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Old tapes hold a snapshot of region’s history

Locked away on thousands of reels of old tape are images of the North Slope as it was decades ago. Some faces on these reels will be familiar to people in town. Others may contain footage of themselves as children, visiting a studio in their Halloween costumes in a bygone era or playing baseball on the tundra.

"Everything that's (in the past) isn't left behind because it wasn't valuable. A lot of valuable information and cultural ways just disappear for other reasons," said Bob Curtis-Johnson, of SummitDay Media. "This gives us a way to refer to those and think about them. I think that's a valuable resource — kind of a treasure bank we can hold onto."

For years now, the Iñupiat History, Language and Culture Department has worked with SummitDay to preserve and digitize these special tapes, which are relics of the old North Slope Borough television station.

"During the 1970s, the television station set out to document as much as they could and they did it on U-matic tapes, which were used for news stations at the time," said IHLC's Alexander Freeman, who has worked to secure grant funding for the project.

Those tapes spent years locked away in various storage rooms as the television station changed hands (the borough held it for a while, as did the school district and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., for a time).

"The money was sort of running down and they were starting to wonder about the future of it," Curtis-Johnson said. "There was some concern about the building and whether it was a safe environment for it."

Then, the Iñupiat Heritage Center was built, and IHLC petitioned to have the tapes transferred there for safekeeping.

Since then, a dedicated group has worked hard to catalog the old material, sorting through U-matics and VHS one by one.

While the tapes were still in the care of the station, there was some basic work done on them.

"They did about 800 or 850 U-matics to DVD which is not really a preservation format but it served a purpose at the time of opening it up to research because the older tapes were not playable by anyone but the technician," said Curtis-Johnson. "There was a secondary benefit which is there is a second copy of it should anything happen to the first. That's the principle archival goal."

That leaves thousands more tapes and potentially hundreds of hours of information to sift through. It's one-of-a-kind footage, Curtis-Johnson said. There are shots of daily life, with images of sports, trick-or-treating and friendly conversations, and some tapes that were created specifically for educational purposes.

It's a lot to go through, especially when it's not exactly clear what the extent of the archive truly is.

"What's really the key thing here is the length — how many hours of recordings are on a tape. You might have a fewer number of tapes but more recording time, or you might have a far larger number of tapes but far less recording time," Curtis-Johnson said. "Sometimes, we can't even really predict how many we can do until the material is actually in a machine and you're knowing how long it is. So, I won't say it's an art, but it's a revising of estimates as you get more and more information."

That makes timing difficult. Now, it's a race against technology to get the tapes digitized and preserved before it will be too costly to do so.

It's not just a matter of the reels themselves degrading, Curtis-Johnson explained.

"The interesting thing about all of this is people first think of film preservation as an urgent matter and that's true, it does need to be cool and dry and have proper storage. But if you achieve that, (the) greater risk right now (is that) the equipment is going obsolete and the ability to play it back and digitize it — the window is closing," he said. "So, basically, the next five to seven years, we expect prices to spike as the equipment really starts to disappear. There's a time window for that."

Freeman said IHLC has been lucky to have had a number of grants come in to help with the project, and they're pursuing more every day.

"I remember when (one grant) was awarded, at that time there was a lot of push to get funding for this project," Freeman said. "It was definitely a priority because there was some worry that the tapes would not be preserved because there was a time frame as the equipment became more antiquated. So, there was a push to get this done."

Specifically, IHLC is currently working to secure funding for cataloging material that's already been digitized, to make it accessible as a resource for anyone who wants to look through it.

"Because there is so much of it," Freeman said. "Realistically, some of it will never even get looked at because there is so much, but cataloging it is something that needs to get done."

It's a slow process to go through so much material, but it's been very rewarding for those who have been lucky enough to work on it, he said.

"For me, it was just really interesting to be part of something that has such an impact on so many people and the culture and just the community as a whole. I feel like all of these tapes are a snapshot of a moment in time and it's really preserving the culture in a way that's really unique to indigenous communities. I just found that to be really special," Freeman said. "That's what I like about the project is how it's just like a little time stop of everything. It just preserved it."

He's relatively new to the project, unlike Curtis-Johnson, who has been working on it for over a decade.

"This project was my introduction to Barrow. It was the first time that I visited and came up to work and help out and that's continued," he said. "I really have a strong feeling for the people of the North Slope now that I've been educated into their ways and their culture through some of these materials and through the folks I've worked with along the way."

His experiences working with the tapes have taken his life in a whole new direction, he said. Before he got into preservation, he had a successful career in commercial television.

"There was something missing and when I started working in preservation, there's a major piece of that that fulfilled my desire to give back to the world," he said.

Through sharing more about the project, IHLC and Curtis-Johnson hope to pique others' interest in the tapes and what they may contain that's yet to be discovered.

"They hold information and secrets that we can use to learn from and that future generations will be able to think about the ways of living that are held there and what in there we might want to take with us into the future," he said.

It's a way of looking back to move forward, he said, through the lens of these unique and invaluable snapshots of history on the North Slope.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at sgoarctic@gmail.com.

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