Report: “States Return Indigenous Oral Histories to Tribal Control”
There are more than 600 oral history recordings housed where Lina Ortega is an associate curator for the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Libraries. Ortega speaks limited Seminole, one of the languages heard on the recordings. But while reviewing an ordinary tribal government meeting from 1969, she kept hearing a name she knew.
The name was that of her grandfather, Thomas Coker, an elected tribal official who was active in Seminole Nation politics for more than 30 years. The recording captured the empowering historical moment when many tribes were drafting new constitutions after the end of the Termination Era, roughly two decades when the U.S. government ceased federal recognition of some tribes.
“I couldn’t understand it all,” said Ortega, who is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation and has Seminole and Muscogee Creek heritage. “But I just heard his name coming up pretty frequently, and that was a joy.”
Such are the treasures in the archives of the Doris Duke Indian Oral History Program, which from 1966 to 1972 paid for anthropologists, historians and linguists at seven state universities to capture the stories and, in some cases, the fading languages, of Indigenous people across the United States.
The collection was supported by $200,000 grants to each school by tobacco heiress Doris Duke, whose friendship with the actor Marlon Brando spurred her interest in gathering the oral histories, according to the gossipy 1992 biography of Duke, “The Richest Girl in the World.” Brando famously declined his 1973 Oscar for The Godfather, in protest of the federal response to members of the American Indian Movement and other activists who occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for 71 days.
Fifty years later, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is following up on her original grants with a $1.6 million gift to digitize the materials stored at the universities. This time, tribes will have far more control over access, which will be through a centralized digital content management system, Mukurtu, created by and for Indigenous people.
More control may mean that some materials won’t be as readily accessible to the public as they once were. But it also means that the descendants of the people on tape — some of whom may not have given consent for their stories, songs or interviews to be recorded — will decide what materials should be in the public realm.
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.