The Limits of Looking: Landmarks in Iowa History and the White Gaze

By Katie Prout

As the AV and Film Preservationist for ISU’s Special Collections and University’s Archives, I often come across visual and aural content I am tasked to preserve that is beautiful, interesting, and insightful. But sometimes content is the opposite of all those things. So when I came across Herb Hake’s episode Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre, a kinescope 16mm black-and-white print, I felt compelled to provide a rebuttal of its narrative. To that end, I am very excited to introduce Katie Prout as my guest blogger. Katie is a writer and graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. She’s currently working on a book about addiction, inheritance, and ghosts. You can read more about her take on Spirit Lake at LitHub. -Rosie Rowe

“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see.” This is the opening line of Jamaica Kincaid’s searing book-length essay A Small Place, and this is what echoed in my head as I watched and then re watched “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre.” Kincaid’s book, an anti-tourist travelogue and history of her native Antigua, reverts the gaze of power by putting the white tourist, the white colonizer, under her critical lens. You think you can know a people just by looking? Fine. Let me take a look at you.

The people doing the looking in “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre” are the tourists in this scenario, though perhaps they wouldn’t see themselves that way, and it’s through their gaze that we, the viewers, are invited to look at an event known as the Spirit Lake Massacre. This short film is one of a series produced by WOI-TV and Iowa State Teachers’ College designed to be a supplemental educational tool for teaching Iowa history in public schools. This film, then, is the official narrative, The Facts of What Happened not to be questioned. It’s easy to imagine children bent over their desks, tongues in the corners of their mouths as they strain to recall what they learned from “Landmarks” for their teacher’s test. The facts, loosely, are this: The winter 1857 was a time of starvation in northwestern Iowa, both for the white settlers who were homesteading beyond federally determined borders and for the native peoples who had first called that land home. That March, members of the Wahpekute Dakota raided the settlers for food, possibly also for revenge for loved ones who died by the hands of white settlers and soldiers—those of Inkpaduta (the man leading the raid) not the least among them. At the three day’s end, over thirty settlers were dead; four white women were kidnapped and held for ransom. Among those four was a girl; a thirteen year-old named Abbie Gardner.

This much is true. It’s also true that tourism has long figured into the economy of  Iowa; indeed, the Gardner family cabin—the essential heart of the Spirit Lake Massacre, the state’s last indigenous-settler conflict in Iowa—later became the state’s first tourist attraction. But is this the truth the film is directing us to see? What does the camera’s lens hide, and what does it really reveal?

From the beginning, “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre” is, knowingly or not, is concerned with who is looking at who and the limits of what can be known through that gaze. The viewer watches the tv (or in my case, the laptop screen). After the opening credits, the camera shows us a white man looking through another camera in turn. We watch him watch nothing. This man is teacher and historian Herb Hake, one of the show’s two co-hosts, and he’s pretending to do that time-honored tourist tick—take photos of a historic site. After a beat, Hake straightens up and winds his camera as he smiles sheepishly into ours. “Well boys and girls, it’s another beautiful day to take pictures, isn’t it?” Dressed in a jacket and cap, as though he’s greeting us from the Iowan outdoors, the host in fact stands on a studio stage. Behind him, a not-quite life-sized backdrop of the Gardner Cabin gleams, shiny with shellacked light. “Today, we’re going to take pictures of this Gardner cabin. You see it here in the background,” Hake says, gesturing to the blown-up photograph behind him. The studio lights invoke sunlight, the photograph of the cabin is a facsimile of the real thing, and the cabin itself is a stand-in for Abbie Gardner, the only survivor of the family who once called the cabin home, and from whose memoir much of the information shared on “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre” is obtained. “As the announcer said, we are in the Great Lakes region today.” As Hake speaks, the gaze of the camera stays narrow enough to hide the stage wiring from our view, but not so narrow that we can’t see co-host Irving Hart’s elbow waiting in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Specific locations in the Great Lakes region are named to further assist the construction of our belief.

With this, the viewer enters the white imagination, but that imagination is presented as fact. Hake-as-host is grave and charming, a kind of history-loving Mr. Rogers, but the imaginative play presented before us is no game. When dealing with the magic of television, how are we to understand the reality of the warfare described? What are the young students, for whom this film was originally intended, to take away? The film goes on to present more facsimiles, reproductions, artifacts that are similar and or closely related to the real thing, but that thing they are not. In “Landmarks,” the viewer is caught in the strange place of being asked to believe but also to do the work of creating a thing to believe in. We’re to take as fact what we see, but what we see is itself a stand-in, a reproduction, a retelling of the real thing.

Here’s why this matters. In an era of fake news, the more difficult work is in looking at an incident of violence not as an isolated aberration, but as a complex response to a chain of events that stretches back and forth in time. This film was made in the 1950s, but historians should know that in any decade. The hosts of “Landmarks,” describe the violence perpetrated by the Wahpekute against the settlers in detail, with words like “ruthless,” and “dragged,” but they don’t explain that the federal government was terribly late on annuity payments to the tribe, payments that might’ve been able to keep the tribes from having to choose between raids and starvation. Hake describes Inkpaduta a “big, ugly-looking Indian,” inviting the viewer to imagine all kinds of racist caricatures, but he doesn’t explain that this “ugliness” comes from horrific smallpox scars, a European disease sometimes deliberately introduced to indigenous populations by colonizers as a method of biowarfare. The camera eventually shows us a picture of a memorial near the Gardner cabin, constructed in memory of the settlers who died; the memory of the Wahpekute is represented to the arrow-shaped stone at the top of the memorial, reducing them to nothing more than weapons, objects of death.

Towards the end of the film, the camera lingers on a picture Hake tacks up to an easel. The picture is of one of the cabin’s inside walls. On this wall, an oil painting hangs, depicting burning cabins, teepees, and cold snow. Again, we have our gaze directed to another reproduction, but this one was created by a survivor who was there. Remember Your History, Gardner admonished. She painted these words on the bottom of a painting much like this one, one of a series of scenes from the memories that haunted her. This film brought to my mind Kincaid’s A Small Place, but Gardner, a very different woman, also wrote down her observations of a land and its history; first as a settler, then as a captive of the people who her kind forcibly replaced:

“In [writing this memoir], I hope to benefit myself, pay a lasting tribute to the memory of those whose lives were consecrated to civilization, and save from oblivion the historical matter within these pages.”

History, as is so often said, is written by the victors, and it seems that educational television programming is too.  While Gardner was absolutely a victim, it is her written testimony of the conflict that has been preserved and saved, and it is this version that is preserved and uplifted by “Landmarks.” Nowhere in her above sentence, quoted from the beginning pages of her memoir, is there mention of the lives of the Wahpekute; their version of history is not the “historical matter” Gardner is concerned with saving from oblivion. Working to recognize indigenous experiences and perspectives alongside those of white settlers would undoubtedly lead to another kind of conflict; an ideological one, with educators and historians striving to understand who shares what responsibility in violence, and why, and what can be done to repair that violence rather than replicate it again. This kind of history would create programming less easily reduced to symbols, more uncomfortable for some viewers to look at, but perhaps it would show us something more true.


Ralph Ellison, Film, Jazz, and Cultural Memory Gaps

On 18 March 1970, Ralph Ellison spoke at ISU as part of the University’s Lecture Series program. Mr. Ellison was a 20th-century, African American author, whose first and only novel, Invisible Man, won the National Book Award. In spite of his renown, the lecture was not recorded (or, if it was, apparently did not survive). Nor have I been able to locate any documentation about his lecture. I’m left wondering how he would have engaged with the Iowa State audience. I wonder whether he spoke about his love of jazz and how music influenced his writing.

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WOI TV News Clip 452 (AV07469) 16MM single perf  image of  Ralph Ellison 1970

Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden (1877-1931) was a well-known, African American coronet player and a progenitor of the jazz movement in New Orleans. His trombonist claimed that at least one cylinder phonograph was made of Bolden’s music at the turn of the century by a local New Orleans saloon owner, but no known recordings have survived. Major music industry labels – Edison, Columbia, and the Berliner – regularly paid white artists to record Black music. In fact, the earliest known jazz recording is a 1917 album by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white group. So, despite its apparent uniqueness, labeling the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recording as a foundational document of jazz would be a misrepresentation of American history. In doing so, we would be ignoring the racism of the music industry that refused to record Black musicians and erasing the people and communities who were the actual creators of this American art form.

The loss of early jazz recordings – probably through neglect and mishandling – is one of the greatest examples we have of a cultural memory gap.

Cultural memory gaps within memory institutions are why modern archiving practices are slowly shifting toward intentionally collecting and prioritizing records of marginalized communities. This is why Black Archives, and other archives focused on marginalized communities, are so important. But we shouldn’t rely solely on these dedicated institutions to do ALL the collecting, prioritizing, and describing of these records. All archives must be responsible for hiring staff that can properly identify and interpret the records of marginalized communities. And as archivists, all of us share in the responsibility of preserving them.

Film and audio-visual (AV) records already have notoriously patchy documentation. What records have been collected have often not been effectively described. Combine that inherent lack of information with institutional and societal-level systems that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, erase the work of marginalized groups, and we are left with a huge cultural memory gap. We have little film and sound recordings from marginalized communities at ISU.

The scarcity of these records makes the ones that we DO have even more valuable. I happened upon one of those valuable records while wrangling the Iowa State University Film Collections.

What we do know about Ralph Ellison’s visit to ISU is that Dorcas Speer, a WOI TV reporter, interviewed him before his lecture. That the interview was filmed, and that I was able to find it. This footage is from the WOI Radio and Television collection (more information about this collection is here). We are working towards making WOI TV’s film collection more discoverable for researchers in the near future.  To see the interview, watch  here.


Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act #PubMedia50 @amarchivepub: Educational Television

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National Educational Television presents The Magic Window program, 1956 [ISU Special Collections and University Archives, WOI-TV]

Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) have joined the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s month-long celebration of the Public Broadcasting Act’s 50th Anniversary! We’re posting content throughout the month to celebrate the history and preservation of public broadcasting. This is our third post commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, and this week we are highlighting the longest-running, locally produced children’s educational television program ever made in America: The Magic Window.

 

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Intro title of The Magic Window, 1954 [ISU Special Collections and University Archives, WOI-TV]

“The Magic Window, which for forty years was hosted by a woman named Betty Lou Varnum. In every episode, Betty Lou would introduce a craft-making segment by announcing the materials needed. These were always kid-safe items that could be found around the house. But the kids had to find everything fast, really fast or Betty Lou would go on without them.” –The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham, 2010)

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Frame still from The Magic Window, 1956 [ISU Special Collections and University Archives, WOI-TV]

Betty Lou Varnum was a TV personality at WOI-TV in central Iowa. She began her career in 1954 as host of a program for children, “The Magic Window.” She also hosted other WOI-TV programs “Dimension 5,” “Status 6,” and “Stringer’s Newscast.” Varnum was an announcer for a number of televised VEISHEA parades at Iowa State University and Iowa State Fair parades in Des Moines, Iowa. She retired from WOI-TV in 1994.

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Betty Lou Varnum, host of The Magic Window, 1955 [ISU Special Collections and University Archives, WOI-TV]



Building a Video Preservation Rack for In-House Digitization AV CLUB | Issue 1

 

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ISU’s Special Collections and University Archives Video Preservation Rack

Hello! My name is Rosie Rowe, and I’m the AV and Film Preservation Specialist for ISU Special Collections and University Archives. This is the first of – hopefully – a series of blog posts related to AV and film preservation from a University Archives perspective. I hope these will be helpful not only for other Universities’ special collections but also for anyone interested in AV and film preservation.

A Common Video Preservation Scenario: A researcher requests a copy of a show held in your special collections. It’s a university production from the 1970s, a unique recording on ¾” tape. This tape is an “at-risk” item, because the inherent vulnerabilities of magnetic based media. What do you do? Do you send it out to a vendor, or do you digitize the tape in-house? Where possible, it’s best to digitize at-risk items in-house. It’s faster, it’s more economical over the long-term, and you can maintain your own quality-control standards.

AV preservationists have spent un-countable hours of our lives discussing the best capture format for analog video preservation. But actually… how you send the signal from the deck to the computer’s capture card is the most important aspect of digitizing analog video. You can capture 10-bit 4:2:2 anything, but the quality of what you’re capturing is linked to the signal you’re sending. So with this fact in mind, this post will describe the necessary equipment and guide you through the basic setup required for digitizing your at-risk analog video in-house.

One of the biggest issues that defines magnetic media as “at-risk” is obsolescence. It’s quite difficult to find and maintain the device needed for analog video playback. Prepare to spend some time digging around online or contacting potential dealers to find a functioning playback device. A good place to start looking for old, obsolete AV equipment is the on-campus video production house. They might have old gear hanging around! Or a local television station may have gear to donate to your archives. Be creative. You need well-maintained, industry-grade equipment with as much related documentation as possible. Those dog-eared operational and service manuals are invaluable for maintaining the functionality of old gear.

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RG-59/U 75 Ohms Broadcast BNC Video Cable

Using correct cables and cabling may be the single most important aspect to setting up a video preservation rack. Know your source signal (composite, component, or Y/C ) and send it out using only the highest-grade shielded cable. Remember: Shielding reduces electrical noise and…its impact on signals and…lowers electromagnetic radiation. Shielding prevents cross-talk between cables… Shielding not only protects cable but… machinery and people as well. [1] http://www.wireandcabletips.com/importance-shielding-cabling/

PRO-TIPS: Cables, Cabling, and Termination
• ALWAYS use broadcast-quality RG59 BNC 75ohm cables for video
• ALWAYS prefer XLR (balanced audio) cables to RCA (unbalanced audio) cables
• ALWAYS terminate open loops with 75ohm terminators at end of signal loops*

*But be careful! Improper termination can affect the video signal. A double termination can cut the video signal in half, while a lack of termination will overload the video signal. This might be where you need professional help.

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BNC 75 Ohms Terminator

CONGRATULATIONS!! You have managed to acquire a professional-grade BVU U-matic deck that supports machine control input. Now you are able to control the deck from a computer via a RS-422 cable, not missing any information at the beginning of the tape. This is good. This is why the RS-422 cable is included on the equipment list.

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Deck Control RS-422 cable

Now what about the capture card and computer? I like the AJA KONA LHi capture card and AJA KONA KLHi-Box. Together, these will allow for seamless capture of composite, component, and Y/C (for analog signals) and SDI or HDMI (for digital signals). The KONA LHi works well with Premiere CS6, but it also has its own software that captures SD analog video as 10-bit 4:2:2 uncompressed v210. The Kona LHi is also able to capture closed captioning and timecode information. All of these are required metadata for video preservation. The preservation master could have up to five streams of data per file: a video stream, two audio streams, timecode, and closed captioning CEA-608. With newer computers, you’ll have to place the AJA Kona Li capture card in a thunderbolt expansion case and send the digital video signal from the expansion case to computer‘s thunderbolt in.

Now. It’s very important to place a Time Base Corrector between the deck and the capture card. You also need waveform and vector scope connected post-TBC, so you can monitor and adjust the video signal, using the scopes as your measurement tools. For example, if color bars are in front of the program, you can adjust the luma, chroma, black (set up), and hue (NTSC only) levels to get the best possible signal from the tape. Also, I recommend having all equipment ‘genlocked’ to the same reference to ensure picture stability. For SD composite video, it’s called blackburst – a composite signal of black with no picture data. With all pieces of equipment timed and in-sync, or locked to master sync, you increase the stability of your capture.

My preference for signal monitoring is viewing the signal directly off the deck, as well as post capture card. This helps pinpoint where any problems might occur in the signal. For example, if there is visible signal error on the monitor connected at the end of the chain (post capture), but the video looks good coming straight out of the deck, you can focus your troubleshooting on the cables, settings, and equipment either at or after the TBC point. It’s also important to have a cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor in order to view the video signal as it was originally intended. AND it’s best to have a CRT with blue-only, underscan, and H-V delay features. ‘Blue only’ allows you to calibrate your reference monitor with color bars and monitor your VTR noise. ‘Underscan’ allows you to see every scan line in the video signal, and ‘H-V delay’ allows you to check vertical and horizontal sync. These features will help you get the best signal out of your deck and troubleshoot any signal errors.

This brings me to the last piece of gear to install in your AV Rack: a test pattern generator. A test generator helps you check proper signal flow by sending a test pattern, like color bars, through the signal path. You can also use the color bar test pattern to set display levels – like brightness – and contrast to ensure your monitor is properly calibrated.

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Video Preservation Rack

YOUR EQUIPMENT LIST
• Professional rack*
• Professional-grade decks for each format (U-maticSP, BetaSp, VHS, SVHS, Digibeta, etc.)
• RG59 BNC 75 Ohm cables
• 75 Ohm BNC terminations
• XLR cables
• RS-422 cable
• Time Base Corrector/Proc Amp
• Test generator
• Sync generator
• Patch bay
• AJA Kona capture card
• AJA Breakout box and cable
• Sonnet Echo Express SE I Thunderbolt 3 to full-height/half-length PCIe card
• Waveform and vector scope monitors
• CRT monitor**
• Computer***
• Calibrated computer monitors
* sturdy, does not wobble, and allows decks to be pulled out easily and safely
** preferably one that has underscan, blue-only, and H/V delay
*** preferably with a high-speed processor, minimum 16GB memory and 1TB storage

Well, I hope this was helpful for anyone wanting to build an AV preservation rack for their special collections. In the next issue of AV Club, I’ll be discussing best practice for embedding technical metadata into files for future digital preservation conservators. Cheers!