteriorated and had to be trashed,” recalled Nelson. “There was no way to save them." The complete transfer and digitization of the collection is projected to cost $230,520 and to take a year to complete. While other funding sources are also being considered, Nelson hopes that the main funding will come from the Navajo Nation Council (NNC), which would allow the library to maintain control over how the tapes are preserved and used. Some of the content, explained Nelson, is culturally sensitive. “I've seen some of the headings for the tapes,” he told LJ. “There's the horse song, sheep song, songs for cattle—these are traditional songs that are sung to maintain the well-being of the livestock. There's a lot of oral history on the Long Walk, which occurred in 1864 until the Navajos were released on June 1, 1868. A lot of the oral histories cover that time period when our people were imprisoned at Fort Sumner." The NNL will consult with Navajo religious authorities about what restrictions need to be placed on the recordings that are religious or ceremonial in nature, and will collaborate with educators to develop Navajo history, culture, and language curricula to accompany them. Nelson has selected digitization company Airshow Mastering in Boulder, CO, to transfer the fragile material. Among the factors in the decision, Airshow uses the services of Anthony Crank, a Navajo sound engineer. Crank has worked on many Navajo-language digitization projects, including archival material for Diné College’s 25th anniversary and the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, NM, as well as books and CDs for teaching the language, in which Crank is fluent. Although he hasn’t discussed the provision of transcriptions or metadata with NLL, Crank told LJ, he is ready to do as part of the digitization service. He has attended library board meetings at Window Rock, he said, and is as eager as NLL to get the project moving. “These tapes’… expiration is just about due,” he noted, adding, "The ONEO tapes are some of the best tapes out there. When they did recordings, they did it pretty [well]." "The NNC has been very, very supportive of our library,” Nelson noted. But, he added, “We need their additional assistance in the form of the funds to digitize this collection." The NNC will begin its budget process in July with several hearings, and will deliberate for a week around Labor Day; Nelson urges supporters to write or call the Office of the NNC Speaker delegates asking them to sponsor the project. Not only do the tapes’ fragile nature and cultural importance call for them to be digitized soon, but Nelson, who has been with NLL for 40 years, is hoping to see the job finished before he leaves. “I'll be eligible for early retirement when I'm 62,” he told LJ, “and I hope this digitization happens before I retire."
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Hello, Thank you for this very interesting article. Can individuals contribute toward this project too? If so, where and to whom would we send the check? Thanks. Francene

Posted : Feb 02, 2017 11:27

Lisa Peet

Hello Francene, and thank you for your interest in the project! I think the best thing to do would be to contact Irving Nelson at the Navajo Nation Library directly and ask him how you can help.

Posted : Feb 02, 2017 11:27



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