The Oral History Program: Preserving the History of the Seminoles in Their Own Words

My name is Elizabeth Lowman and I am the Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. I feel that my job is one of the most essential parts of the museum. In most native cultures, history, tradition, and culture are passed down in an oral tradition.

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My name is Elizabeth Lowman and I am the Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  I feel that my job is one of the most essential parts of the museum.  In most native cultures, history, tradition, and culture are passed down in an oral tradition.  The oral tradition is so strong in native cultures that there is no written equivalent for most native languages, but linguists are working on changing that.  Linguists study languages and in the case of indigenous languages, they help to develop a written alphabet and lesson plans to teach the language to people that are not speakers.  As I’m not a linguist, my job is to collect and preserve the precious words of the Seminole people so that future generations of Seminole people can learn their history from the people that lived it.  Furthermore, many of the interviews provide interpretive material for the exhibits and publications that our thousands of visitors read and learn Seminole History from.

Here at the museum we mainly work on collecting life story interviews from Tribal Members.  A life story interview is a small glimpse into a person’s life, as told by them.  We also have several subject-based interviews in queue that typically culminate into exhibit and provenance material.  Many Tribal Members also talk about traditions and manners that were passed down to them from the previous generation.  They also talk about the history of their people as it was experienced by their ancestors and themselves.  A book on the subject of Seminole history does the topic very little justice.  The words of the people that lived the history are unscripted, unrehearsed, real, powerful, and meaningful.

In the coming months the program is planning on partnering up with a company called Randforce to assist in the digital indexing of the Oral History Collection.  The software will enable Tribal Members to search the collection with keywords and then listen to that part of the interview that includes the subject.  The true emotion and meaning of the words are best conveyed to Tribal Members when they can be heard, not read.

Elizabeth Lowman, Oral History Coordinator, recording an artifact Q and A session.
Elizabeth Lowman, Oral History Coordinator, recording an artifact Q and A session.

Behind the scenes, the Oral History Program follows the Oral History Association standards and the American Association of Museums standards.  All items related to the Oral History Program are stored and maintained in the best conditions and at the highest standards.  The program utilizes many different pieces of equipment.  The preference for audio recording is a Marantz PMD 671.  Additionally, two smaller handheld recorders are used for interviews done outside of the office or a controlled environment.  We also use a broadcast quality high definition video camera.  But the process does not end once the interview is recorded.  The interviews are then brought back to the museum and burned onto archival gold CDs or DVDs and regular CDs or DVDs.  The CDs and DVDs are then housed, or kept, in polypropylene cases in acid-free boxes.  The interviews are kept in a secure location within the museum.

Dealing with older media has been the largest challenge for the Oral History Collection.  All Oral History digitization is done in the museum because the collection is very culturally sensitive.  This process also requires several pieces of electrical equipment.  I am currently using a Tascam 202Mk IV with the Marantz to digitize older audio cassette tapes.  The recorder hooks up to the cassette deck through a cable and then the audio is saved onto a compact flash memory card.  The interview is uploaded to the computer and burned to disks the same way new interviews are.  I use an Ion VCR2PC to digitize older VHS tapes.  The older VHS and BETA tapes are stored in the same conditions as the newer CDs and DVDs.

Access to the collections is always a major topic of discussion.  Access to the Oral History Collection is kept to Tribal Members only.  There are several reasons for this decision.  First of all, a narrator (the person being interviewed) signs an informed consent document called a deed of gift.  The narrator always has the option of restricting their interview.  Many Tribal Members choose to restrict their interviews to Tribal Members only.  Some stories are private and some content is best kept within the Tribe.  Other interviews are signed off as open access.  Museum staff can use these interviews to develop content for exhibits and publications.

I look forward to posting more about the program and fascinating history of the Seminole people.  If you have questions, feel free to ask!

Author: Elizabeth Lowman

I am the Education and Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. I completed my Masters in History at the University of North Florida in 2007 and my BA in History and Political Science at the University of Tampa in 2005. I do my best to assist other Native Oral History Programs around the country and present at National conferences on the topics of native oral history, ethics, methodologies, and archives.

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