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Power and protection: the oral history program at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki

By Alexander Banks, oral history coordinator, and Tara Backhouse, collections manager

Even a large family group can record an oral history or family gathering for future generations through the Oral History Program, as the Johns family did in Brighton in 2018. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

BIG CYPRESS — The Oral History Association (OHA) will be hosting a virtual conference in June about the role of race and power in oral history theory and practice later this year. At the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, staff take great care to empower oral history interviewees. The oral history program protects and preserves every community member interview with as many or as few restrictions as that tribal member asks for. The oral history collection exists primarily to be referenced and accessed by community members. The interviews are not available online for any interested party to access. Each request for access is handled by program staff with the utmost care and respect. The oral history program goes to great lengths to protect the agency, power, and voices of tribal interviewees. For these
reasons, this upcoming OHA conference is a rich opportunity for our museum to contribute to the discourse around oral history methodology.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki staff have collectively transcribed more than 100 oral histories, most of which were transcribed in the last two years. Just as with the physical and digital recordings, these transcripts are protected and only distributed or shown to anyone with the permission of the interviewee.

Permissions are granted with a consent form (the oral history agreement). It states that each interviewee has the right to impose any kind of restriction on their interview at any time. If no forms are signed, the recordings and transcripts are respectfully considered restricted to all.

The museum’s conference presentation will be about the merits of verbatim (or exact) transcription. While program staff strive to produce the most accurate transcripts possible, even the most dedicated attention to detail will still leave room for mistakes and omissions. Other institutions might dismiss these omissions as just a small utterance, pause, false start, slang term, crutch word, etc… When enough of those nuances are omitted, though, at what point does the transcriber begin to exert too much editing power to retroactively alter what was said in the interview? The power of an oral history should remain with the interviewee, and at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki our verbatim transcription method aims to do just that.

The museum wants to be as transparent as possible about our methods. If anyone were to notice a small difference between the video/audio and the transcript, we would always be a willing to review and rewrite the transcript in question. This revision and review process is one in which the museum happily invites past and future interviewees to participate. The presentation at the upcoming conference will demonstrate how verbatim transcription can be a big step in moving towards oral history methodologies that empower underand misrepresented communities. However, verbatim transcription is just one step in the right direction, and at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki we look forward to collaborating with interviewees to find new and thoughtful approaches to continue improving our oral history methodology. If you’re interested in the museum’s oral history archive and how we protect it, or if you want to hear the interviews we have available for the community, contact us at (863) 902-1113 or museum@semtribe.com.

Oral history program staff use digital recording equipment to capture both audio and video interviews. Any restrictions noted on oral history
agreements are honored and noted on a cover page of the associated transcript. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)
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