Indigenous Oral History Manual: Canada and the United States

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Indigenous Oral History Manual: Canada and the United States book cover


Oral history is a widespread and well-developed research method in many fields—but the conduct of oral histories of and by Indigenous peoples have unique issues and concerns that are too rarely addressed. This essential guide begins by discussing the practice of oral history and the ancient oral traditions of Indigenous cultures, detailing ethical and legal parameters, and addressing the different motivations for and uses of oral traditions and histories in tribal, community, and academic settings. Within that crucial context, the authors provide a practical, step-by-step guide to community engagement, project planning, equipment and budgets, and the conduct and processing of interviews. They illustrate this information with profiled projects and examples from a variety of projects throughout Canada and the United States. The appendices include examples of several key forms used in Canada and the United States and an extensive list of selected sources. This vital manual will be the go-to text for everyone involved with oral history related to American Indians.


Reviews of the first edition: The American Indian Oral History Manual 

Review by Ki-Shan Lara(Hupa/Yurok) Hoopa in The American Indian Quarterly

The American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard is a practical guide for Indigenous groups to collect oral history materials within their own communities. This book addresses the significance of Indigenous oral history, legal and ethical issues, project planning, repositories, equipment and budgets, and the interview process. Not only does it validate oral history as a form of Indigenous education, whereby Indigenous knowledge is orally transferred to younger generations, but it also identifies oral tradition as a crucial tool to language preservation, cultural identity, and creating a space for Indigenous knowledge within the “official storyline” (105).

Legal and ethical issues are addressed, such as intellectual property rights, respect and protection of participants, informed consent, tribal and/or cultural protocol, and training for interviewers. Special attention is given to informing participants of the purpose of the project, their rights (to confidentiality, a copy of materials collected, etc.), the risks involved with the project, and the repository background information. The American Indian Law Center’s Model Tribal Research Code, the Oral History Association, and tribal college institutional review boards are referenced as resources to addressing legal and ethical issues. A chapter on project planning provides a guide to developing a mission statement, creating a protocol and ethics statement, constructing an advisory board, managing records, and establishing a repository to house oral history materials (i.e., transcriptions, audio, and/or video). The section on repositories addresses the importance of selecting a safe place for the oral history materials prior to the collection process. This decision is significant to preserving and protecting oral history materials, making the materials accessible to interview participants and community members, and establishing policies and procedures for the long-term use of materials. Multiple questions are presented throughout the manual to assist communities in establishing themes and planning beneficial projects for the community. In addition, the appendix includes sample oral history forms and oral history evaluation guidelines that address project responsibilities to the interviewees (narrators), the public, and sponsoring institutions, including project guidelines, consent forms, project logs, inventory forms, and correspondence.

A chapter on equipment and budget issues reviews the importance of selecting equipment that collects the highest quality interview, has an extended natural life span, and is accessible to the community. Additionally, a checklist of budget items is listed to plan and prepare for project expenses. The chapters on interview process provide a clear and concise guide to establishing a rapport with the narrator, collecting background information, formatting and conducting interviews, cultural considerations, the role of technology, and the preservation of oral history materials. A particularly useful tool is a sample training workshop agenda to provide training for interviewers. The agenda outlines an introduction to Indigenous knowledge, a detailed explanation of the project and its goals, a dialogue of legal and ethical issues, a workshop on the use of equipment and project forms, and a discussion of interviewer responsibilities.

Although this book does not explicitly address theory, it contributes to the practice of American Indian research and reflects the philosophy of Indigenous methodology, which is rooted in Indigenous knowledge and has been informed by the work of many Indigenous scholars. Sandy Grande (Red Pedagogy), Bryan Brayboy (Tribal Critical Race Theory), and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies) draw on Indigenous methodologies to embrace traditional knowledge and wisdom of ancestors, apply critical theories of education, promote an education for decolonization, address the needs of tribal people, validate tribal beliefs and philosophies, acknowledge oral history as complex sources of knowledge, and reclaim control over Indigenous ways of knowing by planning and implementing research strategies. This book contributes to this body of work and is unique in that it is a manual that has been developed to assist tribal communities in collecting oral history from their own community members. It encourages tribal control of research projects, emphasizes tribal needs and protocol, and provides a practical guide to planning, collecting, and preserving oral history while protecting, respecting, and honoring a narrator’s experience.

Source Information

The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2010
E-ISSN: 1534-1828 Print ISSN: 0095-182X
DOI: 10.1353/aiq.0.0102
Ki-Shan Lara

Project MUSE – The American Indian Quarterly – American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard (review) Project MUSE Journals The American Indian Quarterly Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2010 American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard (review) The American Indian Quarterly Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2010 E-ISSN: 1534-1828 Print ISSN: 0095-182X DOI: 10.1353/aiq.0.0102 Reviewed by Ki-Shan Lara(Hupa/Yurok) Hoopa, California Charles E. Trimble, Barbara Sommer, and Mary Kay Quinlan, eds. American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008. 160 pp. Cloth, $65.00; paper, $22.95.


Review by Michelle M. Mears in Sounda Historian

The result of a collaboration by three scholars – two oral historians and a Native American historian and human rights activist – this slender volume sets about primarily to provide guidance to tribal leaders who contemplate establishing oral history projects for their communities. Additionally, it serves as a guide for non-native oral historians who may wish to seek involvement in recording the oral history of indigenous peoples.

Until the appearance of this book, very little has been published on the methodology of oral history with Native Americans. Aside from a master’s thesis and three or four articles on teaching indigenous school children how to capture the oral history of their families and tribes, the only other oral history guide on this subject, also written by Trimble, Sommer, and Quinlan, is a manual for conducting oral history projects with Native American World War II veterans, published in 2005. The significance of The American Indian Oral History Manual, is that it stands almost alone in the literature about the practice of modern oral history with indigenous peoples.

Citing more than forty standard works from leaders in the field of oral history, the authors clearly understand their topic and provide very helpful endnotes at the end of each chapter. The book is well-written, clear, and concise. Organized into chapters that follow the logical progression of thought that a person would have when contemplating creating an oral history project, the book presents material in a way that is easy to follow and should be very helpful to people unfamiliar with modern oral history, as well as seasoned oral historians. The book covers: indigenous oral history; legal and ethical issues; project planning; equipment and budgets; interview preparation; processing the interview; and using oral information. Appendices include fourteen helpful sample oral history forms, the complete guidelines of the Oral History Association, and a six-page list of selected sources for additional information. Together with the three-page bibliography, this list of sources provides citations to much material that would be of use to scholars wishing to learn more about the topic.

Well-grounded in accepted oral history practice, the manual offers sound advice on the basics of oral history. With a special eye toward tribal leaders, the book includes examples of ways in which oral history has been used by and for Native Americans to share information with members of their communities and outsiders. Going beyond the oral history basics, the book offers insight into the challenges of recording the words of indigenous persons. Emphasizing cultural sensitivity and an awareness of protocol in the collection of oral history, the authors provide guidance on working thoughtfully and respectfully with Native Americans. Because of the sound oral history guidelines offered in the book, it would be a useful resource for anyone who wants to become an oral historian, but the additional information it contains, specific to the needs and interests of Native Americans, makes it invaluable to anyone who contemplates conducting oral history with indigenous peoples.

Extremely relevant to the field of oral history, The American Indian Oral History Manual provides clear, succinct current oral history guidelines for nations whose history is often based largely on oral tradition. Additionally, experienced oral historians stand to learn much from this manual about the special circumstances of oral history with and for Native Americans. This book is a must-read for anyone thinking of working on an oral history project with indigenous peoples.

Review in Sound Historian, the Journal of the Texas Oral History Association, Volume 14, 2012:116-117.

Review by Richard Langer

In the second book reviewed here, The American Indian Oral History Manual, Making Many Voices Heard , Sommer and Quinlan were joined by Charles Trimble, a member of the Oglala Sioux and founder of the American Indian Press Association, to apply the complex subject of oral history to the oral culture of Native Americans. While this manual is must reading for anyone contemplating an oral history project involving Native American narrators or societies, its approach will be of great value to historians working with any ethnic group.

Interestingly, the authors point out that both the OHA protocols and tribal traditions are based on the fundamental principle of respecting and protecting narrators who give their stories and the stories they tell. “ Native and non-Native researchers alike are wise to remember the overarching ethical principle: oral history narrators must never be exploited and always are entitled to respect, ” the authors emphasize. Adding later, “ . . . the fi rst people the stories belong to is the interviewees . . . ” (35).

Illustrating a model response to these types of concerns, the authors tell the story of a National Park Service (NPS) project which documented information about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. The NPS raised many highly sensitive issues in the use of oral history to determine the precise location where a group of soldiers massacred some 160 Indians, mostly women and children. The authors give a detailed outline of how the project directors worked out the standards and priorities for this Native American oral history (35 – 37). Examples such as this are numerous throughout the manual, demonstrating the authors ’ commitment to upholding specifi c standards and their knowledge of oral history.

Distinguishing the Native American manual from other oral history manuals is the use of the term “ archival oral history. ” Standard oral history protocol relies on memories of fi rst-hand (eyewitness) experiences, whereas traditional information (i.e., indigenous narratives) is “ part of a person’s memory ” but does not rely on seeing and being there on a certain date, time, or place. They point out that information may not rest with the person who has the knowledge but to a family, clan, or tribe as “ a memory heirloom ” (15). Archival oral history takes into account the layers of meaning in indigenous language, representing years or centuries of knowledge, including myths and legends passed down orally from one generation to the next. Thus, oral history of Native Americans is a collective cultural memory, the authors point out. The stories ’ importance is not primarily historical but rather sacred to the people.

Another cross-cultural balancing act is to protect cultural and sacred secrets of the Native American while respecting rights of free expression.

Review by Linda Wood

Given the importance of such “ meaning documentation, ” the authors stress the importance of fully informed participants and trained interviewers; further, they emphasize that project managers keep complete records, and when it comes time to share the information, that it be described in detail and accepted by all parties. It may also be necessary to have translators and transcribers work together to ensure the information on paper is accurate. An Advisory Board, say the authors, is advisable to ensure the project represents the tribal government, community elders, project funders, and others who support the work. Any person or institution thinking of an American Indian oral history project must consider this manual for its practicality, style, and content.

Both manuals clearly explain the fundamentals of oral history techniques, such as how the interaction of interviewer and narrator infl uences most aspects of the interview, from how a question is phrased to how the response is understood. The new digital technology used to record and preserve the interview brings with it additional responsibilities for accurately recording and transcribing the meaning as well as the language.

The revised edition of The Oral History Manual brings readers almost up-todate with the latest in digital technology — “ almost ” because the rapid pace of technology change outpaces any written work’s ability to tell the whole story. Obviously, indigenous languages must be heard within their context to be fully understood, which means that quite often the written word, no matter how carefully transcribed, does not suffi ce. Thus, having accessible, up-to-date audio technology is all-important in Native oral history documentation. This subject, broadly, is quite current in oral history circles. For example, William Schneider wrote about the complexity of “ differential understanding through retelling ” in his book Living with Stories: Telling, Retelling, and Remembering (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2008; reviewed in The Oral History Review 36:2: 324 by John Wolford). The subtitle of The American Indian Oral History Manual is “ making many voices heard , ” which makes the same point: without an audio- or video-recorded history that documents the many layers of understanding, we would lose many signifi cant voices.

Both manuals have excellent detailed instructions for planning the project, preparing the budget, suggestions for equipment, preparing for the interview, processing the interview, and using the information for various products. The appendices of both manuals provide a copy of OHA’s Oral History Evaluation Guidelines, sample forms, excellent bibliographies, and guides to available resources. If the goal of oral history research is to make meanings from the stories of those interviewed, then those stories must be understood within the culture of the people telling them. These manuals each can help any oral historian reach that goal.

Linda P. Wood
Retired, South Kingstown High School Library
Media Specialist
doi: 10.1093/ohr/ohq091

Review by LuAnn Jones

During the past decade Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan have written concise yet sophisticated guides to oral history that address the needs of novice and veteran practitioners alike.(1) Now they have collaborated with Charles E. Trimble, an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who advises Native American non-profit organizations and has served as a trustee of the American Folklife Center, to produce a manual “for use with oral history projects conducted primarily by and for tribal communities.” (p. 9) The National Park Service’s Sand Creek Massacre Site Oral History Project is featured, but the authors acknowledge that they do not fully address the complex issues surrounding federally funded research with American Indians.(2)

Indigenous oral history, the authors note, is distinctive because various tribal social and cultural practices must be honored. Among American Indians, what the authors call “archival oral history” or “a planned process for recording and preserving first-person information and making it available to others” might differ markedly from the purposes and aesthetics of generations-old oral traditions and narratives and the circumstances under which they are told. (p. 15) Certain stories can be told only in one season of the year, and therefore oral history recordings would only be made and processed in the same season. For tribal narrators first-person interviews might “be a blend of ancient telling and modern interviewing methods that reflect the specific indigenous cultural communications patterns of the narrators.” (p. 19)

Because historically non-Indian researchers have all too often exploited and misinterpreted the tangible and intangible property of Native Americans, field workers must be especially mindful of tribal legal and ethical codes. For example, the protocols devised by the First Archivists Circle emphasize that Native American communities have primary rights for all culturally sensitive materials that are culturally affiliated with them.” (p. 29) Other important ethical considerations include ensuring that narrators fully understand the purpose of the oral history project and sign a release form designating ownership of the interview; that interviewers receive appropriate training; that oral history projects maintain good records that safeguard materials; and that Native communities enjoy the fruits of researchers’ labors. The oral history project that the NPS did among Arapaho and Cheyenne descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre exemplifies how Natives and non-Natives negotiated research rules that addressed Indian concerns about intellectual property rights. (p. 35-36)

The success of any oral history project, the authors note, depends on the planning that precedes the interviews and the processing and interpretive work that follows. The authors postpone discussing interviews themselves until the sixth of eight chapters. Meanwhile, they consider project development, equipment and budgets, and interview preparation.

While the number of steps involved might seem overwhelming at first, breaking down a large piece of work into its component parts can help project organizers get started and stay on track. These tasks include writing a mission statement that turns broad ideas into focused research questions; choosing an advisory board that links the project to the community; determining the repository where project materials will be archived; identifying narrators and interviewers (Will non-tribal or non-Native interviewers be considered? Does the age or gender of interviewers matter?); selecting project personnel (a director, treasurer, office manager, and transcriber); setting up a recordkeeping system; and brainstorming about the community outreach possibilities that accompany oral history projects.

Choosing recording equipment in the midst of the “digital revolution” and budgeting for the project are among the most important decisions project organizers will make. Equipment decisions affect how recordings will be transcribed, archived, and used, and they dovetail with budgeting decisions. Oral history projects are not cheap, and project organizers need to budget for a range of supplies and services. Sources of funding might include tribal colleges, cultural centers, museums and colleges, as well as state and federal agencies.

As the authors note, “narrators know when an interviewer has taken the time to prepare.” (p. 67) Background research in archival records, newspapers, land deeds, photographs, and other sources helps interviewers determine topics to be discussed and to structure the questions to be asked. Interviewers should also be ready to explain to narrators the goals of the project, why certain themes are being explored, where the interviews will be housed, and how they will be used.

The chapter that focuses on the interview itself is an excellent introduction to questioning techniques, interpersonal dynamics, and cultural customs that may affect interviews with tribal members. The authors describe the arc of a model interview, from basic questions about personal background, to those about specific topics and ending with questions that invite an assessment of events and experiences. A set of interviewing tips emphasizes the value of open-ended questions, careful listening and follow-up questions, sensitivity to body language, and an understanding of cross-cultural dynamics that might be in play. The authors include an excerpt from a first-person archival oral history interview with Wallace Black Elk that focuses on his thoughts about military service during World War II and illustrates “the opportunity the interviewer gave him to tell the story in his own words.” (pp. 84-85)

After two short chapters that address interview processing and care and the variety of uses for oral history interviews, the authors include two helpful appendices that contain sample forms and letters that will facilitate project record-keeping and the full text of the Oral History Association’s Evaluation Guidelines.

The American Indian Oral History Manual is a good starting point for tribal groups interested in preserving their own histories and cultures and for cooperating researchers. As its subtitle, translated into six indigenous languages on the cover suggests, these guidelines can help make many voices heard.

Lu Ann Jones
National Park Service

CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 2009.


The American Indian, First Nations Oral History Manual (working title), Charles E. Trimble, Barbara W. Sommer, Mary Kay Quinlan, Winona Wheeler, 2nd ed. Routledge, due out in 2023.

Dr. Mary Kay Quinlan, Dr. Winona Wheeler, and Barbara W. Sommer are under contract with Routledge to update and expand The American Indian Oral History Manual (Trimble, Sommer, Quinlan, 2009). The new edition will provide up-to-date information about recording, documenting, caring for, accessing, and using Indigenous oral information, including oral histories, oral traditions, ethnographic materials, anthropological materials, and court testimony, in the United States and Canada. Second edition authors are original authors Charles E. “Chuck” Trimble (Oglala Lakota, dates:1935-2020), Sommer, Quinlan, and new Canadian author Winona Wheeler, Cree, University of Saskatchewan.

Barbara W. Sommer,

For more information from Routledge, the twitter contact is: @RoutledgeHist and me, @KimberleyS121.