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Oral History Lessons from our Tribal Treasures

July 10, 2013

By Dara Williams-Worden

Working with tribal elders and interviewing them for various projects has been a valuable lesson in not only history, but also in respect and in learning how to just slow down and take in the experience.

Proposed wind farm project in Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation ceded lands ( l. to r. Fermore Craig Sr., Marvella Jones, Eddie McFarland, Delphine Wood, Dara Williams-Worden)

Proposed wind farm project in Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation ceded lands ( l. to r. Fermore Craig Sr., Marvella Jones, Eddie McFarland, Delphine Wood, Dara Williams-Worden)

When doing this type of work, you quickly learn that it’s best not to interrupt the storyteller or worry about whether or not the questions on your list are getting answered because you learn so much more if you just let them speak comfortably and without constant steering or interruption.  You can generally use your questions as a way to find your way back to the original question at hand, but you often find that once you get a person talking with such a rich background you never know where the interview will lead. This is where you need to find a delicate balance when conducting an interview with an elder – especially a tribal elder.

Myrna Tovey (left) and Dara Williams-Worden (right) on the site of a proposed wind farm project in ceded lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Myrna Tovey (left) and Dara Williams-Worden (right) on the site of a proposed wind farm project in ceded lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Elders can be a tricky bunch; they either like your style or they don’t. And they’ll be the first to let you know.  We as Native Americans learn at a very young age to always respect our elders and to never question what they say or what they may ask of you to do. You just do it. You do not ask what, where or why.

After conducting literally hundreds of oral history interviews with my elders from my Tribe, I have found myself learning a lot about myself, my own family history as well as our history as a Tribe.  I have developed a relationship with them and have found that the time I spend with them is just as precious as the history they pass on.

Dara Williams-Worden is a Cultural Resources/Oral History Technician I with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Learn more about the history and culture of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

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