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Oral histories in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Most written sources of history offer a view of the past from the point of view of those who held power.  Oral histories form bridges between oral traditions and written history, allowing people to share their memories and ensure their stories are never forgotten.

Oral traditions in Aboriginal families and communities and Torres Strait Islander families and communities exist in a number of interwoven forms. These are the principal historical and day-to-day records of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and they should be regarded as a significant part of Australian history. They inform written history, the arts and current cultural practices.

Oral traditions include, but are not limited to:

  • narratives, facts and spiritual beliefs that relate to ancestral beings, creation times and lore
  • family and clan relationships and responsibilities to the land, seas, waterways, sky and universe
  • kinship structures and community obligations
  • scientific knowledge, including classification of environmental elements, seasonal patterns and conditions
  • rights and responsibilities around art forms including song, dance, music and visual arts in describing world views and relationships
  • biographical stories of individuals
  • personal and community histories of lived experiences and events
  • stories of early contact with colonists.

Oral histories substantiate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions of the past, present and future. Stories have traditionally been supported through various media such as rock and sand art, body painting, song and dance, as well as artefacts including canoes, masks, message sticks and carvings.

Oral histories are now often expressed through the visual and performing arts, songs, multimedia such as computers, CDs, radio, film and TV, and literary expositions such as prose, poetry, plays and other forms of scriptwriting.

Conducting an oral history project with students

Ethical considerations relevant to any kind of research into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters, and especially oral history projects, should be explained to students before they meet with potential interviewees.

Once students demonstrate their understanding of these issues, it becomes their responsibility to discuss with their interviewee/s the scope of the interview and procedures.

It is essential that students understand the interviewee should have control over where the information is going and what it is used for. Specific permission from the interviewee is needed for whatever the interviewer wants to do with the information. Students should also be reminded that while their project is a priority to them, their interviewees have other commitments and priorities.

When recruiting participants, students are advised to cover the following areas with potential interviewees:

  • why the interview is being conducted, e.g. for a local area studies program
  • who it is for, e.g. the family, the Aboriginal community, the Torres Strait Islander community, the school, the general public
  • how the oral history will be used, e.g. essay, research project, visual or verbal presentation, computer presentation
  • in what form they will ask for formal approval from the interviewee, e.g. verbal (recorded) or written agreement, legal release forms
  • where the interview will be conducted, e.g. at the interviewee’s home, a community venue, school, classroom
  • protocols on the day, e.g. correct titles, welcome and farewell
  • what the preferred recording instrument is for the interview, e.g. digital recording, written notes, video recording
  • when the information will be used, e.g. only this year, for a number of years
  • the process for the interviewee to check draft research outputs before they are shared with others, e.g. transcripts, drafts
  • how the interviewee will be given access to a copy of the final research outputs.

Stages of oral history

1. Inspiration and motivation
  • request, e.g. by community member
  • capture local history of a place
  • record family history
2. Preparation
  • ethics
  • ownership of information
  • topic
  • nature of memory
  • questionnaires
  • interview skills
  • selecting interviewees
  • preliminary meetings
  • equipment
  • supervision, including duty of care and school policies
3. Interviews
  • location
  • other sources
  • ongoing contact
  • evaluation
  • processing interview data
  • transcripts
  • correct acknowledgments
4. Final product
  • documents such as a book, essay or research project report
  • film or video
  • visual or verbal presentation
  • computer presentation
  • methods for checking by interviewee/s
  • ways of sharing with interviewee/s and target audience/s

Sample consent form for interview

It is important for all students and classes to develop a process that is suitable for their project and the community with which they are working.

The sample template below can be adapted for each project.

More information

Australian and Queensland oral history organisations:

State Library of Queensland resources, such as:

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) include oral histories in:

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