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Plenary Sessions

First Nations women share storytelling journeys with plenary audience

            Giving thanks to grandparents and other elders for sharing their stories, a panel of Indigenous women described to an OHA plenary session their experiences in becoming story-sharers themselves, weaving together their own and their peoples’ lives.

            Muriel Miguel, founder of Spider woman Theater, called herself a city Indian from Brooklyn, New York. She grew up, she said, among Native people who came from Canada and Indians who got stranded in New York after being part of circuses and Wild West shows.

            “They taught us the songs, dances and stories” she otherwise might not have learned,Miguel said.

            She recalled being involved in starting the Little Eagles performing group in a Brooklyn church basement, and she later became a dancer and actor, joining an avant-garde performing group called Open Theater. That’s when she began retelling the stories she had learned in childhood and began to explore the process of weaving stories that connect the natural and spiritual world and the worlds of human communities.

            Penny Couchie of the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, credited Miguel with teaching her the story weaving process, which Couchie uses to combine dance, theater,words and other artistic forms to explore the richness and enduring strength of her people.

            Kahente Horn-Miller of the Carleton University School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies in Ottawa, called for the “re-matriation of our stories.” She described her research into the Sky Woman creation story, finding 32 versions of the story, all written in third person by men.

            Horn-Miller rewrote the story in first person, incorporating elements of her own life and those of other women, and she now performs the creation story infused with a woman’s perspective.

            “The story has become a living entity,” she said.

            Lorraine Sutherland of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario works in the schools to create culturally relevant curriculum. “We want our children to know who they are and to have pride in who they are,” she said.

            Sutherland lived on the land with her grandparents and learned the traditional stories from them, she said, but she learned by trial and error that Western ways of accessing someone’s knowledge—by asking a list of questions in chronological order—disrespected Indigenous traditions.

            Autumn Varley of Southern Georgian Bay had a somewhat similar experience. Her first oral history interview, conducted with her sister, lasted just 7 minutes, she recalled, because the formality of it created a wall between them.

            Later, in graduate school, she interviewed her grandmother, with whom she had spent considerable time while growing up. Varley said she refused to follow the expected protocol of asking the tribal chief and council for permission to talk to her grandmother, relying instead on her sense of family ethics. “There is no way I was going to hurt her,” she said.

            Varley emphasized the ethics associated with listening to others’ stories. “You have a responsibility to the stories you hear,” she said.


Turkish scholar tells oral historians: Never take for granted the opportunity to speak freely

            In Leyla Neyzi’s Turkey, a nation that long valued education, engaging in oral history is potentially a criminal activity, the Turkish scholar told an OHA plenary session, thanking the OHA for “the opportunity to speak freely,” an opportunity denied to people in her homeland.

            Neyzi, a professor of cultural studies at Sabanci University in Istanbul highlighted her concerns about the rise of a new fascism and authoritarianism in her country, where support for Kurdish people has become synonymous with support for terrorists and where she and other scholars have faced criminal charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization for signing a Declaration of Academics for Peace.

            “Many of us want to live and let live,” respecting cultural differences, Neyzi said.

            A prolific author and oral historian, Neyzi’s work has included oral history projects that incorporate photography, videography, performance, books,traveling exhibits and a conference. Many of her projects deal with conflict-laden issues and settings.

            Recent oral history projects include: “Young People Speak Out: The Contribution of Oral History to Facing the Past, Reconciliation and Democratization in Turkey”and “Speaking to One Another: Personal Memories of the Past in Armenia and Turkey.”

            Neyzi said the greatest success of the latter project was bringing together Turkish and Armenian students to talk about the fraught past.

            Oral historians in Turkey increasingly face challenges in identifying institutions they can trust for archiving oral history materials, she said. Additionally,they need to be selective about what they put on websites because of potentially controversial content.

            Neyzi suggested one option for Turkish oral historians to consider is exploring the possibility of working with institutions abroad to safeguard oral history materials. But they also face challenges associated with people being less willing to participate in oral history interviews because of the political climate.

            Oral historians are viewed as a potential threat and are not welcomed in many places, Neyzi said.

            “Democracy and the rule of law remain suspended,” she said. Young, educated professionals see no future for themselves in Turkey, and people dream about leaving the country, she added.

            The U.S. educated Neyzi holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cultural anthropology from Stanford University and City University of New York,respectively, and a Ph.D. in development sociology from Cornell University. Most recently, she has been a visiting professor at the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program at Northwestern University.


Scholars, activists look back at key moments in 1968

            From a half-century vantage point, the political, social and cultural upheavals that mark the public memories of 1968 are every bit as powerful today as they seemed then, a panel of scholars and activists told an OHA plenary audience.

            While oral historians have documented first-person experiences from the era, they need to be aware that oral history “can create its own myths and distortions”by exploiting narrators and substituting commemoration or a desire for healing rather than deep, critical examination of history, University of Massachusetts history professor Christian Appy said.

            Appy is the author of three books that focus on the war in Vietnam, making extensive use of oral history interviews through which he addresses multiple sides of the conflict.

            “You could learn more about the Vietnam war by talking to people whose lives were deeply affected than by reading the Pentagon Papers,” he said.

            Elaine Carey, an award-winning history professor at St. John’s University in Queens,New York, likewise relied on oral history interviews for her book Plaza of Sacrifices: Gender, Power, and Terror in 1968 Mexico.

            Carey described for the OHA audience the Oct. 2, 1968, event in which some 300 student protesters were killed and hundreds more arrested in a demonstration in a public square in Mexico City. The students were calling for civil liberties and democracy in what had become a heavy-handed regime.

            Carey’s work also revealed that the massacre in the plaza in 1968 marked an important turning point for Mexican women. For the first time, as women students were part of the demonstration, it became clear that taking a role in public life was no longer the province only of men.

            Rutgers University history professor Donna Murch described her work examining the rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, noting that in 1968,then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers the “biggest threat” to public order.

            Oral histories were critical in reconstructing the origins of the Black Panther Party, which was not surprising, she said, because youth-organized groups “tend not to keep records.”

            Murch also has relied on oral histories in related work she has done focusing on civil rights, social movements, mass incarceration and the war on drugs.

            Laura Jones of Toronto offered a different perspective on 1968. The award-winning photographer and civic activist who had photographed Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., recounted her experience later in 1968 of moving to Canada with her draft-dodger husband, who had tried unsuccessfully to get conscientious-objector status.

            Settling in Toronto, they opened a photo gallery, workshop and bookstore that over the years became an informal immigrant reception center for the neighborhood, Jones said. The photographer’s work has included documenting war resisters as well as becoming actively involved in environmental and health issues. She also has served on Toronto’s city council.

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