One of our favorite parts of the Oral History Center’s annual Advanced Summer Institute is the opportunity to hear from others who are using oral history in their work. One of our favorite guest speakers, Dr. Robert Keith Collins, will be back again to discuss how he uses oral history, and person-centered ethnography, in his work on American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America.
Q: How did you come to oral history?
Oral history has been something that I have grown up with, as the telling of family stories was a way that my family ensured I knew who my relatives were, what they were, where they were from, and what they went through. In my professional career, my exposure to oral history came through studying anthropology, Native Americans studies, and Ethnic Studies, particularly African American cultures and histories. Within these fields of study, oral history told the stories uncorroborated by the historical record. Although, eventually some were. This taught me that oral histories and written histories are two sides of the same coin. Both records are accounts of the past; however, oral history offers insight into the agency individuals exert in their lives and the observations that they make of the world around them.
Q: How do you use oral history in your work?
In my research, I take a person-centered ethnographic approach, which looks at individuals within cultures and how they remember their past through what they say, do, and embody. Respondents are interviewed at least fifteen times to show their evolving understanding of lived experiences. The oral histories that are obtained reveal how individuals understand their experiences, may say one thing and do another in certain situations for an expected outcome, and remembered pasts that have been actively – not passively – navigated and negotiated though choices. From these, my analyses attempt to be holistic by examining the relevance of what individuals say, do, and embody on how they impact the people around them and how the people around them shape their choices and experiences.
Q: Your work deals a lot with race and identity, particularly in the Choctaw Nation. How do you feel that oral history is uniquely positioned to explore questions of identity?
My work deals with race and identity among Choctaw descendants both within and outside of communities with significant populations. The reason my work has evolved this way is that I have found commonalities in Native American mixed-blood populations, both black and white, who experience daily challenges to the ancestries that they assert, while trying to maintain their sense of self as a person of Native American ancestry and/or cultural practices. Oral history, as a resource, allows me to explore the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave narratives for the lived experiences of enslaved individuals of blended African and Choctaw ancestry and those of unmixed ancestry that were Choctaw in cultural practices and language. Through these oral histories, I am also able to examine how they coped with slavery, especially those that were bought and sold by both Choctaw and white American slave holders and needed to adapt to the lifeways of each. It is important to remember that the WPA interviews represent a body of oral histories that center on a question rarely asked of formerly enslaved individuals: What was it like to be a slave? The person-centered ethnographic approach allows me to interview and listen to their descendants and analyze how individuals continue to cope with the inconsistencies between identification as Choctaw descendants while being racially recognized as black or white. I have found that oral history help us examine the answers to the question “Who am I?” that respondents give far better than any other medium, as there is very little that one can learn about individual lived experiences from collective or group experiences, except for common experiences, which shed more light on the social rather than experiential phenomena.
Q: You’ve discussed a person-centered ethnography as an approach to oral history. Could you describe this and share an example of how you use this in your work?
Yes. As mentioned, a person-centered ethnographic approach enables the understanding of individuals as active and not passive observers and participants in their own lived experiences. In my work with individuals of African and Native American ancestry, I will interview respondents 15-20 times to understand why they said what they said, did what they did, and represent to themselves something they did or do not represent to others within and outside of their families. Unlike the oral historian, who interviews respondents once in a setting, 15-20 interviews allow me to understand how a respondent’s understandings of my questions have changed and evolved over the course of the interview process. This time commitment also enables the respondent to reflect on the questions asked, the memories the questions evoked, and the answer(s) and stories told during interviews. These practices often lend to subsequent interviews becoming more in-depth and detailed about the respondents’ motivations and self-identification within contexts. For example, when exploring the oral histories left by Indian Freedmen, or former slaves of Choctaw slaveholders, and African-Native American children with enslaved Choctaw mothers and fathers, I noticed common themes between what they said about their family origins and the lifeways that they practiced; however, inconsistencies in identification practices that related to nineteenth century slave recognition practices were also noticed. An individual in one context would self-identify according to genealogical ancestry when describing their experiences as a slave to the WPA interviewers, and as a slave when describing interactions with former slave owners to the interviewer. This situational variance led me to believe, and support my hypothesis, that even for former slaves, the answer to the question “Who am I?” was context depended and there was much left to learn about the complex identities as children, despite illegitimacy, of enslaved and/or slave holding Choctaw individuals. This variation also enabled me to illuminate the why behind why they represented to themselves something other than chattel that they had represented to others, especially slave holders.
Q: When you teach oral history methods at San Francisco State, what are some of the key things you want your students to take away from your classes?
When I teach oral history at San Francisco State, I want my gators, especially the American Indian studies majors and minors, to learn the importance of being a good listener and take away the notion that there is much history in the oral narratives that people leave behind and are told to individuals, communities, and/or subsequent generations. It is a practice that predates written histories, still in use by over 90% of the world’s population, and offer us insight into human experiences, particularly with racism and identity. Within these remembered and spoken histories is evidence of what human experiences, especially with race and identity, are like from first-person perspectives. They require our attention and respect as much as the peer-reviewed written histories to which they were exposed.
Robert Keith Collins, PhD, a four-field trained anthropologist, is Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. He holds a BA in Anthropology and a BA in Native American Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Collins also holds an MA and PhD in Anthropology from UCLA. Using a person-centered ethnographic approach, his research explores American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America. His recent academic efforts include being a co-curator on the Smithsonian’s traveling banner exhibit “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” an edited volume with Cognella Press (2017) on “African and Native American Contact in the U.S.: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives”, an edited volume for the American Indian Culture and Research Journal at UCLA (2013) on “Reducing Barriers to Native American Student Success”, a forthcoming edited volume under contract with Routledge on “Studying African-Native Americans: Problems, Perspectives, and Prospects,” a forthcoming edited volume under contract with Cognella Press (2019) on “Native American Populations and Colonial Diseases.”