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Leslie Deer performing a Native American Fancy Shawl Dance on Friday, March 17, 2017, during the last day of Spring Break Escape at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum at University of Oklahoma, one of the grant's recipients. (photo by Kyle Phillips; courtesy the Norman Transcript)

Oral history, the practice of documenting historical moments through audio interviews with the people who were a part of them, is a particularly critical tool for preserving the stories of Indigenous communities. Many of these cultures rely heavily on the oral transmission of knowledge, lessons, and tradition across generations.

Recognizing the importance of these records, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) in New York has announced more than $1.6 million in grants to make the Indigenous oral histories from its vast collection widely accessible to the public.

As part of the Doris Duke Native Oral History Revitalization Project, a group of universities has received a total of $1.359 million to digitize, translate, and index materials representing 150 Indigenous cultures. The project has also allocated an additional $300,000 grant for the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums (ATALM), based in Oklahoma, to coordinate the project and create a website where visitors can access the archives.


A photograph from the Florida Catawba Collection. Hand-written names on the photographs have been linked to the list that were narrators for the Doris Duke Native American Oral History Project initially. (courtesy the University of Florida)

The foundation collected its archive of more than 6,500 recordings over a period of nearly five decades. In 1966, Doris Duke began awarding grants for universities to start collecting oral histories from Native leaders and community members across the nation. Graduate students and faculty were selected to conduct interviews on a range of subjects, from traditions and customs to life on reservations.

“The recordings, now over 50 years old, represent a treasure trove of unique stories told in the voices of our ancestors,” said ATALM president Susan Feller in a statement.

The goal of the project is not just to make the materials digitally available but to increase their visibility and use, especially by originating communities and tribal colleges. The archives are an invaluable and authentic record of Indigenous history. As noted by Lola Adedokun, a program director at DDCF, they “provide Native communities with a continuing connection to elders.”

Grant recipients include the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona; the University of Florida; the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; the University of New Mexico; the University of Oklahoma; the University of South Dakota; and the University of Utah. ATALM will also work with Washington State University’s Center for Digital Scholarship to train universities in Mukurtu CMS, an open-source content platform created with Indigenous communities.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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