Auditory Excavation

Marguerite Leone helps raise awareness for centuries-old Cherokee traditions.
January 30, 2012

It began with a simple game of stickball. The match played out in a time and place far removed from her own, but Marguerite Leone, an anthropology major, was hooked. Leone, along with her classmates, was hard at work digging up documentation on the centuries-old Cherokee sport for an online exhibit for her Native American Literature and Religion class.

“I was fascinated with the culture. Stickball, for example, is a game heaped in ceremony. It is said that long ago animals taught the tribes to play,” Leone says. “If there were conflicts they would spend weeks picking the strongest men. The matches would sometimes last for days and whoever won would have the upper hand in tribal dealings. It gave them an alternative to war, and in the end it prevented bloodshed.”

Leone and her classmates discovered valuable materials in the archives at Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, including pictures of the sticks that were used, which bore more than a passing resemblance to American lacrosse sticks. What really fascinated Leone, though, was the material she would never get the chance to discover: choice audio recordings and photographs her professor Timothy Powell, Senior Research Scientist at Penn Museum, was digitizing for the Cherokee community. Much of this documentation was so culturally sensitive it could only be presented to tribal leaders behind closed doors. Leone was convinced that in order to tell the cultural narrative, she would need to understand the philosophy and protocol involved in rediscovering centuries-old knowledge.

In order to gain insight into the issues surrounding the release of such materials, Leone traveled with Powell to meet Thomas Belt, a distinguished elder fluent in Cherokee, and T.J. Holland, the Cultural Resources manager for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina and curator of the tribally-owned Junaluska Museum on the Snowbird reservation. Powell had long been at work creating digital archives based on indigenous systems of knowledge—some as esoteric as stories woven into wampum belts or painted on deer skins—in order to return the material for community use in the Cherokee total immersion school at the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program. Teachers will then be able to use the audio as a knowledge source for the children, who often don’t have access to many traditional Cherokee-language recordings.

“Returning old audio recordings is a perfect way to immerse children in the Cherokee language, but the tribal council is concerned some of the information might be used by the wrong people or at the wrong time, which they believe can have dire effects.”
– Marguerite Leone

“Problems arise when moments that were never meant to be made public are photographed or recorded,” Leone says. “Some reveal sacred formulae, like traditional songs used for medicinal purposes. Returning old audio recordings is a perfect way to immerse children in the Cherokee language, but the tribal council is concerned some of the information might be used by the wrong people or at the wrong time, which they believe can have dire effects.”

The audio recordings, which date back to the early 20th century, were recorded on wax cylinders by anthropologists doing ethnological studies. The general consensus is that though they were not obtained under duress, the anthropologists likely applied indirect pressure to the natives to participate, lest they lose any permanent record of their culture.

Though only a select few were allowed in the room during the digitization presentation, Leone was present the next day for the follow-up meeting. Her time spent in the state also allowed for some important visits, including one to the Kituwah School, which she says has become a hub for the community.

Leone, who is curating the online stickball exhibit, hopes the material will work to educate her fellow Penn students on the importance of preserving Native American culture. The exhibit will also include her more in-depth ruminations on protocol and cultural process, a segment of research she will also present at this year’s Penn Humanities Forum, appropriately themed “Adaptations.”

Leone’s experience within the Cherokee community has bolstered her interest in archaeology, which she hopes to concentrate on in the future. “Last summer I participated in the ‘Roman Peasant Project,’” Leone says. “I spent four weeks excavating three different sites in the Tuscan countryside. It was a life-changing experience, and though my interests are still expanding and evolving, participating in this project taught me that my passion definitely lies in anthropological and archaeological work, discovering and preserving what the past has to teach us.”

For more information, visit the Digital Partnership with Indian Communities website, where Leone’s team is storing their Cherokee stickball materials before ultimately creating the official exhibit site.