William Schneider, currently curator of oral history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Elmer Rasmuson Library, comes to the authorship of this volume honestly through decades of close, hands-on involvement in numerous Alaskan oral history endeavours. He has also spent time in South Africa helping a university there establish an oral history program to document the role of the university’s students and staff in that country’s resistance to apartheid. His book is enriched by this sojourn.
Schneider’s writing is pleasingly, and intentionally, in tune with his topic in its informal, personal, and frequently autobiographical approach, as he relates, considers, and discusses one pertinent point after another. His text is appropriately supported by many fascinating examples of oral history stories drawn mainly from Alaska and South Africa—some remarkable hemispherical leaps here—and a few notable examples from the Canadian north based on the work of Julie Cruikshank and Murielle Nagy.
The book’s central theme is the challenge of preserving meaning in oral history once it has been recorded and archived, a challenge born of Schneider’s misgivings about the ultimate value of oral history unsupported by sufficient contextual documentation. He states the problem frankly: “As I realize more about the differences between stories told and stories recorded, I question how good a job we are doing to preserve history and culture. I cringe a bit and ask myself what is missing from the archival record that was present in the recording session” (p. 7).
In addressing this issue, Schneider discusses numerous points about which oral history archivists and curators should be mindful. These include, among others, ethical considerations, the representation and interpretation of materials, the need for cross-referencing, particularly where variants of stories occur, and the importance of providing as complete a description as possible of the context and situation in which the record was made and archived, in other words, the detailed “why and wherefore” of any given project. Moreover, the oral history archivist must move from being a mere caretaker of records to, Schneider suggests, a “[…] creator of records, a person whose mark on the record is visible to all” (p.163). The main lesson here is that much thought and preparation should be given to all aspects of oral history collection, documentation, and archiving, to recognize, in Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s words, quoted by Schneider, that the “act of collecting” is, or should be,“[…] an active act of production that prepares facts for historical intelligibility” (p. 163).
Usefully, the book ponders many interrelated facets of the oral history and traditional knowledge field. For instance, there is a thoughtful, well-referenced (but perhaps not fully resolved) discussion of the differences between “oral traditions” and “oral history” and between “myths” and “legends,” concepts that are all too frequently, sometimes interchangeably, used without much thought being given to their meanings or distinctions. Schneider’s consideration of the various types or “genres” of oral history is also apt, and he is correct in drawing attention to what he terms the “neglected genre”—meaning, the record of formal gatherings and conferences of aboriginal peoples to discuss cultural and political issues. The proceedings of such meetings are now invariably recorded but not often properly documented and archived.
There are, perhaps, some other genres of the oral history record that could be added to those listed by Schneider: for instance the solitary “self-taped” recording, and the recording where the interviewer and the interviewee are both elders, of similar age, from the same community. These forms of record have been used effectively in the Igloolik Oral History Project with results markedly different from, and usually richer than, those obtained in the more conventional “information eliciting” form of interview. Some elders clearly saw the tape recorder as a means to “speak to the future” and would favour the self-taped “interview” to record—without the interruptions of an interviewer—self-selected stories, information, knowledge and reflections, that they deemed important. Recordings made of two elders, where one of them assumes the role of interviewer, are also productive in that the elders’ shared experiences and knowledge of the topics or events discussed usually produced a highly informed and informative discourse, well beyond what could have been achieved by other means. And to Schneider’s “neglected genres” of oral history I would add the numerous audio and video recordings, often in aboriginal languages, made and stored by regional public and community broadcasting organizations. Characteristically, these diverse accumulations are unevenly documented, often poorly cared for, and difficult to access, but potentially represent an enormous oral history resource begging for the level of curatorial care and attention advocated by Schneider.
From a Canadian Arctic perspective, I think a major oversight in this otherwise wide-ranging and helpful book is its failure to examine the dynamics of oral tradition transfer within the context of change and loss. We know that communication between elders and youth in most arctic communities is now severely compromised—withdrawal from the land, increasingly urbanized settlement life, formal schooling, mass media, and language loss, all encroach on, filter, and diminish, the oral transmission of traditional knowledge. Schneider, however, implies that stories and cultural information not communicated to others “represents a tacit decision by the group either that the story is not important enough to be part of the oral tradition or that they do not want to pass the information on to others” (p. 65). Surely this view misses the point that in the contemporary north there are factors beyond group and individual control that inhibit such communication. Indeed, the initial impetus for the Igloolik Oral History Project came from the elders’ reluctant acknowledgement that the community’s younger generations were rapidly losing traditional values and skills, along with their language, and were not readily receptive to their culture’s teachings. The oral history project was a conscious attempt to bridge the gap, to address the future, if not the present.
Towards the end of the book, Schneider delves into the contentious and complex issue of intellectual property rights and related concerns such as consent, release forms, access, and liability. In this context he relates a troubling incident where he had to decline, albeit reluctantly, accessioning a major oral history collection—“the life’s work of a prominent and important researcher” (p. 152)—because it was doubted that the Elmer Rasmuson Library could acquire the rights to make this collection publicly available. It is clear that such legal considerations will increasingly determine the shape, scope, and accessibility of oral history projects, all in the good name of individual rights and protection against inappropriate use of the stories and information recorded. But there’s an irony here in that legal conventions not of aboriginal people’s own making will doom important, often unique, recordings of traditional knowledge and oral history to neglect and oblivion.
All in all “…So They Understand” is a thoughtful, informative piece of work which will interest readers seeking an understanding of contemporary oral history practices and issues. Those actually engaged in oral history work, particularly the day-to-day tasks involved in its collection, documentation and archiving, will certainly relate appreciatively to this book, and find in its pages much to value and contemplate.
The Igloolik Oral History Project began in the mid 1980s as collaboration between the Igloolik Research Centre and the Inuit elders of Igloolik. The project, still on-going, seeks to record and document Inuit traditional knowledge and oral history of the Northern Foxe Basin area of Nunavut. The recordings, translations, and transcripts deriving from the project are archived at the Igloolik Research Centre, Igloolik, Nunavut.