Ethically Listening to the Archives
By Tyler J. Stewart, Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship Recipient 2021
Waves softly lapping against the rocks. Swallows swooping over the water. A man’s hearty laugh booming off the pier. The faint hum of a bus across the lake. Robins singing in the distance. A boat slowly trolling across the bay into open waters.
These are the sounds of Lake Minnewanka on a late Wednesday afternoon in June, the day before Alberta’s grand ‘reopening for summer’ after months of Covid-19 restrictions. Few tourists are here now, offering a peaceful atmosphere for listening as I complete my final research with the Whyte Museum as one of this year’s recipients of the Lillian Agnes Jones Research Fellowship.
I am sitting on the shoreline, in the same spot that Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore installed her sculpture Wave Sound during the LandMarks 2017 project, a national art event that both complemented and contrasted the Canada 150 celebrations. Belmore’s sculpture is now gone, but I return to this location to contemplate her artwork’s intention which “encourages us to hear and consider the land and our relationship to the land.”
A train whistle rings out in the distance. I turn my head and the sound curves around my body. In what ways do I hear this sound? As a symbol of Canadian identity? A “soundmark” of colonial expansion? Positioned as a cisgendered white male, I hear this sound in a certain way based upon my own experiences and background.
Sounds are never objective – they are subjectively interpreted by each listener uniquely, whether their ears might be queer, Indigenous, immigrant, Black, settler, or deaf. Sto:lo sound studies scholar Dylan Robinson explores this idea through what he terms “critical listening positionality,” which comprises a continuum that “involves a self-reflexive questioning of how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and cultural background intersect and influence the way we are able to hear sound, music, and the world around us.” This concept of critical listening is something I seek to keep in mind as I delve into the sound recordings within the Whyte Museum’s archives as part of my research project.
When I was awarded this fellowship in November 2020, it seemed as if the Covid-19 global health pandemic was beginning to recede, and that multiple visits for in-person research in Banff would be possible. In reality, the museum was closed to all public visitation from December 2020 to mid-July 2021. Given the high case numbers in Alberta (especially in the Banff area), and recommendations against unnecessary travel, many of my location-based research plans were thwarted by the pandemic. Thankfully, many digital sound recordings were made accessible through email, allowing me to continue researching during these trying times.
My focus during this fellowship has been to better understand the relationship between Catharine and Peter Whyte (the museum’s founders) and the Stoney Nakoda peoples of the area, by listening to past sound recordings made by the Whytes themselves in conversation with many of their Indigenous friends. Did the Whytes use listening as a method to develop ethical relations with their Stonery Nakoda counterparts? What are the ethical implications of these conversations being recorded back then in the 1950s and 1960s, and now stored within the archives?
As I comb through these recordings, I strive to always keep in mind what type of listening I am doing here. It is important to avoid what Dylan Robinson frames as “hungry listening,” a form of settler-colonial perceptual orientation that aurally/orally reflects the extractivist and assimilatory nature of the ongoing structure of settler colonialism. Rather than listening to ‘devour and consume’ Indigenous knowledge from the past, it is important to honour and respect these voices and the communities from which they have originated.
With that in mind, much of my research fellowship was indeed focused on not listening at all. In other words, determining that these sound recordings are not for my ears without first developing a stronger relationship of trust with the Stoney Nakoda peoples. Museums and archives have often been sites that replicate colonial violence – where Indigenous knowledge is ‘captured’ and then disseminated to other settler researchers without the consent or awareness of the communities from which they were recorded in the first place.
In the case of the Whyte Museum, there is a stronger awareness of these issues and protocols are currently being developed to determine who gets to listen to what materials, and for what reasons, before they are accessed by researchers. Robinson describes how listening itself can replicate forms of “settlement,” if the motivation to listen originates from a “Western sense orientation in which we do not feel the need to be responsible to sound as we would another life.” We must recognize that sounds – past, present, and future – must be honoured and respected, rather than just being information to digest.
In discussion with Indigenous Relationships and Programs Manager, Dawn Saunders Dahl, I decided that in order to build trust and respect with the Stoney Nakoda community, the most ethical decision I could make at this point in my archival research would be to actually stop listening to recordings containing the voices of Elders. As the museum’s listening protocols become more developed, I can later seek the proper access to listen to further recordings in the spirit of collaboration and respect – hopefully building this work towards a future exhibition/programming-related project with the Whyte Museum.
All this said, there were still many other recordings to access within the archives, without potentially violating any cultural protocols. Towards the end of the fellowship, I was fortunate to visit Banff in person as Covid-19 restriction began to ease after lowered case numbers and increased vaccination rates. The focus of my research remained the same – to seek a better understanding of the relationship between Peter and Catharine Whyte and the Stoney Nakoda peoples of the area. I was also able to better understand the museum’s origins as the Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa Foundation, a name gifted to the Whytes by Chief Walking Buffalo (also known as George McLean) in the late 1950s. Many archival recordings not available in digital format remotely were made available through one week of in-person visits to the archives, which I was very fortunate and grateful to be able to do.
What I found (and heard) within the sound recordings of the Whyte Museum’s archives validated previous research that I have been developing – that sound itself is a relational process, not simply the production and reception of physical sound waves. While there have been many instances where sound recordings made by anthropologists (and ethnomusicologists, etc.) sought to extract knowledge from Indigenous cultures, what I discovered in listening to these archival recordings was a deep desire to build supportive friendships between the Whytes and the Stoney Nakoda people.
I was also able to visit many “sound-sensitive” areas around Banff during my visit there as part of my research. This was important to me, given Banff’s rich history in presenting or producing sound-related art, such as Rebecca Belmore’s previously mentioned work, Janet Cardiff’s first soundwalk (Forest Walk, 1991 – a copy of which is in the Whyte Museum collection), and works by the esteemed soundscape artist/composer Hildegard Westerkammp.
During my last night in Banff, I cycle to Canmore along the Legacy Trail, seeing only two other cyclists during the whole ride. Multiple piles of bear scat fill the path at the turnoff to Cascade Ponds, and as I weave my way around them, a train screeches along the track towards me heading westbound, steel wheels shrieking loudly across the valley. I pedal steadily along the trail which is sandwiched metres away parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway, making the entire journey comparatively noisy in contrast to the rest of my visit in Banff.
In essence, this highway creates a long sonic scar across the landscape from east to west, asphalt and steel carrying the necessary trains and vehicles to supply our contemporary conveniences. While it’s much easier to see physical pollution within the landscape, this sonic waste is invisible, but it fills my ears as I pedal along.
When I reach the east park gate near Canmore, a lull in traffic hits me with a wave of silence and it is remarkable how this lack of sound can physically be felt within my body. This serves as an important reminder that listening is not just something that happens in the ears, but as world renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie reminds us, “hearing is basically a specialized form of touch [...] even someone who is totally deaf can still hear/feel sounds.”
We are all collectively part of the “soundscape” of Canadian society, which Barry Truax has described as an acoustic continuum where all sounds collectively become intertwined and rely on each other to exist, so that “the health and survival of any one part depends on that of all the others. The continuum is both a human artifact and a human responsibility.” We must not forget the responsibility we have for the impact of our sound-actions upon the landscape, whether it be as listeners, speakers, singers, or researchers. As hard as it is to see our sounds, they are still felt in profound ways, both human and otherwise.
I am extremely grateful to the Whyte Museum for this research fellowship and look forward to continuing this productive relationship for years to come. My deepest thanks must be extended to Elizabeth Kundert-Cameron, Lindsay Stokalko, Kate Skelton, Kate Riordon, Amie Lalonde, Anne Ewen, Natalie Delbecq, and Dawn Saunders Dahl, for assistance both remotely and in-person.
Endnotes:  The Stoney Nakoda people have referred to this lake as “Minn-waki” or “Lake of the Spirits.” Parks Canada, “History of Lake Minnewanka,” Banff National Park, August 28, 2020. https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/banff/visit/les10-top10/minnewanka/histoire-history/.  Rebecca Belmore, “Wave Sound,” 2017. https://www.rebeccabelmore.com/wave-sound/.  R. Murray Schäffer, The Tuning of the World (New York: Knopf, 1977), 10.  Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 10.  Robinson, Hungry Listening, 3.  Robinson, Hungry Listening, 15.  Evelyn Glennie, “Hearing Essay,” Teach the World to Listen, January 1, 2015. https://www.evelyn.co.uk/hearing-essay/.  Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication (New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1984), 45.