Documenting oral history way is an important part of preserving a community identity as well as a family history.

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Before the days of history books and museum placards, families shared stories and tales of their ancestors verbally. This may seem like a long-lost tradition, but it’s being carried on through the Nordic American Voices oral history program at the Nordic Museum in Ballard — and it’s something you can easily do at home as well.

Rhonda Adkins (Sherry Malotte)
Rhonda Adkins (Sherry Malotte)

“I think it’s so important to retain history told by people,” says Rhonda Adkins, a Montana resident who recorded an oral history interview at the Nordic Museum.

“That’s originally how stories were passed on. On the Icelandic side of things, there were sagas and they’d sit around and tell stories and histories,” Adkins says. “Now we’re losing that talent of telling a story and passing things on verbally with our inflections and other things that you just can’t put in print. I mean that’s why we have emojis, right? This is real-life emojis.”

Susan Emery, a participant in the Nordic Museum’s “Interwoven” project, which looks at blended ethnicity and identity among individuals and families of Nordic and Native American heritage, is not a big fan of speaking in front of a camera. But she challenged her fears and says she was glad she did so.

“Telling one’s story to someone else can serve to help make sense of it for ourselves, and aid us to view our experiences from a more objective standpoint,” Emery says. “It’s not a bad idea to remind ourselves that we, and our current events, are tomorrow’s history.”

For Emery, it was a family affair — her daughter Robyn was also interviewed for “Interwoven.” She says it was also an excellent opportunity to walk in both her Native and Nordic worlds. Emery grew up moving back and forth between Seattle and Anchorage, and it was often difficult to yo-yo between two very different cultures.

“Having family you love on both sides of a disparate cultural heritage makes you want to be able to identify with both sides and not have to choose one race,” Emery says. “If you are made to choose only one race over the other, maybe because you look more like one than the other, it’s as if you are cutting yourself in half and denying your connection to your other loved ones.”

Recording an oral history allowed Emery to embrace every aspect of her heritage. “My desire is to walk in both my Native and Nordic worlds,” she says.

Emery recently participated in a symposium on the Interwoven oral history program at the Nordic Museum which attracted about 70 participants, many of whom also shared their experiences of mixed Native American and non-Native heritage. A second Interwoven symposium is scheduled for noon-2:00pm, Saturday, March 2, 2019, hosted by the Tulalip Tribes at their Hibulb Cultural Center.

Adkins and Emery and hundreds of others have recorded their oral histories at The Nordic Museum since its inception in 1980. But there’s also the option of recording oral history from the comfort of your own home. Fred Poyner IV, collections manager at The Nordic Museum, has overseen the oral history program since 2015. He provided these key tips to recording a successful interview.

  • The oral history needs to include these basic pieces of information: Who is being interviewed; the person or persons conducting the interview; the location of the interview; and the date. What may be known information at the time of the interview is not assumed for future listeners, which is why it’s important to state as part of the oral history record.
  • Oral histories should not be conducted as a discussion with the interviewer. Rather, they are an opportunity to listen and document what the interviewee has to say. If you are the one recording the interview, talk as little as possible and let the other person tell their stories.
  • As an interviewer, hone the skill of picking up when to ask questions during an interview for points of clarification. This often involves finding out when something took place that the interviewee has mentioned, such as “What year was your father born?” or “What was the date of your grandfather’s arrival to America?” By nature, oral histories are date-driven and it’s crucial to include key dates because they may involve stories and recollections.
  • When recording audio and video oral histories, also create a transcript of these as a written record. This helps ensure the information is correct because transcripts can be sent to interviewees for fact-checking. The transcripts also aid in sharing the interviews and making them more useful for researchers to review.

The Nordic Museum’s new home on Market Street includes a small recording studio to expand its oral history efforts. The museum also hopes to work with other groups to enable them to use the recording studio to begin to preserve their histories and heritage. Documenting oral history this way is an important part of preserving a community identity, but keeping your own family history is important, too. Poyner’s tips will allow you to record an excellent oral history that can be passed down through the generations.

The Nordic Museum shares Nordic culture with people of all ages and backgrounds by exhibiting art and objects, preserving collections, providing educational and cultural experiences, and serving as a community gathering place.