On Sonic Sovereignty

Dr. Dustin Tahmahkera discusses indigenous sound in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley

At last week’s Faculty Fellows Seminar, Dr. Dustin Tahmahkera (Mexican American and Latina/o Studies) discussed his work-in-progress, “Sounds Indigenous” or “Becoming Sound.” Dr. Tahmahkera employs “sound” in its dual meaning, as both auditory stimulus and as wellness or health. His project asks three questions:

  • What are the roles of sounds in indigenous and American cultural histories and identity formations, historically and today?
  • How do we listen to ways of sounding indigenous?
  • How can sound heal and impact the well-being of individuals, communities, and the land?

“Becoming Sound” responds to the “sonic turn,” a body of research that calls attention to aural imaginaries in cultural studies and de-privileges or decenters the visual as the dominant mode of cultural perception. Though Dr. Tahmahkera’s project is still nascent, he anticipates that, as his research develops, he will ask what it means to sound indigenous through an analysis of sonic representations of the Comanche Nation, or a visual history of Comanche performances in cinema, literature, and historical archives. The recent protests at Standing Rock regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline and the use of the LRAD cannon to silence protests are an example of what Dr. Tahmahkera calls “sonic duels” between the protestors and government forces over the soundscape. Fort Sill in Oklahoma, located near the sacred Comanche site Mt. Scott, represents a contemporary example of the clash over sonic sovereignty between indigenous people and the military. On Mt. Scott, sounds from artillery testing at Fort Sill routinely mar the landscape and foreclose silent meditation.

The LRAD sound cannon can be heard at approximately 00:02:40.

As I left the Faculty Fellows Seminar last Thursday and walked toward the West Mall, the usual sounds of Guadalupe Street were broken by the familiar presence of a man reading aloud from the Bible, projected through a loudspeaker. He sits just outside the line demarcating the UT campus from the public property of the sidewalk, and his message duels with, and attempts to assert dominance over, the existing soundscape. As sound carries, it has the potential to undermine the borders we establish, for better or for worse.

In the seminar discussion, Fellows observed that speaking of sounds as “noise” instead of “language” or “speech” contributes to disenfranchisement insofar as it allows one group to assert power over another group by controlling and classifying the soundscape. Sound (returning to the Humanities Institute’s current exploration of “Health, Well-Being, Healing” and to the dual connotation of the word) can also have an impact on health—vibro-acoustic disease (VAD) is a pathological response to the constant presence of low-frequency sound in the environment, resulting in “depression, increased irritability and aggressiveness, a tendency for isolation, and decreased cognitive skills.” It is a form of sound that breaks down self-ownership. A critical approach to deploying sound, then, may serve to protect cultures and individuals. Fellows, for instance, shared stories of protestors forming a human physical and sonic chain of protection during protests at Texas Muslim Capitol Day and performing a round dance to silence airport officials at Los Angeles International Airport in response to the President’s Executive Order restricting travel from 7 predominantly Muslim countries.

Faculty Fellows suggested that, for his future work on this project, Dr. Tahmahkera pay close attention to and develop his critique of the language of healing, soundness, and unsoundness with regard to indigenous sounds, and encouraged him to consider looking at media other than books to more fully represent how human beings experience sound. In response, Dr. Tahmahkera explained that he plans to develop a podcast and/or other online media for sharing his sonic research.

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