How an Anishinaabe anthropologist rescued her people’s long-lost stories

Forgotten for decades in a London museum vault, a collection of 1930s recordings of Ojibway stories and songs has returned to Saugeen First Nation
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jun 29, 2018
Amateur historian Edwin Seaborn made audio recordings of Robert Thompson, pictured, on aluminum discs and wax cylinders. (London Free Press Collection, Western Archives, Western University)



SAUGEEN FIRST NATION — In the winter of 2015, Bimadoshka (Annya) Pucan, a member of Saugeen First Nation and currently a PhD student in anthropology at Western University, learned that staff from Museum London had finally succeeded in digitizing a sample of old Ojibway recordings that she had found.

After picking up the recordings, she headed back to campus to listen to them. The sound was faint, but Pucan wept when she heard the voice of Robert Thompson, the late Anishinaabe singer and her distant relative. “And I just screamed, ‘I can hear you!’” she recalls.

Four years had passed since Pucan first got wind of the existence of recordings of songs and stories from Saugeen First Nation — Canada’s earliest known samples of Ojibway stories and songs. Created in the late 1930s by physician Edwin Seaborn, the founder of University Hospital in London, they’d lain undisturbed for decades in wax cylinders and aluminum-plated discs in the museum’s vault.

Museum London invited Pucan to incorporate the original recordings into a new exhibit called "Voices at Chief’s Point," which is intended to foster regional awareness of Anishinaabe culture. And back home in Saugeen, two and a half hours from London, she’s also sharing the digitized versions to help her community reconnect to its past.

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Saugeen First Nation comprises about 1,750 on- and off-reserve members. Fluency in Ojibway, the First Nation’s traditional language, is rare. “We’ve lost a lot of the Anishinaabeg [Ojibway speakers] in our community,” says elder Gayle Mason Stark.

She calls Thompson “our unsung hero” and believes the discovery of the recordings will help rebuild the community’s cultural knowledge base and inspire community members to learn the language. (Ojibway is already experiencing a minor resurgence: Statistics Canada data indicates that while no one at Saugeen First Nation spoke Ojibway regularly at home in 2011, by 2016, 50 residents had listed it as the language they used most often at home — and a further 100 residents indicated that they regularly spoke an Aboriginal language at home.)

The recordings aren’t the earliest examples of Ojibway songs and stories; the Smithsonian has a collection that reaches back into the 19th century. Nor are they the only recordings in Canada of Ojibway songs and stories. But many of Thompson’s works put a local spin on well-known stories; some of them have never been heard before, such as “Canoe Song,” which tells listeners how to get from the Bruce Peninsula to Montreal via the French and Ottawa rivers.

Born on Manitoulin Island in 1876, Thompson was a medicine man, mill worker, and fiddler who openly sang, danced, and wore traditional clothing — something that was risky at the time, since Canada’s Indian Act prohibited Indigenous cultural practices.

Thompson could legally do these things because he never registered under the act. Pucan believes he deliberately avoided registering so that he could continue to perform his cultural practices without interference — even though that meant he was not eligible for government payments.

Seaborn, an amateur historian, had a cottage across the river from Chief’s Point, where Thompson lived, and the two men became friends. In 1938, Seaborn invited Thompson and his wife, Eliza, to London to record and translate songs and stories. The historian was particularly interested in the medicine songs — which Thompson wrote to help him source and combine ingredients, heal, and give thanks — for his research. 

Pucan first heard of the recordings during her undergraduate studies at Western. An instructor had recommended that she read Seaborn’s 1944 book, The March of Medicine in Western Ontario. In it, she found a story about the War of 1812 that sounded eerily similar to one her grandmother used to tell about two Anishinaabe men who fought alongside Tecumseh. “I knew at that moment that this story [was] coming straight from my territory,” she says, “and I needed to know more.”

She learned that Seaborn’s recordings had been housed at Museum London since 1975. But when she and museum staff realized that the cylinders and records were too fragile to play, Pucan turned to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, a U.S. non-profit, to create digital sound files from laser scans of the cylinders’ grooves.

Finally, in March, the digitized recordings were ready for Pucan to take home.

The elders expressed mixed feelings. “I wondered if those songs were meant to be exposed to everyone,” says Vernon Roote, a Saugeen elder and former chief who had supported the project from the beginning and continues to support it. “I wondered if they’re sacred songs” — which, Roote explains, shouldn’t be sung publicly.

Pucan says some of the Thompson songs are indeed sacred, and these won’t be shared beyond the community. “I didn’t want to see a digital file either end up on a digital shelf for the next 80 years,” she says. “I wanted to see this knowledge become a part of the community again.”

“Voices of Chief’s Point” will wrap up in September. Pucan hopes it will then travel to other communities and continue to raise awareness of Anishinaabe culture. She and the Saugeen elders are currently considering how best to make use of the recordings in their own community. They’ve also shared digitized copies with other First Nations in the area.

People in Saugeen regularly confront issues such as poverty and racism, Pucan says: “Having a strong identity and culture and language and ceremonies, that’s what’s going to help people bounce back from those really tough things that happen. And so this project is really about resilience.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of Edwin Seaborn. regrets the error.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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