Many people use the terms “oral history” and “oral tradition” interchangeably when speaking of Native histories. However, oral history is a specific and particular research method used by historians, a way of recording individual voices that emerged and expanded with the development of portable recording devices.
The practice of oral history as a research method differs from documentary research in that the primary document, the recorded interview, is produced in collaboration between the interviewer and the interviewee (often called a “narrator”), whose knowledge is being sought.
Oral historians look to the experience and memories of those people closest to the events and processes that the historian is researching. Memory, of course, is not infallible and researchers relying on oral histories need to take this into account. However, documentary sources such as diaries, newspaper articles, and statements by public figures are not infallible either. Oral historians take into account the ways in which memories shape and are shaped by the life of the narrator, and how narrators construct an understanding of the past. Oral histories, just as documentary sources, are checked against other sources.
A narrator can access some memories are more easily than others because of the significance he or she attributes to them. Narrators remember best the activities they participated in personally. Unusual or unique events are most memorable. While aging affects the process of recall, the difference between young and old is in content rather than reliability. For example, young people may remember more details of an event, while older people “make better sense of the story.” In addition, men and women may attribute importance to different aspects of their memories. The researcher keeps these differences in mind, recognizing that certain bits of information may be more forthcoming than others.
A personal narrative such as an oral history interview is derived from individual rather than collective memories, but individual indigenous identity is always connected to tribe, family, and shared stories. Chinook elder Joan Wekell invokes culturally familiar elements in a personal narrative telling the story of her family’s origin, and reminding the listener that her origins follow the same course of events as the origin story of the Chinook people. Through personal narrative, her family is connected to the tribe, and Wekell and her audience are brought into a culturally significant relationship.
Read about conducting oral history interviews.