Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost city in the United States. When Laura Boulton, a self-styled “music-hunter” and Columbia professor to-be, arrived there in 1946, her mission was to record the songs of the Iñupiat, a group of Alaskan Native people threatened by the arrival of American missionaries and government. “I had missed the coming of spring to Alaska, which is pure magic,” Boulton wrote in her autobiography. “But I was fortunate that winter found me still at Point Barrow, and I watched the ocean slowly icing in our world.”
For all Boulton’s enthusiasm, most of her colleagues regarded her as a sham. Her training in ethnomusicology was weak and she had no real knowledge of the cultures she claimed to study, according to Aaron Fox, the current director of Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology. What Boulton did have was a collection of about 1,500 hours of music—including Iñupiat songs—recorded on five continents over forty years. All of this music had existed in oral tradition before Boulton hit record, but because U.S. copyright law did not recognize music that existed outside of physical media, Boulton’s act of recording became an act of possession.
About fifteen years after her trip to Alaska, Boulton began an affair with a Columbia College alumnus, and millionaire, Julian Clarence Levi. Levi made a deal with Columbia: he would pay for the University’s acquisition of all Boulton’s recordings, provided that they give her an office and staff support. Thus, the Center for Studies in Ethnomusicology was born in 1967.
Even after cashing in her collection for a professorship, Boulton continued to earn about $5000 a year (and tax benefits) from Columbia because she still retained certain rights to the recordings’ publication. According to Fox, Boulton received this money for nearly twenty years. “There are literally thousands of pages of legal documents associated with this archive,” he says. “I’ve read them all. In all those pages, no one ever mentions the possibility that the people on the recordings have any stake in the conversation.”
Soon after Fox took over the Center in 2003, he got an email from a Ph.D. student at the University of Oklahoma named Chie Sakakibara requesting access to some of the recordings for her own research on the Iñupiat. Fox had been looking for ways to share the collection with the Iñupiat and considering that Sakakibara would be heading to Barrow as part of her project, Fox sent her the CDs along with a letter asking descendants of the original performers to contact him if they wished.
Three years later, Riley Sikvayugak did just that. His grandfather, Joe Sikvayugak, had performed for Boulton in 1946. In his email to Fox, Riley explained that the music Sakakibara had brought with her had not been heard for sixty years. His plan now was to form a dance group called Tagiugmiut. For the Iñupiat, music is just as much about dance as it is about song, a fact Laura Boulton did not pick up on. In the absence of any information on what dances matched the music she recorded, Tagiugmiut’s members began developing their own dances and performing them to wide acclaim from the Alaskan Native community. Through dance, they reclaimed Boulton’s recordings as part of their cultural history. And as Fox watched this unfold, he saw the details Boulton had missed, reconstructed.
After an initial trip in 2007, Fox has been back many times to conduct interviews, share materials, make presentations, and negotiate the legal return of music to the people who created it. Looking back on the relationship between Boulton and the Iñupiat, he summarizes it like this: “We’re making a deal here and you gotta keep your end. I now find myself keeping Laura Boulton’s end of the deal."