Oral History and the Act of Listening

Photo Credit: ky_olsen

The October-November issue of Canada’s History featured an interesting article titled “Guided by Voices” by Mark Abley.  This article focused on the oral history practices, using Concordia University‘s Life Stories of Montrealers Displaces by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations project.  (A great project that is well worth checking out if you’re interested in oral history, the history of marginalized groups, or just hearing some breathtakingly emotional experiences).

Abley frames the Life Stories project within the large oral history practice and focuses on the benefits and challenges met by those undertaking any type of oral history.  The theme of the article is summed up in the words Abley uses to conclude his writing, “oral history can be a catalyst, not just for academic research, but for reflection, for dialogue, and for political action.”  The nature of the Life Story’s project exemplifies the importance of oral history.  Montreal Life Stories has successfully united university researchers, artists, community partner groups, volunteers, new media professionals, and other interested parties.

Additionally, the project has highlighted how valuable including the human and emotional element in history can be.  Without personal accounts, written or oral, history has the potential to become a bland list of dates and descriptions.  However, oral history is not without its difficulties, there are numerous ethical considerations that must be undertaken prior to beginning an oral history project, especially if that material is to be placed online.  Albey notes, “You’re dealing with living people who trust you.  So our consent forms give layers of choices: They’re not copyright agreements, they’re right-of-use agreements.”  The human aspect of oral history must never be forgotten – communities, traditions, and personal preferences need to respected when undertaking oral history interviews.

Abley’s article helped spur a lot of positive thoughts about oral history practice, but also highlighted the need to carefully consider all facets before one undertakes such a project.

Legends Project

The Legends Project began in 2002 as a small CBC initiative in Iqaluit, Nunavut to record, archive, and create radio dramas of the oral traditions of Inuit and First Nation communities in Canada. Eventually these oral stories and dramatizations were played on CBC Radio in both English and their original Indigenous language.

Currently, the project has eleven segments, each of which highlights the unique culture and language of a distinct community. In addition to being broadcast nationally the Legends Project allows for a high quality recording of endangered languages and traditions to be preserved. Each segment is a unique mixture of English and indigenous language and song, and provides a unique look into traditional practices of a community.

The most recent segment of the Project focuses on the traditions of the Ahtahkakoop, a Plains Cree nation in Sandy Lake, Saskatchewan. This segment highlights the linguistic, cultural, and social struggles of members of the Ahtahkakoop. It also retells a number of the community’s traditional stories about creation, family, respect, and survival.

Intergration through tradition


Today’s #reverb10 prompt was: Body integration. This year, when did you feel the most integrated with your body? Did you have a moment where there wasn’t mind and body, but simply a cohesive YOU, alive and present?

The moments this year where I have felt the most integrated have occurred since I started my new job. I have recently had the opportunity to participate in three Aboriginal smudging ceremonies. Each time I have participated in a smudge the feeling in the room has been one of thoughtfulness, remembrance, gratitude, balance, and unity. I feel fortunate to have been able to participate in these activities. Smudging also brings to mind the importance of preserving traditions, especially in an oral, marginalized, or aging society. Actively practicing traditions have the potential to allow people to become in touch their history, learn more about their culture, and to become integrated with their roots.