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Preserving History: Recording Those with Knowledge

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  • Preserving History: Recording Those with Knowledge

    Have you ever thought, "I wished I had recorded 'so and so' while they were alive, a lot of information went with them in their passing?"

    An important elder dies almost every day, somewhere in Indian Country. Gone with them is vital information on history, families, language, tribes and stories.

    It is vital that we take the time to record the people who are important to us and hold a wealth of information. All that you need is a video or tape recorder, extra tapes, batteries and a place to conduct the interview.

    I have compiled some basic information and questions for making your own home interviews:


    (I.) Preparation

    1. Make sure there is no unwanted noise at your interview site. Turn off all televisions, radios, cell phones and alarms. Take regular phones off the hook. Do a "test check" for volume and play it back to see that it is working properly.

    2. Tell the interviewee if he/she needs to take a break or needs time to recollect information, to let you know and you will accommodate them.

    3. Once you are ready, tell the person you are interviewing to get comfortable and speak as naturally as possible. Also, if there is anything they don't want to answer or not know the answer, that is okay.

    (II.) Beginning the interview

    1. Begin by having the interviewee state his/her full name. Also their Indian name and meaning (if they have one).
    2. Acknowledge anyone else in the room by stating out loud, the names of who is there.
    3. Also state the date, time and location of the interview.

    (III.) Opening questions to ask:

    1. Birth date?
    2. Location of birth?
    3. Parent's names (Include Indian names and meaning if possible)?
    4. Parent's occupations?
    5. Education and information about the schools the interviewee attended. (ie. Locations and Dates)?
    6. Training/work experience in chronological order. (ie. Locations and Dates)?
    7. Military experience (if applicable): Branch, division, highest rank, tour locations, years in active duty, veteran's organization currently a member of and a story of while in active service?
    8. Organizations the interviewee is involved with?
    9. Is there any special title or office's held?

    (IV.) Specific Topics:

    A. Family

    1. Are you related to any former chiefs, religious leaders or other important people of the tribe?
    2. Name all your relatives back as far as you can remember?
    3. Who were your grandparents - starting with fathers parent's, then mother's parents?
    4. What were they like?
    5. Did they speak their language?
    6. How many were in your household, while growing up?
    7. Who were they? Give their names and how they were related?
    8. How many grand children and great grand children do you have now?

    B. History

    6. Does your tribe have a creation story? Where do they believe they came from? (ie. the sky? the earth? the waters?)
    7. Where was your tribe originally from? (ie. state or province)
    8. Where did your family originally settle? (ie. community or land marker)
    9. What tribal band/society/or community are you affiliated with? How did the band/society or community get its name?
    10. What are some of the differences and simularities between the clans/bands/societies in your tribe?
    11. Does your family have a "family song, clan song or individual song?"
    12. When is it supposed to be sung and what does it mean?

    C. Stories

    11. What was your earliest memories as a child?
    12. What are some of the stories of your tribe?
    13. Do these stories transfer easily into English or do they lose their meaning?
    14. Is there a message or lesson in telling these stories?

    D. Language

    15. Who else is alive in the tribe that speaks your language fluently?
    16. How do you pronounce the Indian names of relatives? (ie. father, mother, sister(s), brother(s), aunt(s) and uncle(s) etc.
    17. What are the Indian names of some of the locations that you are aware of? (ie. hills, mountains, rivers, canyons and places where important events took place)
    18. How do you say: a greeting, a word equivalent to good-bye and thank you, good, bad, colors, numbers, animals and foods?

    E. Cultural (*These questions are very sensitive and may or may not apply to your interviewee. Use your better judgement. Normally these questions are for immediate family.)

    19. What ceremonies does your tribe no longer have or practice?
    20. What are the ceremonies still alive today?
    21. What do you feel comfortable about telling about certain ceremonies?

    F. Cultural Specific

    22. Who in the tribe has the right to conduct these ceremonies and who is in charge today?
    23. What takes place in these ceremonies?
    24. What has changed in these ceremonies?
    25. How do you feel about these changes? (if applicable)

    (V.) Wrap up:

    1. Are there any words of advice or a message you would like your decendants hear?
    3. Is there anything you want to add to this recording?
    3. Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

    (VI.) Restate:

    1. Ask the person you are interviewing to restate their full name and Indian name (if applicable).
    2. Re-acknowledge the people still in the room.
    3. Restate the date, time and location of the interview.
    4. Say out loud, "this ends this interview."


    "This is by no means the absolute, only way to conduct an interview. It is only intended to get you started. You can add, delete or change it to fit your needs."


    Powwows will continue to evolve in many directions. It is inevitable.

  • #2
    This is probably one of the most useful things I have seen anyone post Whome! I always wished I had videotaped my grandmother before she passed last November, but she did'nt like her picture taken, much less a video camera. She also was'nt a big talker. She was one of those ladies like the Marilyn Whirlwind character from Northern exposer.. saying volumns with few words.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic


    • #3
      Friggen cool.
      "Gaa wiin daa-aangoshkigaazo ahaw enaabiyaan gaa-inaabid"


      • #4
        This is really great. Thanks so much! :Thumbs
        "We see it as a desecration not only of a mountain but of our way of life. This is a genocidal issue to us. If they kill this mountain, they kill our way of life." ~Debra White Plume


        • #5
          WhoMe: If you have conducted your own personal interviews, which I'm guessing you have :), with all the information that you gather, do you put together a verbatim transcript, so you can have an audio and text version? Just a question:D, but I think I will print this out later so I can use it:)
          (¯`·._)Ït §M꣣$ £¡kë ®åíñßÕw§ (¯`·._)


          • #6
            Originally posted by ndn_butterfly
            WhoMe: If you have conducted your own personal interviews, which I'm guessing you have :), with all the information that you gather, do you put together a verbatim transcript, so you can have an audio and text version? Just a question:D, but I think I will print this out later so I can use it:)


            In answer to your question: For my purposes, I extract targeted information and have a transciptor put verbatum transcript onto hard copy.

            The information on interviewing that I shared is for general use that anybody can use to record interviews.

            I use this same basic format but ask specialized questions to individuals who are considered tribal historians, tribal liaisons or elders with specialized knowledge in individual subjects.

            I hope this answers your question.
            Powwows will continue to evolve in many directions. It is inevitable.


            • #7
              Thanks:D, I just wanted to know about the verbatim transcripts. But usually, thats a pretty good thing to do, especially when conducting interviews huh:) but yes it answered my question
              (¯`·._)Ït §M꣣$ £¡kë ®åíñßÕw§ (¯`·._)


              • #8
                very informative meegwitch. i think ill interview my dad...and others.


                • #9
                  Awesome Idea and i thankyou for you ideas in this mattter.
                  My husbands great grandmother passed at a very old age her only language was out native Blackfoot Language and to this day i wish there had been sum record of her because she did tell alot of stories, there has been mention of tapes being made of her but no one seems to know where they went. I am big on family history and wish that i could get my hands on those tapes, because I am stuk, but my relatives tell me to keep praying and the answers will come to me.
                  Thankyou again for your suggestions and i hope we can all keep our history alive and that we wont have regrets of what we should have could have and would have done. the words of our ancsetors need to be passed down to our youth they are in trouble of losing thier traditions in this modernisitc world in which we live, lets help them keep the traditions alive by starting the work for them.

                  ~~~ Never look down on anybody unless you're helping them up. ~~~


                  • #10
                    Great ideas WhoMe.


                    • #11
                      Great Suggestion

                      Whome brings up a great suggestion, as we do need to preserve history, knowledge and information for future generations. However, as one who has had some experience talking with many different tribal elders about a variety of topics for over 30 years now, I would like to offer the following methods that have worked for me in some situations when a video camera or a tape recorder is not welcome, at least not initially. Remember, a lot of elders are still kinda shy about the whole Anthropologist style interview thing and may not want to participate right off.

                      1. If I do not know the elder I want to talk with, I usually find a friend that can introduce me to the elder. Someone they already know and trust. I chat with them and become friends with them. In many tribal traditions it is considered impolite to start asking questions right off the bat. I might suggest that I come to visit with them at their home at another time, and share a cup of coffee. If the elder agrees, I usually try and set a day and time before we part company.

                      2. When I come to the elder's home, it shows a level of sincerity and commitment on my part and helps put the elder at ease in their own surroundings. When I arrive, I will make sure to bring a bag of groceries. One bag is enough. More than one could be taken as an insult, implying that you think they are poor or needy. One bag of groceries however usually is taken as a sign of respect and generosity. You are showing your willingness to help out. The groceries I usually pick out are basics like flour, sugar, coffee, fresh fruit, potatoes, canned vegetables, that sort of thing. I usually give the bag of groceries to the woman of the house, if there is one. Or I may just set it down on the kitchen counter saying, "I brought this just to help out in a small way." I try not to make a big deal of it, because I'm not looking for thanks or recognition.

                      3. Because many of the tribal elders I talk with are "traditional", I also make sure to bring some tobacco with me. Even if the elder does not smoke, I give him or her a pack of non-filter cigarettes. If the elder does not smoke, they may have an occasion to give tobacco to someone else. If the elder follows a traditional spiritual practice, they will know the subtle significance of the tobacco gift. You have come to ask them something.

                      4. I then usually follow the lead of my elder host. Usually a cup of coffee is offered, and I visit for a short time of 15 to 20 minutes or so. Chit-chatting about the weather, people we may know in common, where I come from and what I do, maybe talk about community happenings, etc. Usually the elder may then say something like, "So what's on your mind?" or "What brings you here?" or "So, what did you want to know?" Something like that. I usually wait for the elder to announce in some way that they feel comfortable talking about serious matters now.

                      5. If the elder does not give me a subtle sign that they are ready to talk about some serious topics, I may find an appropriate pause to say something like, "You know, I've often wondered about...." or "The other day I was talking with 'so-and-so' about 'this-and-that' and I started into thinking about...." This might open things up for the elder to begin talking about a particular topic that he or she now knows you are interested in.

                      6. Many times I have found that elders feel it is impolite to ask them questions directly, like "What do you know about..." or "Tell me about...." or "I've heard you know a lot about...." Elders are often put on the defensive by such questions, and may not respond because of it. Frequently they want me to understand that they know very little about a subject (although in reality, they may know quite a bit). The elder usually trys to remain the humble keeper of knowledge, not the "know-it-all expert." To ask a direct question of an elder also implies in their mind that they have the responsibility to tell me everything in the most perfect way. Something that they may not feel capable of doing.

                      7. When an elder starts talking about a serious topic I want to know about, I usually do more listening than anything else. I make mental notes of everything that is said so I can write down as much as possible on a notepad I keep in my truck, once I leave his or her home. If the elder is giving a lot of information, more than I can remember, I might ask them if they mind if I get a notepad in my truck so that I can write some of the information down. Frequently they admire my desire to acurately preserve the information at that point.

                      8. Once I have made the initial contact, and the first home visit or two and become good friends with the elder, depending on the elder and the topic, I might suggest to them that I could record some of the information they have already told me so that future generations may benefit from the knowledge also. If they agree, then I set a day and a time and bring my recorder. I may also bring tapes for them to listen to of interviews I have done with other elders so that they can see how it would come out. Many times old songs and their meanings are preserved in this way. I then would follow a similar format that WhoMe has prepared to identify the person and the information being presented.

                      9. Most important, whenever I have made friends with an elder and learned from them, maybe even made recordings of them, I always make a point to stay in touch. Make a friend and be a friend.

                      I hope this helps, it is a system that has worked for me for many years.

                      "Be good, be kind, help each other."
                      "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

                      --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)


                      • #12
                        Thanks Historian,

                        These are all good and helpful tips in getting interviews from elders.

                        I am fortunate that my agency keeps a box of trade tobacco, a cash flow account for groceries and an invoice slip to sign for an honorarium.

                        I know of no other government agency that goes the distance as mine to handle the receiving of information from Indian people.

                        You and I are on the same page. This is my routine.

                        I make good contacts through my contacts. I then make an appointment with the interviewee. I go by the grocery store to make a fresh basket of groceries (ie. roast, fresh fruits, coffee, canned goods, etc.) Then, I travel to the elders home. I shake hands, with a tobacco exchange. I then present the basket of groceries. Drink coffee. Talk for a long time. Then start my interview. At the end, I have them sign a release and honorarium invoice.
                        Powwows will continue to evolve in many directions. It is inevitable.


                        • #13
                          whome you are awesome!!! Aho! thanks for sharing this valuable information and same for historian!!


                          • #14
                            OH my gawsh!!!! You guys are soooo..helping a novice!!
                            I am currently doing this with my elders..There are not very many peeps on my rez who go speak with tha elders, so their knowledge is getting i am doing this with my elders..but i am using my mother & my aunts to be interpreters..I can barely speak to my own i see the dire need for since i have compplete access to a studio, for editing...and my mom is fluent and already has a VERY good relationship with them because we always bring them groceries, or give them rides, or clean up for them..or give them monies when we win at they are willing to do this for your words are very helpful for me..THANK YOU!!!
                            Nuwa-nu!!..Look at the Yummy Yaha's!!mmmm..mmm Real injun food!!
                            Agai-Dika from the great state of potatoes (Lemhi Shoshone-Bannock). So Don't panic, I'm Bannock. P.S. heres my quote: uncle Gary Abrahamson "Don't sweat the petty things, Pet the sweat things!"
                            :character:merrychri:eyelashes:eyelashes:eyelashes :eyelashes:
                            eyelashes:eyelashes:eyelashes:eyelashes:eyelashes: eyelashes:


                            • #15
                              Whome and Historian thanks for the great ideas and ways of talking with elders. It is really good to know thease way.

                              Thanks. TMS
                              If I do not know the answer someone else will!!!!
                              Also forgive me, this system does not have a spell check so forgive the bad spelling


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