Oral History, Interviewing, and Cultural Sensitivity

About a year ago, I was researching a topic for another course and I reached out to two members of the community in an attempt to get their insights into the subject. I knew nothing about oral history or interviewing techniques, but based on my prior study, I had a good idea of what information I was looking for from my interview subjects. I compiled a list of about a dozen questions and sat down with each of the interviewees. I began both sessions by briefly explaining to each person what I was researching, and they immediately launched into long (around three hours each) meandering soliloquies about a wide variety of topics. Some of the things they spoke about were related to the subject at hand, but much of it was tangential at best. In one of the interviews, the narrator did manage to answer the bulk of my questions, although I asked very few of them directly; he simply did not stop talking long enough to allow me to make my inquiries. The other person, however, seemed to have a specific agenda, one that did not have very much to do with my research interests. In the end, I came away from both interviews with interesting information, but a good deal of it was only marginally useful for the project on which I was working. I only vaguely understood it at the time, but I needed a better plan.

Any plan, of course, starts with extensive research. As Donald Ritchie explained it, research “is the only way to determine what questions to ask…Interviewees become impatient with interviewers whose questions show they do not know the subject matter.”[1] If I do not beforehand absorb as much as I can about the context surrounding the interviewee’s life and times, I simply will not have the knowledge needed to ask probing questions. That background knowledge is also vital to my ability to ask unscripted follow-up questions in response to the narrator’s previous answers. That flexibility, it seems to me, is one of the keys to conducting a successful interview, one in which both the researcher and the narrator come away feeling as if they have accomplished something individually and collectively. There is no way I can anticipate every answer my interviewee will give, and even if I could, such anticipation would most likely lead to the sort of loaded questions warned against by Ritchie.[2] Rather my goal should be to go into the interview armed with as much research as possible, and of course “it is safer to have too many questions than too few.”[3] From there it is only possible to react as well as I can to unexpected twists and turns in the interview, for as the Prussian strategist Helmuth von Moltke stated, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”[4]

My biggest fear concerning the interview I will conduct is that my inquiry will be seen as culturally insensitive by my interviewee. Vine Deloria, Jr. offered a withering assessment of academics who descended on Indian Country every summer so that they could poke and prod their subjects for reasons all their own and which did not offer any tangible results or benefits to Native Americans.[5] Deloria’s indictment may have been only his personal view, but I must recognize that my status as an “outsider” may hinder even my most well-intentioned attempts to elicit information from the narrator. Oral history interviewing certainly requires a good deal of research and preparation, but it also demands a certain level of cultural sensitivity.

[1] Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 86.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] Helmuth von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes (New York: Presidio Press, 1993), 92.

[5] Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. Reprint, originally published New York: Macmillan, 1969), 78-101.

The Primacy of Place in Cultural Identity


In her essay “Mapping Memories: Oral History for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in New South Wales, Australia,” Maria Nugent described a project she and her colleagues undertook to understand the importance of place in the individual and collective memories among Aborigines along the eastern coast of Australia.[1] I was intrigued by this particular essay because of the way in which the spatial experiences of Nugent’s interviewees corresponded to the primacy of place and homeland within the cultural memories of many Native American tribes. As Vine Deloria, Jr. has pointed out, his own “Sioux people cherished their lands and treated them as if they were people who shared a common history with humans.”[2] The Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, in recounting the oral histories that detail his tribe’s migration across the Great Plains, meditated on the ways in which the journeys of a people through space and time are collective examples of the individual journeys we all undertake as human beings.[3]

Nugent began her essay by noting the way in which the Australian government has privileged the memories of its white citizens in choosing which sites are deserving of recognition, preservation, and interpretation. The study of Aboriginal historical locations, by contrast, has largely been confined to pre-contact archaeological sites. Nugent’s goal was to record the stories and memories of contemporary Aborigines in order to demonstrate the continuing vitality of Aboriginal cultural identity. The predominance of white historical sites in Australia could easily lead one to believe “that Aboriginal people had simply left the scene the moment ‘whites’ arrived. But in many parts of…Australia, Aboriginal people have remained a vital local presence, albeit one that has been diminished through frontier violence, disease and starvation, dispossession from land, forced dispersals from one place to another, and the removal of children from families.”[4] In exploring the memories of Aborigines about segregated movie theaters, favorite fishing spots, and secluded beaches and campsites, Nugent revealed that the dominant narrative in Australian cultural heritage is not “as complete or as certain as professional practices and bureaucratic processes suggest.”[5] The stories told to Nugent and her colleagues reveal a marginalized but continuing Aboriginal presence in a land “owned” by white newcomers.

In many ways, contemporary Westerners have abandoned a sense of attachment to place. The ease with which we are able to undertake intercontinental travel, the globalization of culture and economies, and the relentless quest for material gain have reduced our sense of belonging to a particular people in space and time. For many indigenous cultures, this idea of belonging to their community and to the land they inhabit is central to their shared identity. Oral history is exquisitely positioned to explore the memories and shared identity of a community through its collection of stories, myths, and legends. Traditional documentary history is undoubtedly better at producing incontrovertible facts and figures and at narrating the broad sweep of history. But individual human identity, and its connection to a shared community identity, is about much more than historical facts. There is an overarching spiritual component to these connections, a history that can only be gleaned from the legends of a tribe and the stories of its people.

[1] Maria Nugent, “Mapping Memories: Oral History for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in New South Wales, Australia,” in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, ed., Oral History and Public Memory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 47-63.

[2] Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994), 1.

[3] N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969), 4.

[4] Nugent, “Mapping Memories,” 48-9, quote on 49.

[5] Ibid., 61.