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Oral history as narrative, cultural reflexivity

By Alexander Banks, oral history coordinator

BIG CYPRESS — A few months ago I attended a symposium hosted by the Oral History Association (OHA). The topic at hand was how to empower the voices of minority and underrepresented communities in historical narratives, particularly in the field of oral history.

Much of our conversation centered around the theme of how any narrator in an oral history interview should have ultimate authority over their own telling of their people’s and their culture’s history. I found that this idea really resonated with the work we’re doing at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

The museum tries to make sure all oral history participants and narrators understand that they have full control and authority over how their story is told and represented in the museum’s collection. All that said, I figured I would elaborate on the theory behind the museum’s particular approach.

Oral history is an important way that members of any culture or community can directly educate the future generations. For tribal communities, this is the most important thing about oral histories. This way, future generations can learn history from the point of view of tribal elders and community members firsthand. For tribal museums, oral histories are a vital part of the historic collection that helps the museum share the story of the community they serve.

When you hear the word “narration” you might imagine things like works of fiction, or a story as opposed to a more straightforward list of the facts. If someone is narrating their own history or the history of their people, are they turning it into more of a story and less of a history? I think not. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that all historians funnel their findings through a storytelling, narration process to get a final product that looks less like a list of facts, and more like a novel. So why do some academics consider the story told by the historian to be more valid or historical than the narrative of the interviewee? This should be the other way around.

In other words, if someone is being interviewed about the history of their culture and their personal life story, shouldn’t they have the final say in what that story looks like? In all of their best efforts to make sense of the past, historians are really just outsiders looking in, turning a list of data into a story.

On the other hand, the storytellers from within any given culture are going to always be able to more effectively communicate the history of their own people. The interviewee should always be given the most control and power over how to narrate their story and the story of their people. And through the two-way conversation that is any good oral history interview, the narrator can always seize that opportunity to correct the misunderstandings about their culture, to explain the often ignored aspects of their history, and to ultimately be the better teller of their history than any historian ever could be.

If you’d like to be a narrator with the power to tell your own story for future Seminole generations, our oral history program can help. Contact me at or at (863) 902-1113, ext. 12214 to ask questions or make an appointment.