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Why is oral history important?

There are lots of reasons why people take an interest in history. Perhaps the most common one is that it shores up their identity. Look no further than the popular television program “Who Do You Think You Are?", which uses a splash of genetic testing but mostly good old-fashioned archival research to reveal celebrities’ family heritage. The kind of history taught in grade and high school and explored by Hollywood films does much that same, just on the national rather than individual scale. In this way, history is the art of telling stories that tell us who we are.

History is also deeply political. What stories we tell determines who gets counted, who matters. In the European tradition, history described and affirmed a nation’s superiority, typically the result of exceptional state craftsmanship, military prowess, and intellectual, literary, and artistic contributions to “civilization.”

Challenging oppression

When women, workers, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the disabled, and LGBTQ and Two Spirit people challenge their oppression and marginalization, history establishes the validity of their political claims by providing a new narrative, one that includes them, but also points out how the existing structures created their marginalization in the first place.

Creating change

Finally, history is a method of mobilizing knowledge to create change. We have available to us diverse approaches to investigating the past. Oral history is one of them. Like published memoirs, oral interviews provide first-person accounts of how life is lived, of the diverse range and nature of the experiences one has, and consequently, it helps us understand how our day-to-day lives are structured in and through the social, political, and economic conditions we each confront.

By collecting oral testimonies, we strive to capture and include the experience of diverse people, people whose life experiences would not otherwise be preserved in the historical record. We deepen our understanding of the experiences of those on the margins.

Telling our story

There are lots of stories out there that tell us who “we” are, and not in a good way. LGBTQ and Two Spirit people are still told we are evil, perverted, deformed, unwanted, an embarrassment, freaks, and pariahs. We need stories of our lives from our own perspectives, stories that tell us about how people have crafted a life-affirming sense of themselves despite the negativity, a sense of self based on our fundamental human dignity, our capacity to connect to our own feelings and experience, and to share that joyfully with others.

Oral history began as a way to empower people and communities, and while it is also used by a diverse range of scholars for all kinds of research projects and objectives, that initial impetus remains at the heart of the ALOT archives, and of the oral interview practice.