CRM Journal

Book Review

The American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard

By Charles E. Trimble, Barbara W. Sommer, and Mary Kay Quinlan. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008; 160 pp., paperback, $22.95.


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



1. Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual, second edition, American Association for State and Local History Book Series (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2009).

2. Alexa Roberts, "Sand Creek Massacre Site Oral History: Protecting Tribal Intellectual Property," CRM Magazine 23(9) (2000): 43-46.