The Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Program: Gathering the "Raw Material of History"

By Repp, Dianna | Journal of the Southwest, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Program: Gathering the "Raw Material of History"


Repp, Dianna, Journal of the Southwest


The Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Program was initiated in late 1966 in several state universities: the University of Arizona, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of New Mexico, University of Oklahoma, University of South Dakota, and University of Utah. The University of California dropped out after the first year, and the University of Florida was added to the project. The overall goal of Ms. Duke's project was to establish oral history projects to "collect testimony from Indian people" (Bruner 1970:1), thus gathering the "raw material of history from the Indian point of view" (3). There was also an appreciation that this "Indian point of view" was not monolithic or one-dimensional. As the historian Samuel Hand (1984:53) observed, "The decision to establish oral history centers at multiple universities reflected a growing appreciation for the diversity among American Indians as to their cultural perspective and their particular historical experiences in regard to federal, state, and local agencies." The Doris Duke Program also had a second goal, as important as the first: to return copies of recorded tapes to the tribal communities as part of a reciprocal agreement between the tribes and the universities. In this way, the collection of oral history was a joint enterprise from which the tribes as well as the academic institutions profited.

Each university created a project that was located within either its history or anthropology department. Each project involved the participation of Native and non-Native American graduate students, faculty, and researchers in interviewing and collecting oral testimonies from Native American individuals, using reel-to-reel recorders or the newly invented cassette recorders. Funding continued until as late as 1972 at some of the universities, when the entire project was discontinued. From information gathered by Kathryn Jasper from seven universities in 2002, I estimate that more than four thousand recordings of Native Americans were made under the auspices of the Doris Duke Program (see her paper in this volume).

THE PLACE OF THE PROGRAM IN THE HISTORY OF LARGE-SCALE PROJECTS

For the past five centuries, the history of Native relations with the larger American culture has been told primarily from the point of view of the Europeans who came to the North American continent and their American-born descendants. They sought to document Native Americans for a variety of reasons. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, thought that knowledge of American Indian languages would provide evidence of their origins (Patterson 2001:10). This was in part a political view: the ancestry of the indigenous peoples of North America would prove this continent's superiority to Europe. Some researchers wanted to record native languages to facilitate trade, political treaties, and the subsequent subjugation and administration of the Native peoples. And many researchers, convinced of the inevitable decline and assimilation of Native populations, wanted to record Native languages, religion, knowledge of the land, and other aspects of traditional indigenous life before the groups became extinct. Some of these efforts to record Native language and history have taken place on an individual basis, but many have been large, well-organized projects. In order to put the Doris Duke Program into perspective, it is instructive to look at a few of the large-scale projects implemented in the United States before or during the time of the Doris Duke Program, and their efforts to record the voices of Native Americans and other minority populations.

Early large-scale efforts often took the form of questionnaires and involved personnel with no specific training in linguistics or history. In 1786, President George Washington asked government agents in Ohio to collect Indian vocabularies. Similar requests were made over the next thirty years by Jefferson and other government officials.

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