Wesleyan Recording Accepted Into National Registry

Posted 05/15/08
A Navajo sacred ceremony recording by the late David McAllester, professor of music and anthropology, emeritus, was accepted into the 2007 National Recording Registry.

The recording, titled “Navajo Shootingway Ceremony Field Recordings representing the David McAllester Collection (Recorded by David McAllester 1957-1958),” was one of 25 new additions to the registry, announced May 14. The registry is online at http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/.

“McAllester’s recording is listed among such luminaries as Fiorello LaGuardia, Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and Kitty Wells,” says Alec McLane, music librarian and director of Wesleyan’s World Music Archives. “It may be the only record of a deeply sacred Navajo healing ceremony in the late 1950s.”

The recording, which is housed in the World Music Archives, is of the Navajo’s Shootingway ceremony, one of the most complex in the Navajo ceremonial system. It includes the nine-day ceremonial event, detailed discussions about preparations, procedures, sacred paraphernalia, as well as the reciting of all of the prayers and singing of all of the songs in order.

In addition to the Shootingway recordings, McAllester’s collection includes eight different versions of the lengthy Blessingway ceremony, several other traditional ceremonies, and many examples of contemporary genres in which he was also interested.

McLane had been in touch with the National Recording Preservation Board at the Library of Congress for several months, trying to find a suitable collection among David McAllester’s huge body of recorded material. With the help of Charlotte Frisbie, who collaborated with David on the book Navajo Blessingway singer: the autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881-1967 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1978), it was decided to focus on the Shootingway ceremony.

In 1957-58 McAllester took a sabbatical from Wesleyan and traveled to the Southwest on a Guggenheim grant. Most of his work involved recording Navajo music, including a film of Frank Mitchell’s Blessingway ceremony, a copy of which is held in Wesleyan’s Special Collections & Archives. That led to his meetings with other Navajo singers, including Ray Winnie, whom he recorded in 1957 performing the full Shootingway ceremony.

Winnie’s recording was done primarily as a demonstration, not as an official healing ceremony, so McAllester next decided to seek out an occasion for the real event. This led to his recording in June of 1958 of Diné Tsosi performing a full ceremony for a relative of both Ray Winnie and Frank Mitchell.

“The Shootingway can be performed in a one-night, five-night, or full nine-night version,” Frisbie explains. “Shootingway has numerous branches, can be either male or female, and it can be performed with a wide variety of associated rituals, sandpaintings and the like, all of which are negotiated by the patient, that person’s family, with the singer when that person is hired. The singing is accompanied by an inverted basket drum and drumstick of plaited yucca leaves.”

The World Music Archives holds McAllester’s 23 original tape reels recorded during the Diné Tsosi ceremony, and an additional set of 16 tape reels of the Ray Winnie ceremony. These recordings are available for listening at the archives, located on the third floor of Olin Library.

“We recognize that the performances of these ceremonies were highly personal, directed at the healing of particular people and their families, and that David McAllester was very privileged to be given the opportunity to record them,” McLane says.

By Olivia Drake, Wesleyan Connection editor