OU Collection Receives $200K Grant to Preserve Native American Oral Histories

Mike Seals - March 4, 2021 9:17 am

The recordings, collected some 50 years ago, will be given further context, digitized and made readily available to Native nations, scholars and the public.



NORMAN, OKLA. – The University of Oklahoma Libraries’ Western History Collections has received a $200,000 award to preserve, digitize and make more accessible the Native American oral histories that were recorded by OU students in the 1960s and 1970s. The funding comes from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, whose namesake financed the collection of original recordings.

OU is one of seven universities participating in the Doris Duke Native American Oral History Revitalization Project that aims to preserve the recordings through digitization, improve culturally appropriate access to the recordings, provide the originating Native communities with digital copies of all materials collected, ensure proper care of the original materials and promote their use. Additionally, in consultation with Native communities in Oklahoma, the project will develop plans to update and expand the collection of oral histories to include contemporary voices.

“The importance of this gift cannot be overestimated,” said OU Libraries Interim Dean Karen Rupp-Serrano. “These collections have been at risk in all the participating institutions because of the original format in which they were recorded. The DDCF grant preserves these irreplaceable collections, leverages their value by creating a shared website where users can search all seven collections simultaneously, and ensures that terms of access are respectful of the Native communities represented. We are honored to be involved in this important effort.”

Doris Duke funded a project at seven universities across the country, including OU, aimed at collecting oral histories from Native Americans. Duke awarded grants to the universities to collect a robust collection of oral histories from Native leaders and culture bearers around the country and to return these stories to the tribes and communities that provided them. Each university identified faculty, graduate students and/or researchers to interview Native leaders and community members. Those interviewed were asked to reflect on their experiences living on reservations and attending Native schools, and for their knowledge of Native traditions.

From 1967 to 1972, OU students and staff interviewed more than 600 Native elders across Oklahoma. The resulting Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Collection has since been archived in the OU Libraries’ Western History Collections. The new project enables the preservation of this unique and valuable oral history collection through digitization and will extend the partnership with the Native American communities who are represented in the recordings to determine respectful terms of access for both the general public and scholarly researchers.

“The Native oral history collection housed at OU represents a rich repository of the diverse lived experiences and cultural traditions of Native peoples in the region told in their own voices,” said Lola Adedokun, program director for child well-being at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “I credit the leadership at the University and the Western History Collections in the OU Libraries, and their tribal partners who have taken great care of the collection since the 1960s, and we are honored to be able to partner with them as they refresh and digitize the collection for active use in the future. We are thrilled to fund this effort to preserve and amplify the reach of these stories.”

The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, & Museums (ATALM) will coordinate the seven universities participating in the project.

“We are grateful to the Oklahoma Western History Collections for the stewardship it has shown the collections and appreciative of its dedicated work to revitalize them,” said Susan Feller, president of ATALM. “We will work with the seven universities to develop an online portal that will house the collections and make them searchable across collections. The 150 Native communities represented in the collections will have an opportunity to review the materials for cultural sensitivities, determine access and add new content.”

Lina Ortega, associate curator for the Western History Collections and subject librarian for the Native American Studies department in the College of Arts and Sciences, will serve as the project lead, ensuring a supportive relationship between those entities, as well as OU’s Native Nations Center and OU Libraries. Ortega noted that OU intends to involve the state’s Native communities in the decision-making processes during the upcoming project.

“Since individuals from almost all of the Native nations in Oklahoma shared their life experiences and knowledge to create this oral history collection,” said Ortega. “It is vital for the Western History Collections and the university to partner with those tribal nations and descendants of the original participants. The work of those partnerships will be to determine respectful access to the oral history collection and to ensure that all tribal communities represented have digital copies of the audio recordings and transcripts. We will also ask Native communities to help improve descriptions of the oral histories and to develop context about the information in them.”

Ultimately, it is hoped that through shared perspectives, OU and the Native nations in Oklahoma can generate creative projects for using these oral histories to educate Native youth and all Oklahomans on the Native American experience and how that relates to U.S. history.

To help realize these goals, an advisory committee will be formed consisting of OU faculty, staff and students, as well as Native community members from a variety of tribes. Students will be an integral part of this committee to help develop a strategy for partnership with Oklahoma tribes. Officials at OU believe that student involvement, along with that of their fellow Native American faculty and staff, will contribute to an atmosphere of belonging, where Native communities feel that their unique life experiences are valued.

The Doris Duke Native American Oral History Revitalization Project dovetails with OU’s strategic plan, released last year. The strategic plan seeks to align federal, state, tribal and private-sector opportunities for growth in research scale, scope and impact.

Many Native individuals and tribal groups in Oklahoma are aware of the Doris Duke collection, but this project will ensure that all tribal Nations are aware of the collection and have copies. Because the tribal elders who were interviewed for the Doris Duke oral histories spoke about topics of their choosing, the content of the collection as a whole covers topics ranging from schools, religion, tribal histories, land allotment, tribal government and family life, to name a few.

Many of the interviews were done in Native languages, which are almost all endangered now. The collection also contains recordings of events, such as tribal council meetings or meetings of intertribal organizations. The Doris Duke collection impacts Native communities by connecting their family members’ voices to current concerns and providing a resource for tribes’ cultural and language revitalization initiatives.

Ortega envisions that tribal communities will use these oral histories as educational resources for their members, especially for children. The knowledge recorded in these interviews is useful for language programs or other initiatives, such as Native food sovereignty that seek to improve the well-being of Indigenous people.

“Through this project, the Western History Collections and University Libraries will gain invaluable experience in equitably partnering with Native nations and individuals to steward archival collections,” said Ortega. “This experience will help us develop or improve relationships with tribes across Oklahoma, which will impact the stewardship of other WHC collections that were created by or are about Native Americans.”

OU Libraries and the Western History Collections will also be working with the six other institutions funded by the Doris Duke Native American Oral History Revitalization project to develop a shared website to make the oral history transcripts and recordings, along with other items such as photos, publicly available. The project enables OU to grow capacity in collaborating with other universities, partnering with tribal communities and working with other units on campus.

To learn more about the Western History Collections in the University of Oklahoma Libraries, visit https://libraries.ou.edu/content/western-history-collections-0.


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