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Methods for Oral History > Brian Calliou

"Methodology For An Oral History Project"

by Brian Calliou*

(Editor’s Note: the following essay outlines methods and practices for conducting oral history research, primarily with elders. Brian Calliou is a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation in north central Alberta, Canada, and works in leadership and management for Canada’s indigenous (aboriginal) population. The instructions and guidance he provides here matches closely with our experience working in Pacific Islands.)

Defining the Project’s Goals and Objectives

What are the objectives for documenting oral histories? It is important to determine at the outset how oral history evidence will be used because different purposes require different interviewing procedures and storage methods. For example, if the evidence is to be used in court, a more strict method of data gathering and storage may be required. One might also be required to have the Elder sign a declaration stating the truthfulness of their statement. The audio or video tape might have to be stored in a place where only one person has access to it in order to ensure that tampering has not occurred. One would hate to have a comprehensive land claim fall apart because a piece of evidence (the audio tape) was ruled inadmissible only because proper procedures were not followed or that it was improperly stored. If oral history evidence is intended for future legal action, a practicing lawyer should be consulted before any interview takes place so that all necessary factors in the undertaking are considered.

If the objective is academic research, the data collection method is not quite as strict, but nevertheless rigorous. Most universities have strict guidelines for research using human subjects, including minimizing risk of harm to participants, full disclosure and informed consent, and respecting confidentiality and anonymity if requested.

If the objective is to record and store Elders’ knowledge for the future (possibly to teach traditional stories to youth), then it is possible to use even less stringent procedures to interview, record, and store the data. However, a note of caution must be emphasized here. It makes sense to ask open-ended questions because the information could be utilized for a number of heretofore unknown and different purposes. Let the Elders’ knowledge speak for itself. They should not be led to specific answers that the interviewer thinks are important. For the most part, the answers are already there.

Both the academic community and the courts may disregard an Aboriginal perspective if the oral testimony is perceived to be politically motivated or if the Elder was “led” to a desired answer. An example of a leading question is: “Your people were pressured into signing treaty, weren’t they?” This question “leads” to a likely “yes” response. Rather, the question should be open-ended, such as: “What are some of the factors, if any, that might have influenced your people to sign treaty?” or “What happened at the treaty negotiations?” The latter two questions leave it open to varying responses, so that it is the Elder’s views, not the interviewer’s, that are recorded. The perception of bias in an interview can taint otherwise useful and accurate data. Such data would be too one sided and not present a balanced view. Both sides of an issue must be presented to get a closer approximation of the truth. Data will be viewed as carrying more weight—that is, be more persuasive—if it is objective and balanced, if it is not too biased and not too one-sided. Thus, the interviewer must use open-ended questions so that the Elder can answer in any way he or she feels. Thus, the recorded testimony will reflect only what the Elder thought was important.

Pre-Interview Preparation

One cannot just go to Elders in an Aboriginal community and begin questioning them without the proper protocol. First, the topic must be given much thought and preparation beforehand. Second, one must obtain permission from the local authority. Third, it must be determined which Elders will be interviewed.

Topic or Research Question:

Giving a topic serious thought beforehand shows respect for the Elders. They can tell immediately by the questions whether much forethought has been given and may turn away the interviewer. Therefore, it is important at the outset to establish the goals and objectives.

With respect to the research question, one must be clear on the project’s goals and objectives. What is the issue? Where is it situated? What is to be accomplished with the gathered information? Is the information for a written report or for future use?

Once the goals and objectives are clarified, background research into the issue and community or territory in question must be conducted. This is done so as to be prepared, and that the recorded material will be as valid to the issue as possible. One must ask intelligent questions that get to the issue addressed. It makes little sense to waste one’s own time or the Elder’s by asking poorly developed questions that yield nonpertinent information.

For background research, consult local public, college or university, or other post-secondary libraries. Legislature libraries also have excellent collections of materials and are open for public loan. Provincial archives or local museums may also be helpful. One might also consult Aboriginal organizations for material such as the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa, Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research (TARR) organizations, or Metis and Inuit organizations, all of which house various materials in their libraries. Specific Canadian or provincial government departments house information and materials in their own libraries. For example, one may want to contact the Fish and Wildlife, Forestry, and Parks and Recreation departments for materials on hunting, fishing, and trapping issues. For primary written sources, consult the National Archives of Canada RG10 Series or Missionary and Church records. Local historical or genealogical societies contain additional sources of information.

While researching background material, write brief summaries that can be recalled at a later date if needed. This step saves time later when going over material in preparation to writing the report. Notes should be taken to support one’s arguments and to reference different sources of material.

Once somewhat familiar with the issue and community or territory where the topic is situated, narrow the enquiry’s focus. Developing a set of questions to ask Elders accomplishes this. Let the questions sit for a couple of days. Questions should then be critiqued for being too vague and ambiguous or too specific. An Elder is shown respect when one’s topic has been subjected to considerable self-reflection.

Local Authority:

With respect to local authority, one needs to obtain permission from appropriate authorities to conduct research in the community. For example, one might approach the Band Council on a reserve or the governing council of a particular Aboriginal community. Be prepared to make a presentation to convince them that the research is needed and will be of benefit to them.

It is important to note that these people do not have to cooperate with a researcher. Some Elders may be tired of being interviewed. Preliminary contact with community members can help determine Elder willingness. In some Aboriginal communities, a great deal of resentment has built up over the years towards researchers who come in, interview the locals in order to “pick their brains,” and then leave. In many cases, the community never sees or hears from the interviewer again. Instead, a “community based research” approach should be adopted where the researcher makes a commitment to full disclosure, full consultation with, and participation of, community members, full access to information, and, ideally, return a copy of the finished report to the community.

Contact with Elders:

If the researcher does not know the Elders to be interviewed, it is a good idea to use an intermediary as a go-between. It is necessary to first establish a trusting relationship. If the Elder knows and trusts the intermediary he or she will likely extend that trust to those whom the intermediary knows and trusts. The Elder will be that much more at ease when it comes time to do the interview.

If possible, a preliminary meeting should be set up to meet the Elders before any interviews. Proper protocol should also be observed by offering the Elder a gift of tobacco or cloth, or a small monetary gift. This protocol is a traditional practice in many Aboriginal communities that is always followed when one seeks the sharing of an Elder’s knowledge. This demonstrates respect for their knowledge and gratitude for their generosity in sharing it.

If the Elder is not an adherent of traditional customs, but, rather, for example, a Catholic, ask the community as to the best way to approach him or her. In my experience interviewing Elders in northern Alberta, even devout Catholics accept traditional gifts because they are well aware of the traditional protocol. In order to not offend anyone, it would be wise to find out from preliminary community contacts what is acceptable practice in that locale.

The preliminary meeting provides an opportunity to fully disclose the research’s purpose, who or what agency is sponsoring the research, and what uses it will be put toward. Goals, objectives, and the important contribution that their knowledge will make to the project must be clearly explained. One can also explain how important their stories and knowledge will be when passed on to the youth. One should also clearly explain to the Elder each step to be taken in the research process.

This is also a good time to ask the Elder for permission to record the interview. One can explain and perhaps illustrate its use if the Elder is unfamiliar with such equipment. If the Elder does not wish to be recorded, either take notes as he or she speaks—as long as they agree—or make notes immediately afterwards.

This preliminary meeting provides an opportunity to get to know each other a little so that at the formal interview the Elder is likely to be more at ease and speak more openly. Further, the Elder will have had time to think about the topic and its objectives and have a chance to refresh his or her memory before the actual interview.

As a researcher, be prepared to disclose the interview’s purpose and intention. The information provided by Elders “belongs” to them, so they must first “release” it to the researcher. To do this, have them sign a release form. This form must be retained for future reference, so it should be filed with the transcript and audiotape. One might be able to get around the need for a form by telling the Elder that they can edit anything out that they feel should not be released. Also, there may be no need for a release form if what is given is “general information.” Generally, however, it should be made a practice to get release forms to avoid problems.

Equipment preparation comes next. An interviewer must gather and become familiar with any equipment he or she intends to use. Video recording will require even more preparation and familiarization than audio recorders. Video recordings, like sound recordings, require an area for good sound quality, but the former also require additional testing for adequate lighting and picture quality. No matter what type of recording is made, the equipment should be tested and a trial run made so that the product can be viewed to check the recording quality. Purchase the best quality tapes or the end product will suffer. Be sure that cords, lights, batteries, tapes, and microphones are all gathered and in good working order before heading out into the field. Do not waste the Elder’s time by being unprepared or having equipment that does not function properly. Mentally run through the interview and try to determine if anything has been left out. Also create a checklist of additional things that need to be done.

The Interview Process

Choose a quiet, comfortable spot for the interview. Background noise or interruptions can cause serious problems when playing the tape back later for transcription. It should be noted that a bare room tends to echo and affect sound quality.

Try to create a relaxed atmosphere. Put the Elder at ease by perhaps beginning with some small talk. Then set up the equipment and get everything ready. Making the Elder feel at ease will enable the conversation to flow as between friends. Elders may be more quickly put at ease and engage in more relaxed discussion if they are shown old photographs or maps and asked to describe their contents, such as who the persons involved were and the events attached.

The taping session begins by recording the name of the interviewer, Elder, and project, the interview location, and date. Ask specific biographical questions first, and then proceed to specific questions on the prepared topic. The question list does not have to be followed strictly. If the Elder talks freely on the subject without prompting, let him or her speak. Obviously he or she feels that the information that they are relating is important. On the other hand, if an Elder is quiet, then he or she might need more questioning to get them to speak. Note, however, that pauses of up to a few minutes are not uncommon for an Aboriginal Elder. This is because the Elder is developing his or her answers, so care must be taken not to interrupt the silence. The interviewer will have to gauge the situation to determine regular lengths of pauses so as to not break the Elder’s train of thought by interrupting too soon.

An interviewer’s attitude and behaviour is very important. Show great respect and give full attention to the Elder as they speak. One person related a story to me about a friend who interviewed an Elder and wrote everything down. The Elder later asked, “What is wrong with your friend’s mind?” The Elder thought that the interviewer’s mind was not working properly because everything had to be written down and the interviewer seemed not to be paying attention. Remember that an interview is a recorded conversation, so partake in it by listening intently, nodding in agreement, and asking for clarification when something is unclear. Show respect by being involved in a conversation.

If the Elder gestures with his or her hands, then the interviewer must make a note of the direction or size indicated, as this cannot be picked up by a sound recording. Anyone hearing it or reading the transcript later would not know which direction or what size the Elder meant. One can also ask the Elder to state out loud the specific direction or size, although this requires interrupting their train of thought.

If contradictory information is given, make a note and ask the Elder to explain the inconsistency at a later time to avoid interruptions. One must be cautious here. Do so in a respectful and polite manner. Point out that, earlier, they said something one way, but differently later. A clarification of the point usually clears up the inconsistency and demonstrates that the interviewer is paying attention. For example, the Elder might earlier have referred to a place where an important event occurred using different names. Often, places are known by more than one name and there is a name in the Elder’s language for a particular place. The Elder might inadvertently refer to the same place by two different names. It is also the case with many Indian people that they may be known both by a name in their language and a Christian name. A contradictory statement can usually be remedied by asking the Elder for clarification once the inconsistency is pointed out.

Another situation where an inconsistency might occur is when the Elder’s statement is contrary to what other Elders have stated. Do not cause ill feelings between Elders by stating names of particular Elders who gave contrary statements. Rather than provide names, just explain what another person said and then let the Elder respond. Much can be explained when the Elder is given a chance to clarify his or her position. There may be a good reason why this Elder views an event differently. It might be useful to understand an Elder’s reasons for their contradictory interpretation of an event. Indeed, clarification of inconsistencies can tap a wealth of knowledge that might otherwise be buried. The point is to note the importance for the interviewer to listen intently and ask for clarification of any inconsistencies because people can unconsciously state one thing while meaning another.

The interviewer must also keep an eye on the tape to know when it runs out. Often the interview can run for hours, but one side of a tape may only last half an hour in length depending on the tape size used. One does not want to have to ask the Elder to repeat much of what was said only because it was unnoticed that the tape had run out half an hour ago.

There is another technique where several Elders are interviewed simultaneously. An excellent example of this is the transcripts of the1975 Elders’ Think Tank, where a number of Elders were gathered together and recorded while responding to specific questions. The discussion generated by this method can stimulate participants to remember various events. The interviewer in such a case must be sure to take accurate notes of who is speaking at each time so that when transcription is performed there will be minimal difficulty trying to figure out who was speaking. Such open discussions generally provide an official version of events because it is a public and collective memory.

The above description has portrayed the interview process as though any Elder can be interviewed in English. Most Elders in Aboriginal communities speak English as a second language. However, it should be noted that some Elders speak more freely and better express themselves in their native tongue. In the example of a Cree Elder, this may require a Cree speaking interviewer or interpreter. If an interpreter is used, he or she should be somewhat familiar with the topic, background research, and questions to be asked. Richard Lightning, a Cree interpreter who worked with the Indian Association of Alberta oral history project of the 1970s, pointed out the difficulty in trying to formulate questions to ask Elders. This problem arises because “there is such a vast difference in grammatical structure” between Cree and English. Furthermore, English words do not always easily translate into Cree or other Aboriginal languages, and it may be difficult for the Elder to understand the concepts that the questions convey. Nuances in language and voice intonation may also be lost in the translation.

For the uninitiated, the manner and structure of Elders’ conversations may be difficult to understand. Elders “often commence a conversation with great depths of historical background information” and may need to be brought more into focus through further questions. However, this is the pattern of story telling. It may take some time for the researcher to learn to “hear” the stories and narratives told by Elders. Walter Lightning described the levels of complexity in Elders’ narratives:

The way that the Elder told the stories was a way of giving me information that would become knowledge if I thought about the stories in the right way. The stories were structured in such a way that each story’s meaning got more and more complex and rich as I thought about it. The Elder knew that I was not ready to understand the deeper systems of meaning and could not take it all in at once, so he constructed the story so that its meaning would continue to unfold. It was not just the individual stories that did this, but the stories were all structurally related to each other, even though I did not necessarily realize that when each one was told.

Thus, we must “learn to hear” our Elders before we understand the full meaning of the knowledge that they pass on to us. Some Elders’ stories may be somewhat repetitious, indicating an emphasis that the Elder places on certain topics. As the late Linda Akan pointed out, repetition may also serve to refocus the topic or check the learner’s understanding:

Repetition in text is made for refocusing in (an)other context(s). There is an implication of maturity or stage-development changes, as repetition checks the learner’s understanding of these. A “good talk” has lots of repetition to help us draw verbal circles of existence.

Elders may respond to only one or two questions with lengthy stories because, generally, they are not used to being asked a stream of questions. One must realize the virtue of patience and “learn to hear” what the Elders say because they may frame their responses in a way that differs from the manner in which the question is framed. It requires hard work on the interviewer’s part. One has to go over and over the recorded testimony, but most answers are within.

Keep in mind during the interviews that this is a learning process. Do not hesitate to adjust the format or method as required. The interviews must produce the information sought or they will be of little use to the project.

Post –Interview Process


Once the interview is completed, the tape should be transcribed as soon as possible. Ideally, the same person who conducted the interview should perform this task. Transcribe the tapes immediately after having completed a few interviews. Try to transcribe as accurately as possible, but minor editing is allowable, such as taking out the “um’s,” “uh’s,” and “er’s,” or any other sounds used to fill silence. Some information can be bracketed, such as comments about something that cannot be directly transcribed like laughs or chuckles, a break in the tape, or a ringing telephone. Pauses in speech or an unfinished sentence can be indicated by a series of dots, such as, “Were you there when …?” or “I think that was in …about 1917.” A blank space should be left in its spot if words or phrases cannot be understood during transcription.

Julie Cruikshank described the technique that she utilized for transcribing tapes on which she recorded Yukon Elders. She and the translator began a word by word translation, and when that was completed they reworked it into standard English. This usually required some juggling around of words because grammar in the Aboriginal language was reversed from English sentence structure.

When transcription is completed, the interviewer should read the transcript while listening to the tape to ensure that everything is properly written down. A proof reading should follow. If possible, it is advisable to let the Elder read (or have read to him or her) the transcript for accuracy and to seek their approval of the product. This is a primary document that can be consulted for future use and should be complete and accurate.

Once the first set of tapes are transcribed, go over them with the question set in mind to verify that the desired information has been obtained. The question list, with its goals and objectives, should be evaluated to ensure that it is serving its purpose. Adjust by adding, deleting, or reworking the questions.

The researcher can provide additional commentary to be attached to the raw data transcripts, providing background information about the interviews. For example, was the interview conducted in a relaxed atmosphere? How did the interviewee respond to certain questions? Was the interviewee feeling ill? Are there any details that may explain the situation in which the information was given? This can be valuable information to researchers using these materials in the future. Such commentary can also be useful to the interviewer when he or she evaluates the transcripts and other materials to write the report at some later date.

Cataloguing the Information:

Be sure to label everything. Original tapes and transcripts, as well as copies of both, must be clearly labeled. The label should include the project name, interviewer, interviewee (i.e the Elder), date, and interview location. Information is catalogued by creating an index of each and every piece of data. Specific categories should be created if the information is broad. As long as everything is labeled and indexed, future researchers will have all the necessary information about the interviewees, when the interviews were taped, and what issues were addressed. This is crucial because those who may know of what each tape covers may move away, leaving boxes full of tapes and transcripts about which no one knows anything.

Making Copies:

It is a good idea to make backup copies of the tape and safely store the original. It is a good idea to give a copy of the tape and transcript, as well as the final report, to the Elder or his/her community. This is giving something back to a community that has given so much to the research.

The interviewer might write a summary report of all the project’s given testimonies. Repeated themes can be pointed out in the summary, as well as discrepancies or inconsistencies. This summary report can be put on file and referred to in the future as a quick reference for the transcripts.

Analyzing the Data

After having completed the data collection (interviews, transcripts, photographs, maps, and books and articles relating to the topic) and after having made copies of all needed documents, evaluate what has been done, and decide what steps to take next. Is more research necessary? Consultation with co-workers or professionals such as teachers, professors, librarians, archivists, Band officials or community officials, or lawyers will help to see if any important ideas or sources have been missed. One must also decide the nature of the finished report. Will it be a short report, a major report, or a legal statement of claim? After having made these decisions, move on to analyzing the data and materials and writing the final report. Regardless of the final report type, detail the findings, and pass on any recommendations. Since the reader may not be as well versed in the material as the author, strive to write a clear concise report.

Data analysis can be as elaborate as desired. The simplest analysis consists of evaluating and correlating responses. This involves assigning a positive or negative value to a response for tabulation. For example, if a question generates a response of either “I understand we gave up our rights to water resources” or “I understand we did not give up our water rights,” put a plus sign (+) for every “positive” response and a minus sign (-) for every “negative” response. Total the responses and comment in the report as to the overall outcome in the study.

Another analytical method is to “grade” the responses, especially with open-ended questions. This means having differing degrees of answers from one extreme to the other, referred to as the Likert scale. Assign the number one (1) to one extreme response, two (2) to the next slightly lesser extreme response, and continue to a specific number for the other extreme response. For example, responses might be divided into five groups of responses with 1 assigned to one end and 5 assigned to the other extreme response. The numbers 2,3 and 4 would be assigned to the categories in between.

Remember to tell the reader a story with the data. It requires an explanation of the analysis, that is, to explain one’s thoughts on the facts. Thus, if one concludes that, for the most part, the informants (Elders or other interviewees) understood that their people were giving up land only to the depth of the plow, then it must be explained clearly how that conclusion was reached by taking the reader step by step through the tabulated and evaluated responses. One might also include a sampling of quotations to provide as evidence. Inconsistencies in the responses, if any, must also be explained.

A more difficult analytical process involves intuitive interpretation. There are no strict rules for this method, but some of the following techniques are useful. Trends or themes in responses can be highlighted and explained. Direct quotes can be used to strengthen the argument or conclusion. Seek out and note any discrepancies and inconsistencies in responses. Do discrepancies occur only in discussions of specific topics? Is there one explanation that can cover all discrepancies? Look for meaning in all of the data. Also make note of the many implicit assumptions derived from the interview material. Much of what is communicated is often not stated explicitly. Assumptions need to be stated in the report.

Interview data can also be evaluated by comparing it with written facts, maps, and photographs. For example, the validity of dates and locations must be confirmed. As the written form is not always entirely accurate, oral histories should be treated as traditional sources of material in so far as it should also be cross-referenced against other sources. Thus, when a number of people provide the same oral evidence that contradicts written evidence, the former may be correct and the latter incorrect. Critically examining the data will ensure its reliability.

Writing the Report

The following steps will assist in writing almost any type of report. First, make an outline that includes all of the important points or events in the gathered data. One can also look at the table of contents of a well researched, published book as a possible guide to what issues or subtopics might need to be addressed. The research data’s important events will form the outline and more easily guide the writing.

Next, arrange all notes and documents according to the outline’s headings. Re-read the notes and documents and think about them. Write down each section’s important facts that need to be conveyed to the reader. Begin by first stating briefly at the outset about what is being written. This forms the discussion’s introduction. Then, write each section by telling the data’s story. Just go ahead and get some thoughts on paper so that there is something with which to work. Return later to fill in the details, fleshing out or editing as required. Once it is complete, revisions are necessary—at least three drafts. There is no use handing in a report that looks like a draft copy because it was not revised. If the project is large, such as a local history of an Aboriginal community, then tackle one chapter at a time. Each chapter’s topic depends on the outline. For example, one chapter might be “The Fur Trade,” while another might be “Entering Into Treaty,” and another “Impact of Industrial Development.” Focus on one chapter alone until producing a draft that can be provided to another person to read and comment on it. Then revise and redraft. After the chapter is essentially complete, turn to the next chapter and so on. Once the overall project is near completion, be prepared to go back and make some revisions to earlier chapters if necessary.

Next, a conclusion that sums up the findings in a few sentences or paragraphs is needed. Once that is completed, add any special material such as pictures, maps, or copies of important documents. These supplementary documents are called appendices. They must be labeled Appendix A, B, C, and so on. They are attached to the end of the report.

The completed report should be re-read by another person for clarity. Rewrite any parts that are unclear. Now, make the title page, which must include the report’s title, author name, date of the report’s conclusion, and for whom the report was written (i.e. the institution or organization that commissioned the study).

Lastly, make a final copy of the report, plus some extra copies. Store one copy in a safe place and catalogue it into an index for future retrieval. One copy should go back to the Elders’ community. They were highly involved in the project and the resulting report should be made available to them.

Making the Data Available for Future Use

Having finished the report and completed the project, do not let the materials just sit somewhere in a box or on a shelf. Useful source materials have been gathered, but they are virtually useless if inaccessible. The tapes and transcripts ought to be made accessible to researchers to hear and read what the Elders had to say.

By “re-educating” non-Aboriginals and presenting them with Aboriginal views of historical events, misunderstandings will be rectified. It is through the Elder’s own words or through arguments in reports, academic writing, court cases, and in teaching the youth that a vision of a “just society” can be related to others. Therefore, the materials gathered should be well catalogued and carefully stored in some archival institution for access, such as a Provincial Archive or Aboriginal organizations’ library holdings, so that they can be consulted for future use and research.

Aboriginal communities are encouraged to develop archives, museums, and libraries to store their collections. Oral histories in written form, as well as the original audiotapes, could be housed there, in addition to any other important documents. Aboriginal community members should become trained in archival and museum care and administration.

It should be noted that some Elder knowledge should not be so readily accessible to the general public. For example, traditional healing knowledge and religious practices are often closely guarded. Elders or their community must be allowed to add any restrictions or limitations to the information that they feel are necessary to guard this knowledge. The restrictions are to be noted on the release form and must be obeyed. One example is the policy with regards to access of materials at the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research library holdings that restricts access to information about any Bands or Reserves. A letter or Band Council Resolution (BCR) from the Band Council in question is required before access can be granted to any of their files. Thus, Aboriginal communities can control and monitor access to their oral histories while still making them accessible to researchers.

*Excerpted from "Methodology for Recording Oral Histories in the
Aboriginal Community"
Native Studies Review 15, no 1 (2004): 73-105. Copyright 2004, Native Studies Review. Used with permission.

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