Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Storytelling, Oral Histories, and More

We had a storytelling festival in Mesa, Arizona for a few years. Some of the local people got together and organized a wonderful event with storytellers from all over the country. After a couple of very successful years, the event was turned over to the City of Mesa who managed to kill off the whole event in a few years. In Utah, the Timpanogos Story Telling Festival has been going now for 25 years and it is a major community event and attracts people from all over the world. This is the first time we have had the opportunity to attend in Orem, Utah and we were super impressed with the organization and quality of the event. The City of Orem and many, many local and national businesses are sponsors. There were hundreds of school children bussed in to attend and all was done with a high degree of professionalism.

A note about the word "timpanogos." It is derived from a Paiute or Shoshone Indian word roughly translated meaning, "narrow or neck of rocks." This likely refers to the steep walled canyons in the wall of the Wasatch Mountains along the east side of the Utah Valley where Orem and Provo and other cities are located. While at the University of Utah from 1967 through 1970, I helped write an English/Shoshone Shoshone/English dictionary using the main frame computer at the University. Timponogos is the name of a very prominent mountain visible from almost all parts of Utah Valley.

If you don't know what this has to do with genealogy, then you haven't been listening to your heart. Genealogy really is all about stories. I went through the "names and dates" phase of my genealogical development when I first started investigating my ancestry about 32 years ago. But even then, I took the time to preserve every scrap of paper that pertained to my ancestry. In my other blog, Rejoice, and be exceeding glad..., I have been writing about the loss of genealogical information when people hoard their research and refuse to share with others. I realized very early in my genealogical research efforts that the heart of the matter lay in the stories and sharing those stories is really what we do as genealogists.

I get really annoyed when someone makes disparaging remarks about genealogists as if genealogists were somehow the opposite of the storytellers. This is most evident in statements that say "you don't need to be a genealogist to..." Well, that may be true at one level or another. You certainly do not have to be a genealogist to enjoy stories about your family or help to preserve those stories. But it is the genealogists who discovered or preserved those stories in the first place. Preserving oral traditions is a lot more effort than simply uploading a few copied stories to a website.

When Dr. Wick R. Miller rode out into the deserts of Nevada to preserve the last remnants of the Shoshone language and stories, he had to spend a huge amount of time and effort to preserve what he could find in local communities. See Wick R. Miller Collection. Here is a description of the collection:
The collection includes two binders that Wick R. Miller compiled based on the interactions that he and his students had with the Shoshone and Gosiute communities in Nevada and California during the years 1965-1968. These binders contain a wealth of information in their 511 pages, including summaries of interviews with over 100 Shoshoni speakers, and profiles of about 40 speech communities, reservations, and colonies.
This is what was preserved:
The profiles of Shoshoni speakers include kinship information, places they had lived, and language background. Some of these interviews included memories of traditional practices that date to the early part of the 20th century or commentary on the state of the American Indian people in the late 1960s. There are in-depth descriptions of woven spoons, pine-nut harvesting, fandangos people traveled to as children, and how particular geographical features tie into traditional stories. 
Some of the community profiles are extensive and include maps and information on the internal political climate of the communities and insight into the ways the communities were dealing with pressure from outside policies and increasing contact with mainstream American culture. Others are very brief, illustrating the weakening of many peoples’ ties with the Shoshoni community as only a few (or no) Shoshoni speakers who lived there could be named. 
The information contained in these binders gives us a glimpse back to a place in time that cannot be recovered. Many of the people named are no longer living and much of this information is not available elsewhere.
Now exactly the same things could be said about the families of any number of diligent genealogists and historians. Talking about the impact of stories in one thing, collecting and preserving those stories is another thing. I started collecting stores, back when I was still a student working on the Shoshone project at the University of Utah. My very first effort was a tape recording of my grandmother who was a resident of a care center near the campus. Since then, I have collected stories, diaries, journals, oral histories and more. I must admit, I should have done more than I did. I lost a lot of opportunities to talk to older relatives and that loss is permanent.

I am currently, once again, involved in yet another oral history project, preserving the oral histories of some of the older people that live in my Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now, if we are going to be promoting stories, photos and documents as artifacts of our family history, I think it would be a good idea to promote the capturing and preservation of these same artifacts from the members of our families today for our descendants. I will write more about this later.

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