NORTH DAKOTA (KXNET) — An educational project to re-introduce sacred Lakota songs and make them more accessible to a new generation of singers is set to be unveiled this weekend at the United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) International Powwow in Bismarck.

It’s called the Densmore/Lakota Song Repatriation Project

Recordings of Standing Rock Tribal Members from 110 years ago have been remastered and will be reintroduced in an innovative multi-platform format. 

Famed American anthropologist and ethnographer Frances Densmore recorded around 260 Lakota songs on the Standing Rock Reservation between 1911 and 1915. 

The root of the repatriation project started in the early 1990s when renowned Standing Rock hoop dancer and musician Kevin Locke saw the value in modernizing them.  

“I think in any indigenous North American culture, music is the preeminent art form,” explained Standing Rock hoop dancer, musician, and cultural ambassador Kevin Locke. “That’s what Densmore documented, that vocal tradition, which is the foundation of everything.”

Locke brought cassettes of Densmore’s recordings to David Swenson of Makoché Studios in Bismarck. 

“They were these old warn-out scratchy recordings of singers that had been recorded at Standing Rock beginning of 1911,” explained Densmore/Lakota Song Repatriation Project Executive Producer David Swenson.

Locke asked Swenson to improve them. That’s when things got interesting. 

“I remember going over to the studio one night and listening to a song, and at the end there was a trill. That la-la-la, you know, only it didn’t sound like a trill like it should, it wasn’t like la-la-la, it sounded like laa-laa-laa.”  

A light bulb went off and Swenson immediately realized the recordings, were at the wrong speed. 

Swenson reported his findings to the Smithsonian.

“Naïve me, I thought this was a great discovery and I’d go to the Smithsonian, and they’d say good work, but they didn’t really. They were sort of resistant because it represented a major flaw in their cataloging,” explained Swenson.  

Swenson speed-corrected, restored, cataloged the songs, and matched the songs to Densmore’s book documenting the songs, which is now an e-book.  

“So now, say a young Lakota singer who wants to learn these songs can sit down with this e-book, and with the recordings, and match them up and go through and learn them. And, that was never possible before,” said Swenson.

Then the project took on a whole new life. They re-recorded the songs. 

The revitalization phase of the project received a major grant from the Bush Foundation for more than $200,000.

Primary cultural advisor and co-producer Courtney Yellowfat selected young Lakota singers to re-record the songs and involved tribal elders to capture the cultural context of the songs. 

“That’s one thing I wanted to get from my singers that sang on this project is that they show a respect to the song. When they show a respect to the song, they show respect to those men and women who kept these songs,” explained Densmore/Lakota Songs Repatriation Project Co-Producer and Cultural Advisor Courtney Yellowfat.

United Tribes Technical College and Sitting Bull College are getting interactive touch screens that package all the songs, interviews, and re-recordings. 

The Densmore Lakota Song Repatriation Project will be presented at 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 10 at United Tribes Technical College Building 7.

They are distributing hundreds of USB flash drives that contain the songs, videos, and study guide material free to the public.

They are hoping the project will turn into resource material for the 2025 statewide K-12 curriculum change that will require all elementary and secondary public and nonpublic schools to include Native American tribal history in their curriculum, with an emphasis on tribes within North Dakota.

The Densmore/Lakota Songs Repatriation Project website is open-source and free to the public.