Oral history is grounded in relationships, both with individual narrators and their communities. A good relationship between an interviewer and narrator will go a long way toward a successful interview, while lack of rapport can ruin it. This means that a lot of effort goes into building relationships before an interview even starts. Creating positive connections is just as important when working with communities as with individuals. If you are not affiliated with a group, then prior to requesting interviews or introductions, it might be a good idea to develop a relationship with community members. This might occur through public cultural events, volunteer work, or simply by chatting with people at a local meeting spot.
It is important to recognize that there is no single Native experience or voice and Native communities exist within a wide variety of cultural and political circumstances. In addition to prior research, relationships you have built will help you understand the unique situation of the community with which you are working. Community members can help you navigate cultural protocols and etiquette that may be unfamiliar, as well as relationships that may affect your work.
A community ultimately decides whether or not they are interested in working on an oral history project with outsiders. As such, oral history projects with Native communities should seek to generate results that benefit both the general body of knowledge and the community with which one is working. Doing oral history is an exchange, a relational process that calls for reciprocity, and outcomes that benefit the community.
Some considerations for doing oral history with Native communities:
- Ask permission and gain consent.
- Do your homework.
- Not all Native communities are the same; it is important to learn about issues specific to the community you work with.
- Identify appropriate cultural resources contacts. You may need to seek permission from a cultural committee, tribal elders and/or other internal gatekeepers.
- Individual oral histories may include cultural information through community stories or as part of first-person memories that not all would agree to share outside the tribe.
- Be aware that your timelines may not match those of the tribe. Be flexible regarding expectations and outcomes.
- Be aware that tribes may have unique protocols regarding when, where, and how to transmit oral narratives that potentially carry sacred information.
- Try to preserve intended meaning as part of the recorded account, whether of community or personal stories.
- Explain your project clearly. Be prepared to discuss your personal motivations, not just goals or methods.
- Understand that tribes are sovereign nations, politically and culturally. They decide what to share and what remains private.
- Find out what is important to the community and follow up.
- Recognize, respect, and portray indigenous knowledge and expertise.
- Reciprocity is important. A trust relationship is more likely if you work towards a collaboratively determined community benefit.
- Oral history projects with native communities should seek to generate results that benefit the community and general knowledge and understanding. Ask yourself what skills you can offer the community.
- Build relationships. Recognize that the oral history process may be as significant as outcomes. Collaborative work takes time and trust.
- Work with community and tribal partners to ensure review of materials. Discuss and negotiate findings as required.
- Respect tribal limitations, sacred information, and political constraints.
Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group (IPSG) of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). AAA Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group’s Declaration of Key Questions About Research Ethics with Indigenous Communities, 2010.
Yow, Valerie, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Altamira Press, 2005).