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Methods for Oral History
Charles Langlas &
Brian Calliou





Methods for Oral History > Charles Langlas

"Doing Oral History with Native Hawaiians"

by Charles Langlas
University of Hawai‘i, Hilo

This essay is a companion piece to Brian Calliou’s Methodology for an Oral History project. Calliou’s piece outlines oral history methods appropriate for Native American elders, particularly among the First Nations of Canada. Most of what he says is appropriate for oral history research with Native Hawaiian elders (kupuna) or other Native Hawaiian interviewees, but there are some differences. The First Nations of Canada and most Native American groups in the U.S. are organized as nations with a formal government. Often a large portion of the group lives on tribal land. Outsiders need to get permission from the tribal authority to do research and often the tribal authority would also suggest some knowledgeable elders to work with.

Native Hawaiians are not yet organized as a nation, although in certain respects the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) fills that role. Only in the case of historic preservation research under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Section 104 or under the State of Hawaii Chapter 6E, the researcher is required to consult with OHA at the beginning of research. In general, OHA is unable to provide leads to knowledgeable elders. Native Hawaiians are also widely dispersed from their ancestral communities. Elders may be knowledgeable about a land and community their parents or grandparents came from, even though they live far away from there.

1. Types and Scope of Oral History Projects

The number and nature of the interviews to be carried out and the report to be written will vary, depending on the type of project. Five typical types of projects are as follows:

(a) Individual life history of just one person;

(b) Community social history, using multiple interviewees to piece together a portrait of an interconnected group of people [e.g. Langlas (1990), The People of Kalapana; and Langlas (1978), Waipi’o : Mano wai ; an oral history collection];

(c) Site-specific investigation, where the focus is on a place and involves interviewing people who may not otherwise constitute a “community” [Pacific Worlds falls in this category, as does Langlas (1994), Pu‘u of Mauka Kawaihae and Kalala Ahupua‘a, District of Kohala, Hawai‘i Island];

(d) Event-specific investigation [e.g. Tsunamis remembered : oral histories of survivors and observers in Hawai‘i, 2000]; and

(e) Traditional activity-specific investigation, such as oral history interviews for the 2004 film Kau La‘au and Ma‘ama‘a: Traditional Hawaiian Ulua Fishing.

The community type is obviously the broadest in scope, in terms of the range of topics to be covered, the number of elders to be interviewed, and the total number of interviews. But all five types would probably require two or more meetings with every elder interviewed and would require interviews of an informal (unstructured) nature. Calliou’s sixth type of oral history research—research conducted to provide evidence for court cases—is not considered in this essay.

The goal of any oral history project also varies depending on the purpose of the research, whether it is done by a university scholar for academic reasons, done by members of a community to preserve their culture and history, or done by a paid consultant. Academic scholars usually produce analytical reports of their work which synthesize the interview information. Community members may produce more informal reports (e.g. Akoi, 1989, Ku‘u Home i Keaukaha: an Oral History). Sometimes the report is a mere compilation of the interview transcripts, as in the volume A Social History of Kona (1981) produced by the University of Hawai‘i Ethnic Studies Department. Such a report provides a way to preserve the interviews, but it is of less utility than one which provides a synthesis of the information.

Paid consultants often carry out area-specific investigations of historic sites under Section 104 of the NHPA, to determine if a development project will adversely affect significant Native Hawaiian traditional cultural sites. Such projects and the ensuing reports must be tailored to meet the requirements of the NHPA.

The legal requirements in doing the research and the nature of the research report also vary. University scholars in the U.S. are now required to clear a forthcoming research project with the Committee on Human Studies at their university prior to beginning research, and then to obtain written permission from each interviewee before beginning an interview. Usually scholars obtain money from a granting agency and need to provide a well-formulated research plan to the agency to obtain funding. Even community members who do oral history research on their own community often ask for money from a granting agency and need to provide a research plan to the agency.

2. Equipment and recordings

Before you set out, you need to organize your equipment. There is no point in conducting oral history interviews if you do not record them, and many of us have made mistakes that lost us important data because we did not pay attention to our equipment.

As of this writing (2006), there are various options for recording, transcribing and preserving interviews. Interviews can be recorded with an audio cassette tape-recorder, a video tape-recorder, or a CD recorder. I prefer to use a regular audio cassette tape-recorder, because it allows the use of a transcriber with a foot pedal that controls the tape movement, so the transcription process is fast. You do not need an expensive tape recorder to produce good interview recordings. Mini-cassettes should be avoided because they are more likely to have mechanical failures than regular cassettes.

For storing the sound recording, there are software programs which can convert the tape-recording into a digital sound file on your computer, e.g. the program Polderbits. The same program allows you to edit out pieces of the sound file while listening to it, so that the sound file can match the edited transcript. The sound files can then be archived along with the transcripts.

If your goal is to produce a film, then you will want to videotape the interviews. Otherwise, it is probably better to stick to a sound tape-recorder because elders are more intimidated by a camera than by a tape-recorder. You will also need to convert the sound track to cassette tape to do the transcription. CD recorders have both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the CD recorder produces a digital recording file, which you can upload to a computer for storage and editing. The disadvantage is that there is no way (so far as I know) to use a foot pedal to control the movement of the recording while transcribing.

Regardless of what you use to record the interview—audio tape recorder, video tape recorder, or CD recorder—you will usually want to use a microphone. Sometimes it is possible to find a quiet room for the interview, where a microphone is not needed. But more often you end up holding the interview in a place that is comfortable for the kupuna, his/her home or a nearby park for example, and the location is not quiet enough to produce a good recording. Highway noise or the sound of surf can often cover the voice of an elder and make transcription very difficult.

It is a good practice to use an earplug monitor while you are recording, especially at the beginning of the recording, to make sure that the sound is actually being recorded. Even experienced interviewers get back from an interview and find that they failed to record part of all of an interview! Maybe they forgot to turn on the microphone, forgot to push the record button when they turned over the tape, or pushed down the pause button and then forgot to take it off. It is easy to get so involved in the interview content that you forget about the equipment.

After you leave the interview location, you should check to make sure you got a recording. If you did not, you can usually reconstruct most of the content of the interview (although not the actual words used), so long as you took some brief notes during the interview and so long as you do it within a half hour or so after the interview.

3. Locating Interviewees and Making Initial Contact

Unless your project focuses on people you already know, your interviewees will have to be located by networking through other people. You might begin by talking to another researcher who has experience in the area of interest. For Native Hawaiians, you might start by calling the President of the local Hawaiian Civic Club, or the Homesteaders Association of a nearby Hawaiian Home Land, or the head of the local OHA office. Such individuals can usually supply the name and telephone number of a couple of elders related to your area of interest, and in turn those primary contacts can supply additional names (secondary contacts) and telephone numbers.

If you do not know your primary contacts, you will need to earn their goodwill in order for them to give you secondary contacts. That would best be established by a face-to-face meeting in which you describe the nature of your research project and allow your personal integrity to be judged. Many Hawaiians do not list their telephone numbers in the directory. In giving you an unlisted number (perhaps after calling the unlisted party), your primary contact is giving you an introduction. Of course, it would be even better if the primary contact took you to meet your secondary contacts, but that would be unusual if it is someone you have just met.

The initial contact with a person that you hope to interview is crucial. If you have to make contact by telephone you will need to indicate what information you are looking for, but the best tactic is to ask for a meeting to explain your project further. That will give the person a chance to judge your integrity as well as the worth of your project. In my experience, Hawaiian kupuna judge you based on how you feel to them. Be prepared to explain how your project will benefit the local Hawaiian community or Hawaiians in general. If you can’t do that, you probably will have little chance of gaining the individual’s help. For some kinds of projects the benefit will be obvious, for example, a project to locate traditional Hawaiian sites threatened by development in order to limit the negative impact.

In general, it is expected that you take a food gift any time you visit a Hawaiian household. However, it may not feel appropriate at the first meeting when you don’t yet know the person at all.

In my work, the initial meeting has generally developed into an interview (as opposed to Calliou’s recommendation to wait until the second meeting). Before beginning the interview, the interviewer should ask permission to record the interview. Most elders are willing to be tape-recorded, but some may ask you to just take notes. Be sure not to take your tape-recorder out until you have asked and received permission. (Often I carry my tape-recorder with me in a bag, so that I can pull it out after I’ve gotten permission.) You should explain the overall process carefully before beginning, that you will give a transcript to the interviewee, give him/her an opportunity to edit it, and then ask for a release of the edited transcript. This process of gaining signed permissions is very important in guaranteeing that you are using their testimony in ways that they find acceptable. And it is absolutely essential that you do not violate the terms of these agreements.

The record of the interview—whether notes or transcript of a recording—belongs to the interviewee, who is considered to hold a copyright on that record. The interviewee must release the interview record, usually by signing a release form, for the researcher to use the information. Some researchers ask the interviewee to sign the release form immediately after the interview. But it is a better practice to give the interview transcript (or notes) back to the interviewee to read first before getting the release form signed. Then the interviewee has a chance to think twice and edit out anything he/she feels should not be released, and also to correct errors in the transcript.

4. Preparation and Interviewing

Before beginning interviews, you should create a research plan which maps out what you hope to learn. For this, you should do as much background preparation as possible, so that you are familiar with the broader story you are researching. The research plan is necessarily tentative, and you will most likley revise it as the research proceeds. But it is important to think carefully about what areas you want to inquire about, and to formulate an initial set of broad questions to investigate those areas.

Background preparation involves surveying relevant historical materials—published and archival documents, photos and maps—and consulting with individuals who have done earlier oral history research in the area. In Hawai‘i, the most comprehensive archival collections (including documents and photographs) are held by the Bishop Museum, the Hawai‘i State Archives, the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Hawaiian Collection, and the Mission Houses Library, all in Honolulu. There are also local archival collections, such as the collections held by the Kona Historical Society and the Lyman Museum in Hilo. The most important collection of early maps. which contain a wealth of information on Native Hawaiian sites and land use, is held by the Hawai‘i State Survey Division. State public libraries and the University of Hawai‘i libraries both hold many reports of earlier oral history projects.

Knowledge that you bring to the interview from your background research will help you to ask the right questions, but it is also important not to flaunt that knowledge. Remember that the elder is the expert, the one who lived the history you are trying to learn about. You will learn more by presenting yourself as a student than as an expert.

Oral history interviews fit into a category termed “informal” or “unstructured.” Formal (structured) interviews follow a set of pre-formulated questions and are designed to be used with many interviewees in a standard way. Informal (unstructured) interviews, on the other hand, do not have set questions. Usually there is a general topic and the interviewer has a few questions which are designed to begin the interview and to open up discussion. But the subsequent questions and even the direction of the interview depend upon the flow of talk and what you learn along the way. The goal of such interviewing is for the elder to speak in long stretches so that the material is shaped more by the elder than by you, the interviewer. That means you should begin with a broad, open-ended question that leaves plenty of room for a big answer. Ideally, you will be able to simply encourage further expansion by questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” Depending on the interviewee, however, you may need to direct him/her back to the topic of interest. Often, you may need to ask clarification questions (“What year was that?” “Which aunty was that?” “How did you folks do that?”). Remember that if you can’t understand what the elder is telling you during the interview, you probably won’t be able to understand it later on. Try not to ask “leading questions” which push the interviewee to a particular answer. It is better to ask, “What did you usually do with your grandfather?” than “Did your grandfather take you fishing a lot?” There is more value in a thought introduced by the kupuna, because the individual may be reluctant to disagree with the assumption contained in a leading question.

It is important to look at the person you are interviewing to indicate your interest in what you are hearing. If you are interested, it will show in your face and your body language. But it is also important to take a few notes—even if you are tape-recording the interview—so that you can keep track of what you have been told. Otherwise you may find yourself asking a stupid question or even repeating a question.

I generally find it best to have about five broad questions on a single sheet of paper for an interview, with space to write notes for each question. I generally begin with a question that lets the kupuna describe his/her early life. (“Can you tell me about yourself—about your family and how you were raised?”) That question is a useful opener for two reasons: it is an unthreatening question that usually puts the kupuna at ease; and it allows you o determine the individual’s relationship to the area and topic of interest—what years he/she lived in the area and perhaps how he/she gained knowledge of the topic of interest.

5. Types of Interviewers

There has been considerable discussion in anthropology of the advantages and disadvantages of being an “insider” or an “outsider” as a researcher. It is easy to see the advantages of having a Hawaiian interview a Hawaiian elder rather than a non-Hawaiian, especially a non-Hawaiian with limited local experience. The elder is more apt to be suspicious of the motives of a non-Hawaiian interviewer. A non-local interviewer is less likely to understand what the elder says, both because of language differences and because of ignorance of Hawaiian culture. However, there are also advantages in being a non-Hawaiian interviewer. A young Hawaiian interviewer is expected to show respect to a kupuna, and that includes not asking pointed questions. In my experience, young Hawaiians often find themselves unable to ask enough questions in interviewing a kupuna. Sometimes, too, a kupuna may prove more tolerant of questions from a non-Hawaiian than from a Hawaiian, because the non-Hawaiian isn’t held to the same expectations.

In investigating a rural Hawaiian community, ideally the interview team would include one or two younger Hawaiians from the same community. A kupuna will likely be more willing to share memories with them than with anyone else. Of course, including one or more young Hawaiians from the community on the team depends on being able to find individuals with interviewing skill and time available. Note, however, that an actual family member, especially a child or spouse, may not be the ideal interviewer. The personal relationship can get in the way of the interviewing process. Hawaiians from outside the rural community are not necessarily seen as part of the in-group. A Hawaiian from Honolulu may be treated as an outsider just as much as a non-Hawaiian from outside the community.

6. Synthesis and Follow-up

Once an interview is recorded, it should be transcribed as soon as possible. Ideally the interviewer does the transcription, because he/she is best able to understand the tape. The transcript and a copy of the tape should be given to the interviewee to read a week or so before meeting to ask for a release of the information. The elder should be given options for editing and handling the material in the transcript. Some portions might be removed from the transcript. The whole transcript, or portions of it, might be placed on restricted access. The name of the interviewee, or of persons mentioned in the interview might be removed.

It is almost always desirable to do one or more follow-up interviews, to clarify points that are unclear and to expand topics that were covered too briefly in the initial interview. If the project involves many interviews and many interviewees, then the researcher will need to continuously work at synthesizing the information and revising the questions to be asked. Material from an interview with one individual will suggest questions to ask another individual. The process of synthesis requires as a first step that the researcher do a list of contents for each interview, so that information on a given topic can be quickly located. Creating an overall picture from the interviews will show where there are gaps in the information.

If feasible, a copy of the project report should be given to all kupuna interviewed, as well as the transcripts and tape copies of their own interviews. If a grant or consulting fee subsidizes the research, it is appropriate to give an honorarium to each interviewee. Copies of the report should be deposited in local libraries. Ideally the tapes (or digitized sound files) and transcripts would be deposited in a local library or archive, but often it is not possible to find a library or archive which will house them.

Good luck!

Copyright 2006, Charles Langlas.

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Akoi, Rhea (1989) Ku‘u Home I Keaukaha, an Oral History. Hui Ho‘omau o Keaukaha Panaewa.

Kau La‘au and Ma‘ama‘a: Traditional Hawaiian Ulua Fishing. Film (C. Langlas, Executive Producer; Kate Sample, Director), 2004, Hilo: Pili Productions.

Langlas, Charles (1990) The People of Kalapana, 1823 to 1950. UHH Media Center.

---------(1994) Pu‘u of Mauka Kawaihae and Kalalä Ahupua‘a, District of Kohala, Hawai‘i Island: Report of an Investigation and Assessment of the Hawaiian Cultural Significance of Candidate Sites for the Kamuela Area (Hawai‘i) NEXRAD Installation. Prepared for SRI International, Menlo Park, California.

---------(1981) A Social History of Kona. University of Hawai‘i Ethnic Studies Department

---------(2000) Tsunamis remembered : oral histories of survivors and observers in Hawai‘i. Honolulu, Hawaii: Center for Oral History, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa

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