Rivers Speak Community Play

Rivers Speak Logo reads "The Rivers Speak, Gigdoowag Ziibiik, Les Riveres Parlent"

Rivers Speak Logo

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Gigidoowag Ziibiik (Rivers Speak) Community Play.  This fantastic project was the culminating event of Thinking Rock Community Arts‘ efforts to engage community members in story telling and art making.  Since 2013 Thinking Rock has involved over 1500 individuals in hands-on making and storytelling with an emphasis on reflecting on local rivers and waterways.  This initiative also worked to create spaces for cross-cultural conversations and involve both Indigenous and settler communities. 

The Rivers Speak play included over 30 cast members of all ages and was held on the traditional pow wow grounds of Misswezhaging (Mississaugi First Nation).  This community art project was a joy to see come to fruition.  The play was based on the stories, oral histories, and memories collected by Thinking Rock since 2013.

The play intertwined settler and Indigenous perspectives on water, community, and family — it followed Marie (settler) and Ira (Indigenous) community members who lived locally but passed away within recent years. The play was guided by two local elders and the narration was a mixture of English and Ojibway.  It also included audience participation components – for example the audience walked through an outdoor living stage and were invited to participate in a round dance at the end of the play.

It was an extremely powerful experience to participate in as an audience member and it was beautiful to see such a nuanced story come together based on community narratives and memories.  The work undertaken by Thinking Rock is a great example of community engaged history, community arts and participatory story building. I’m looking forward to seeing what projects Thinking Rock tackles in the future.

Everyday Heroes

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt: Hero: Who was your hero this year? Tell us why. What makes a hero in your eyes?

 The residential school survivors I have had the opportunity to work with over the past few years are a constant source of inspiration.  Many of these individuals are in their 60s, 70s, or 80s yet they continue to be advocates for awareness around the legacy of residential schools.

They were founding members of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and have promoted education and healing around residential schools since the mid 1970s. Many of these elders routinely speak about their residential school experience to indigenous and non indigenous audiences.  For students of all ages this can be a powerful learning experience and is often the thing that makes them realize the lasting impact of residential schools.

These kind and generous people are heroes in my mind. They have worked tirelessly for years to raise awareness about residential schools and many have worked to promote healing within their own communities. I only hope I have nearly as much energy when I’m their age. 

Contested Public History and Public Engagement

The Spring 2014 issue of The Public Historian focused on contested histories, addressing controversy through public history, and the relationship of controversy and commemoration.  Christine Reiser Robbins and Mark W. Robbins’ piece “Engaging the contested Memory of the Public Square, Community Collaboration, Archaeology, and Oral History at Corpus Christi’s Artesian Park” is an excellent example of the challenges and potential benefits of tackling contested histories, issues of identity, and public input.

The article uses the case study of Corpus Christi’s Artesian Park to highlight the potential of using community engaged methods and collaborative designs that integrate oral history, archaeology, and archival research to build historical narratives.

The history of the Artesian Park and its commemoration has been filled with controversy.  In 1975 and 2002 attempts to commemorate the the park were filled with community disputes, disagreements of interpretation, and debated history.

In 2012 a public archeology and oral history project was launched in the community to focus on expanding historical narratives relating to the Park.  The project highlighted the possibility of creating a new narrative that combines personal histories, civic history/myth, and national narratives.  And the results showed the diversity in experiences and histories relating to the park. 

Christine Reiser Robbins and Mark W. Robbins’ argue that “engaged public history frameworks that are community driven and incorporate multiple methodologies can be a ‘source of empowerment’ in the pursuit of more open and contested cultural heritage.”  This project was open to all segments of the community which allowed for a range of participation and an increased understanding of the community itself and the history of the park.  The project also allowed for “new relationships to the place and to the community to be formed.”

This case study is a great example of the importance of community participation, collaboration, and the integration of multiple narratives into historical interpretation.  The long held nostalgic civic histories of the Park represent only a portion of the complete heritage of the Artesian Park.  Community collaboration and community input is crucial when addressing heritage the is contested and deeply community rooted.  Public history projects have the potential to bring together communities and start conversations relating to heritage and broader community issues.

Digital Tools For Transcription

In the past when I have worked with audio recordings of oral history interviews I have worked with Audacity for the digitization and transcription of the recordings.  Audacity is open source and does a great job in the digitization process and handles the manipulation (clean-up) of audio files well.  Additionally, Audacity does allow users to slow down the playback rate, which helps a lot in the transcription process.

However the transcription process can be a bit clunky if you are constantly switching between an Audacity window and a word processing program.  I’ve found that using two screens and Alt+TAB can help with switching between programs to replay bits of audio, but the process has never been ideal. 

Enter Express Scribe (possibly accompanied by sounds of transcription joy). As I mentioned in an earlier post I’m currently volunteering with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) as a transcriber on their Discovering Multicultural Ontario Digital Archive project. This transcription gig is what introduced me to Express Scribe as a tool for transcription.

I haven’t bee using Express Scribe for nearly as many different tasks as I use Audacity for, but it has a good setup for transcription.  The interface is super easy to understand and it can be downloaded for free. Setup and figuring out how to use the program for transcription took under ten minutes. Comparatively, I found Audacity great once I got used to it but the multiple toolbars and copious numbers of icons made it a bit daunting at first.

Express Scribe has also been mentioned multiple times on the H-oralhistory listserv as a good option for oral historians.  Personally, I like the program because you can adjust the audio and type all within the same window.  It’s like a playback program and a word processing program combined.

What digital tools do you use in the transcription process?

Photo credit: Keenesaw State University Archives

Transcription and Oral History

A number of jobs and volunteer positions I’ve held have allowed me to work from home or off-site.  For example: The History Group internship I completed in 2009 had me working on source identification projects from home and in 2010 I volunteered as a historical research associate with the Red Cross.

 In the same vein, I recently started volunteering with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) on their Discovering Multicultural Ontario Digital Archive project.  In this role I’m helping with the transcription of oral histories that have been collected by the MHSO.  I can work from home on this project as the MHSO has set up an FTP site and guidelines for volunteers who live anywhere in Ontario.

The MHSO has over 9000 hours of recorded oral history, much of which was recorded on cassette tapes.  This current initiative, funded by an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, aims to preserve and increase accessibility to these oral histories.  Over 1200 recordings have been digitized and people across Ontario are helping with the transcription of these recordings. 

One of the interesting aspects of this project is that the oral history recordings were recorded across Ontario.  As a result, even though the MHSO is located in Toronto and many of its projects have focused on Toronto communities, in this project I have been able to listen to and transcribe oral history recordings from Northern Ontario.  Even though I’ve just started volunteering with the MHSO, I’ve already learned a number of interesting facts about life in Sudbury in the early 1900s.

Overall, volunteering with MHSO has reminded me of the value of volunteers and collaboration within the heritage field.  The Digital Archive project has also highlighted the time consuming, detail oriented nature of transcription.  There is an overwhelming number of archives and museums that hold unprocessed oral history collections, many of which are recorded on cassettes and other slowly deteriorating mediums.   It’s great to see a project placing such a high value on oral history and working to make oral history collections more accessible to the general public.

Checkout a Person: National Human Library Day

Tomorrow, January 26th 2013,  is National Human Library Day in Canada.  The day is sponsored by CBC and invites Canadians to interact with ‘human books’ at 15 libraries and cultural centers across the country.  The CBC is also hosting an online component of the program where individuals can interact with human books via webcam, text, twitter, and online chat. 

The ‘human books’ are typically members of the community from different walks of life, that might show a perspective that many community members aren’t exposed to on a day to day basis.  For example, the Sudbury Human Library program features a transgendered woman, a former sex worker, a mine rescuer, a first nations Chief, among others.  Rather than checking out a book visitors to the library can sit down and have an informal conversation with a human book. The idea being that by talking to these people you might learn more about different aspects of society.

The Human Library program is great as it provides a reason for people who might not normally visit the library to participate in the event, it raises awareness of marginalized and under represented groups, and is very community oriented.  All the books come from the community and are typically checked-out by other community members.

I also like the idea that each of these people have stories that are worth sharing.  The story of each human book can be looked at as a personal history or an oral history.  The participants often talk about their personal experiences making their talks snippets of oral histories that they are sharing with others. 

In this particular incarnation of the Human Library, CBC has been heavily involved in promotion.  Local CBC programs have been playing recorded bits of personal stories in weeks leading up to the event.  These interviews are currently available on the regional CBC websites which conducted the interviews. The idea that at least part of these oral history experiences are being recorded appeals to the historian in me and brings to mind the importance of the digitization and transcription of oral history.  So many important experiences that can be provide insight to cultural, social and political history can be found in oral histories.

History Education in All Shapes and Sizes

The Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the American Archivist recently appeared on my desk.  I’m still working my way through it, but I found the article “Archival Document Packets: A Teaching Module in Advocacy Training Using the Papers of Governor Dick Thornburgh” by Richard J. Cox, Janet Ceja Alcala, and Leanne Bowler insightful and thought inspiring.

The article focuses on the University of Pittsburgh archival program‘s introduction of a course project to engage archival students in archival advocacy in outreach.   In particular, the students in a course called Archival Access, Ethics, and Advocacy under took a project to create teaching packets based on archival records relating to Dick Thornburgh.  The article outlines the experience of the students and their introduction to archival advocacy and addresses the relationship between archives and K-12 education.

September to December of 2012 was a particularly slow period for elementary and high school visits to the archive I work at.  This can largely be attributed to the Ontario English Teachers decision to cut extra-curricular activities (including field trips) in reaction to Bill 115.  In previous years, the archive has typically hosted one or two school groups a month.  Instead, September to December saw a large number of post-secondary and professional groups visiting the archive.  This shift in visitor trends contributed to me thinking about how archival visits can be bettered geared to each group.

As an archive we are lucky to be ideally situated on a historic site that reflects the type of material we collect.  Students groups often visit us to learn about the history of the site and not about archival practice.  That being said, I have a really hard time resiting an opportunity to explain the importance of historic documents, archives, and heritage institutions.  Any school presentation I give explains how the archive I work at was started as a community effort to collect lost pieces of history, includes slides of archival photographs and documents, and highlights the fact that archives are much more than just boxes of paper. 

Explaining research practices and archival selection to a grade four class isn’t really the way to win supporters of archives in the education world.  But, I do think it is possible to begin introducing archives to students at a young age.  When a K-12 class visits our archive we typically try to pair their visit with a visit from a local Elder, who explains their personal experiences to the students as a form of oral history.  Having a living person sharing their experience tends to add a tangible element to the archival visit, it brings the photographs I use to describe the past to life.

I think my first visit to an archive wasn’t until sometime in my undergrad. That visit included a standard introduction to archival research and prepared myself and my classmates to work on a source finding assignment in the archive. It was an okay introduction to the archive, but it really didn’t inspire any interest in learning about about how archives are organized or historical research.

I also don’t remember really being exposed to documentary heritage in any way in my earlier education.  I recall a couple of museum visits, but I think those were outside of school.  Heritage institutions have the potential to enrich history, social studies, civic lessons, geography, and so many other school topics.  But, for educators who have little to no exposure to heritage organizations or their holdings it’s understandable that this avenue of instruction is often overlooked.  Archives shouldn’t simply expect school groups to show up at their door.  Outreach and advocacy is needed to highlight the value of documentary and material cultural heritage within the formal education system.

How can archives/heritage organizations and educators collaborate more effectively?

Photo Credit: North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

Family Heirlooms: From Cutlery to Adornments

Who else has a relative who collects spoons?  In many instances these relatives tend to be older, female, and the spoons tend to be hanging in a wooden/glass display case of some sort.  My mother, grandmother and a number of aunts all collected spoons at one point or another. 

Theses spoons were often purchased while away on vacation or as a gift when someone else went away.  The spoons come in all shapes and sizes, but most tend to be silver and have a delicate look about them.  They are clearly decorative and not your everyday soup spoon.

Often a spoon collector has a personal story or memory associated with each spoon.  These stories are rarely recorded and often not remembered by anyone other than the collector.  Following a death, many children have given away spoon collections that once represented pieces of family history and material culture. 

I think the lack of appeal of spoon collections to younger generations is one of the reasons why I was so interested by the idea of spoon jewelery.  This Christmas my Mother gave my sister and I spoon bracelets.  These bracelets weren’t made from her spoon collection, but I’d like to think that they were made out of special occasion cutlery that once held a place in a family’s life.

Evening Star Spoon

Each bracelet was accompanied by a card which detailed the make of the original cutlery and a short history of spoon jewellery.  My bracelet was made from a 1950s Evening Star, Oneida Silverplate spoon (pictured at right).  The Evening Star spoon is definitely not as decorative as many of those in typical spoon collections, but it does look as though it belongs to a ‘nice’ antique silverware set, that was maybe only used on special occasions.  

So why make jewelery out of spoons? Spoon jewelry isn’t a new fashion trend, but apparently dates back to the 17th century.  Early spoon jewelry is said to have been predominately rings and was made by servants who had stolen flatware from their masters. Another history claims sailors in the navy would sneak silverware away from a ship galley to make engagement rings for their girlfriends. 

Personally, I like the idea of reusing objects that once held significance to make an item that is cherished by someone else.   Jewelry made out of antique objects that are no longer valued by a family seems like a great way to provide a second life to a family heirloom.  It makes me wonder about how other family collections could be re-purposed—eg. that overwhelming set of teacups your aunt has been storing for years.

Oral History and Documentation Sharing

Earlier this week, Canada’s History Society hosted an oral history webinar with Alexander Freund.  The webinar focused on the basics behind oral history, planning and implementation of oral history, and general best practices for oral history projects.  The webinar was recorded and can be viewed online. 

The webinar provided a good starting point for those with little or no exposure to oral history. Freund’s presentation was broken down into preparation, interviewing, processing and dissemination.  He provided high level overviews of each oral history component using general examples and suggestions.  

I was particularly pleased to hear Freund’s emphasis on the need for oral history projects to work with archives from the very early stages of the project.  Freund suggested that projects should be conducted with a long term goal of archival preservation and that archives should be consulted regarding preservation, donor details and other pertinent documentation.  As someone who works in an archive and who has used archived oral history recordings, Freund’s emphasis on a proactive collaborative approach makes me very happy.

Though the content of the webinar was fairly introductory, the resources and samples provided as part of the webinar have the potential to be invaluable.  These resources included items such as an interview guide, audacity audio software guide, sample forms, and interview checklists. Having examples of other policies, guides, and best practices greatly assists in the creation of program specific procedures.

Anyone who has ever written a best practices manual, training guide, or policy knows the value of not reinventing the wheel.  I find looking at the established best practices of other organizations is one of the best ways to gain perspective on your purposed best practices.  Granted, these established practices can (or should) very rarely be copied wholesale — rather they are considered, incorporated, elaborated on to fit your organization.

Currently, only a limited number of heritage organizations post their documentation online.  It seems redundant for every heritage organization to start each policy from nothing, when so many other organizations have essentially the same basic policies. In particular, smaller organizations with limited resources can gain a lot from looking at studies, working groups, and policies that have been crafted by larger resource rich institutions.  This can apply to everything from effective collection policies, heritage specific software guides, to donor forms. This webinar highlighted the value of sharing resources and community collaboration.  I sincerely hope that as online collaboration increases that so does the use of shared resources in the heritage sector, as most organizations have much to gain from joint efforts.

Language Preservation and Digital Resources

Recently I’ve been reading and reflecting on numerous facets of Indigenous language preservation and revitalization.  Residential schools, colonialism, and general assimilation practices have all contributed to the loss and endangered states of many Indigenous dialects.  Despite this loss or impending loss there are a number of projects across Canada which are working to record and preserve Indigenous language.

  • The Michif language is the traditional language that was spoken by Métis peoples in Canada.  Like most Indigenous languages there are a variety of regional dialects to Michif, but the most commonly used form of Michif is based on a combination of French and Cree.  It is estimated that there are less than 1000 fluent speakers of Michif alive today.  
    • The Gabriel Dumont Institute has worked to create Michif curriculum for schools and communities.
    • The Dumont Institute has also made a number of audio and video recordings of Michif speakers available online.  A number of these recordings are also accompanied by English transcripts.
    • The Métis Nation of Ontario has also started to gather and promote resources on Michif, including audio and video recordings and a Michif word of the day program. 
  •  The Ojibwe language is the traditional language of over 200,000 people in Canada and the United States, making it one of the more common Indigenous languages in Canada.  Despite this heritage very few youth are taught Ojibwe and the language continues to be endangered.
    • The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary was created by the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.  The Dictionary utilizes content from the Minnesota Historical Society to create a virtual space which highlights audio and video recordings of Ojibwe speakers.  The Dictionary is searchable in English and Ojibwe and highlights historical photographs and documents to provide context to the language material.
    • Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig People Who Speak Anishinaabemowin today.  This resources was created by the University of Michigan and features a number of online lessons, stories, listening exercises, and resources.  The interface is a bit outdated, but is fairly simple to use.
    • There are also immersion programs and formal Ojibwe language instruction programs all across Ojibwe territory.  Locally the College and University where I live offer language instruction, and there are two First Nation run immersion programs.
  • There are also a number of online resources being developed for the preservation of Cree, Oji-Cree, Inuktitut, and other traditional dialects.   
    • The Listening to Our Past website focuses on the preservation of Inuktitut. I wrote about this resource awhile ago on the Active History site. 
    • The Cree Linguistic Atlas combined geography with language learning.  The Atlas includes syllabics, audio recordings, and English translations.