Supporters Gather for Center for Oral History “Relaunch”
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The University of Hawai‘i’s Center for Oral History on the Mänoa campus is open for business once again, and longtime Ethnic Studies Professor Davianna Pömaika‘ºi McGregor has stepped up to serve as the center’s new director. McGregor was among the early supporters of the Ethnic Studies Oral History Project as it was known in the 1970s when the idea was proposed to the state Legislature. She is a historian of Hawai‘i and the Pacific and a founding member of the Department of Ethnic Studies, as well as a longtime member of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, a grassroots organization that helped stop the bombing of Kaho‘olawe and has worked to heal the island after decades of U.S. military use.
Readers may recall a Hawai‘i Herald story from more than a year ago announcing the joint retirements of Warren Nishimoto and Michi Kodama-Nishimoto, who served as COH director and research associate, respectively, for nearly four decades. Since that announcement, some community members have wondered whether the center was on track to continue its mission of preserving the recollections of Hawai‘i’s people through recorded oral history interviews and various community activities. Those concerns were eased during a series of events in late September that both celebrated the center’s past and foreshadowed its future potential.
“We’re here to have a fresh launch to the Center for Oral History,” said Denise Konan, dean of the College of Social Sciences, at a Sept. 21 reception on the Mänoa campus, where the center is physically housed in George Hall. She recognized those who laid a “solid foundation” for the center and amassed its extensive body of research over nearly four decades, referring to the publicly accessible collection of more than 800 oral histories and 30,000 pages of transcripts, among other things.
Konan said that over the past year, “a lot of deliberation and dialogue” took place among representatives from different departments at the university. It was eventually decided that the Ethnic Studies Department would be the “most appropriate home” for COH, which previously was under the auspices of the Social Science Research Institute at UH Mänoa.
In moving forward with the center, her advisory committee had to consider “what had been, what could be and what should be,” said Konan. She thanked McGregor for accepting the directorship at such a critical time. Graduate students Kyle Kajihiro, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography and Environment, and Micah Mizukami, an M.A. candidate in the Department of Linguistics, are also assisting with the center’s work.
McGregor offered a chant in Hawaiian, one that interwove the names of some of her ancestors and spiritually connected her to both place and ‘ohana (family). She then gave a brief overview of the newly configured center and introduced Dr. Amy Starecheski, director of the Oral History Master of Arts Program at Columbia University in New York City, who talked about the evolution of oral history studies in the United States.
Doing Oral History Research in the Field
As part of COH’s “relaunch” events, titled “Celebrating Community Knowledge for Social Change: From Groundswell to Oceanswell,” Starecheski delivered a series of talks and a half-day workshop on Sept. 22 to share her knowledge of oral history research and the work she, personally, has done in the field. As a cultural anthropologist and oral historian, Starecheski’s work has focused on the use of oral history in social movements and the politics of urban property. She was a lead interviewer for Columbia University’s “September 11, 2001 Narrative and Memory Project.” According to her biographical profile on Columbia’s website, she “interviewed Afghans, Muslims, Sikhs, activists, low-income people, and the unemployed.”
Oral history research, including many of the past interviews conducted by COH, often involves reaching out to individuals in the community who initially may not think they have anything meaningful to contribute to historical knowledge. However, the researcher can help change that perception by explaining that the research aims to learn about history from those who experienced it firsthand, regardless of their social status or level of formal education.
In 2016, the University of Chicago published Starecheski’s book, “Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City,” which was based on research conducted between 2009 and 2015 and involved 55 oral history interviews. The book was an attempt to learn about individuals who occupied — and took care of — a number of abandoned buildings in New York City and then participated in an organized process to legally occupy the property based on the labor, or “sweat equity,” they invested in rehabilitating properties that would have otherwise become derelict. Another term used to describe this phenomenon is “urban homesteading,” although social researchers may make distinctions between squatting and urban homesteading.
Starecheski’s research took her into the buildings where squatters lived. Her book provided some background information. In the 1970s, the New York City government acquired ownership of a number of residential buildings due to property foreclosures. But the city did not want to be in the landlord business. As a result, many of the buildings ended up vacant and unused. Squatters moved in and took up residence, sometimes calling themselves “caretakers” since they lacked legal title to the property. The squatters often staked a moral claim to the property since they were caring for an abandoned building and using it for shelter. An urban social movement evolved to help the squatters or “homesteaders” negotiate with the government, often through a nonprofit housing association or organization, and gain legal occupancy to the buildings as part of an urban renewal program.
To better understand this rather complicated squatter-to-homeowner phenomenon, Starecheski consulted archives and studied documents related to the topic, but in fine oral history research tradition, she also wanted to go into the field and have a conversation with people who lived through the experience to get their stories and perspectives.
“I talked with many of the most vocal squatters, those who have played a central role in shaping the public narrative of this history,” Starecheski wrote in her book. “I also made a particular effort to talk to those who had refused to speak publicly, or had never been asked: undocumented immigrants, people who were active in the squats and then left or were pushed out, or those who lived there but were not involved in squatter activism. Because I was using oral history methods, which include giving people the option to review their interviews before allowing the researcher to use them, and because I was able to offer people the chance to participate anonymously, many people who had never spoken publicly about their experiences before chose to talk with me.”
Through her oral history research, Starecheski discovered that the squatting-to-homeownership process was far from simple to characterize. Squatters were not a homogenous group by any means. For some, squatting was a political act and a reaction against the capitalist concept of private property rights; for others, it was a practical act of desperation to find housing in a city that lacked affordable options. Contrary to popular perceptions, Starecheski found that squatters actually were a diverse group in many ways.
In her book, Starecheski shares some insights into why people may be motivated to talk to oral history researchers. They may realize, for example, that they are not only talking to the researcher, but also to “a broader future audience” — that is, people who will have access to the interviews and can learn from the interviewees’ stories and insights for generations to come. Interviewees have an opportunity to contribute to a “public historical record.” In turn, the oral history researcher is able to reciprocate by helping to create a publicly accessible archive to document and preserve the squatters’ history, or whatever group and time period the oral historian is studying.
At the half-day workshop, Starecheski facilitated a discussion among a diverse group of attendees interested in learning about, and in doing, oral history research. The workshop participants included those affiliated with UH, as well as individuals from beyond the campus borders. Their backgrounds and experiences varied widely and included students, faculty members (active and retired) and community members from different age groups and walks of life. As part of the workshop activities, Starecheski separated participants into pods of about four members for small group discussions, responding to questions such as, “What is oral history?”
After the groups discussed their thoughts on what oral history is, Starecheski shared her own thoughts on the subject. She described it as a “conversation between two people where one person does most of the talking.” The person doing most of the talking is the interviewee, the individual who directly experienced the historical period, event or social system of interest. Interviewing can take different forms, from more conventional methods to those that embrace the uniqueness of existing cultural practices. For examples, she referred to the practice of “yarning,” a culturally appropriate way of communicating used by a number of indigenous cultures that is built on the oral tradition of handing down information from one person to another through stories. A participant at the workshop shared a term — “tanaloa” — from his Pacific Islands-based culture that emphasized participatory and inclusive group dialogue in a safe space of mutual respect.
Gathering stories to learn about the past often requires relationship-building and more than one visit with the interviewee. Moreover, a trained oral historian understands that he or she should not be the sole interpreter of interview material. When possible, the interviewee should be asked to help with the analysis and interpretation during the interview process. For example, the interviewer, in response to something the interviewee just said, may ask follow-up questions such as, “Why do you think that happened?” to get the interviewee’s perspective or interpretation. An important goal of oral history research is to convey to interviewees that their worldview matters. In so doing, the interviewer and interviewee “co-create” a narrative together about history, with the interviewee being the primary narrator of the story.
In her book about squatters, Starecheski writes: “My aim is merely to continue to share authority with the narrator as the interview is transformed into my written work, and to bring the dialogic, multivocal nature of the oral history interview into this text.”
Starecheski also talked about the nuts and bolts of doing oral history research, such as the different types of recording equipment available; the purpose of consent and legal release forms; the process of transcribing and archiving recordings; and curating (or selecting) oral history research for public engagement. She distributed a tip sheet for doing oral history interviews that included suggestions on how to start off an interview and the importance of not simply eliciting information from interviewees, but trying also to get a “full, well-rounded, multi-layered life story” that includes experiences, ideas and other people in the interviewee’s life. She often starts off her questions with “Describe . . .” or “Tell me about . . .” or “Tell me a story about . . .” to encourage actual stories, not just one- or two-word answers.
Although there are distinct differences between oral history research and journalism, one thing they share is the importance of follow-up questions. In fact, Starecheski writes in her tip sheet that follow-up questions “are at the heart of an oral history interview.” Of course, an interviewer should prepare a well-thought-out list of questions to ask the interviewee, but the interviewer should not be a slave to those prepared questions. Writes Starecheski, “We listen and ask follow-up questions with an idea of where we want the interview to go but also with flexibility about how we get there.” She also recommended that the interviewer learn to be comfortable with “reflective silence” so the interviewee has time to think during the interview “to engage in the process of active meaning-making that we value in an oral history interview.”
The relaunch of UH Mänoa’s Center for Oral History builds upon the legacy of oral history research at the university, albeit with some rebranding and changes as the center adopts its own identity under new leadership and staffing. One change is its new logo in the form of a taro leaf — an important symbol of life and genealogy in Hawai‘i — with half the leaf shaped like a microphone and the other half looking like a traditional taro leaf. The logo symbolizes the preservation and sharing of stories important to Hawai‘i and the Pacific region.
The center’s new mission statement reads: “The Center for Oral History (COH), in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, collects, documents, preserves and highlights the recollections of Native Hawaiians and the multi-ethnic people of Hawai‘i. It produces oral histories and interpretive historical materials about lifeways, key historic events, social movements and Hawai‘i’s role in the globalizing world, for the widest possible use.”
As noted earlier, the center is considering new technologies to make oral history research available to modern audiences. For example, the creation of podcasts — digital audio programs accessible via the Internet — is on the horizon. During the half-day workshop, a group of students enrolled in UH’s North Shore Ethnographic Field School demonstrated their web-based multimedia project that included oral history interviews with kupuna (elders) in Waialua. The field school is a partnership among the UH Departments of Ethnic Studies and Anthropology, Kamehameha Schools and other community organizations. The Waialua oral history project taught students the “method and value of preparing for and conducting life history interviews, as well as how to preserve, analyze, and disseminate these stories,” according to their website, which included video recordings, interactive maps, text and photographs.
A workshop attendee also mentioned The Limu Hui, a group of limu (seaweed) practitioners, many of them kupuna from rural and remote areas of Hawai‘i, who hold traditional and cultural knowledge about collecting limu that acknowledges the importance of sustainability, respect for the ocean and understanding of the health-enhancing benefits of eating limu.
In 2014, through the efforts of Kua‘äina Ulu ‘Auamo and the ‘Ewa Limu Project, more than 30 limu practitioners from six Hawaiian islands gathered for the purpose of learning, knowledge-sharing and discussion, according to KUA’s website. KUA is a community-based initiative whose mission is to protect, restore and care for Hawai‘i. “The knowledge and efforts of local communities are more important now than ever,” the organization states on its website. “Globally, interest in community-based solutions is rising, an approach known broadly today as ‘Community-based Natural Resources Management.’ Locally, the stewardship work of our island communities needs and deserves resources, connection, attention, and support.” The Limu Hui was a way to get people together to preserve valuable cultural knowledge about limu, the marine environment, the ‘aina (land) and the impact of human interaction with all three of these.
Judging from the dozens of people who attended the “relaunch” activities, interest in and enthusiasm for oral history research in Hawai‘i remains strong. Some in attendance were mainly interested in conducting oral history interviews for family and genealogical research. Others had cultural and historical preservation projects in mind. Documenting Hawai‘i’s unique political history was also discussed. In fact, several UH faculty members are collaborating on an oral history project designed to interview individuals involved with the 1978 Hawai‘i State Constitutional Convention, a timely project considering the current proposal to hold another “con-con” in Hawai‘i, which could have significant implications for local politics.
One major oral history project undertaken by the Daniel K. Inouye Institute includes videotaped interviews with the late senator’s friends, family, colleagues and former staff members in Hawai‘i, Washington, D.C., and beyond. “These wonderful conversations help to tell the story of Dan Inouye, adding much color, emotion and context to his papers, which are at the University of Hawai‘i’s Hamilton Library,” according to the institute’s website, https://dkii.org. The oral history interviews are located in the “Research” section of the website. These interviews will be preserved for future generations long after the interviewees have passed away. One of the primary interviewers for this project was Professor Gerald Kato, chair of the UH Mänoa School of Communications and former Hawai‘i print and broadcast journalist.
Oral history research can also intersect with creative media such as cinema. For example, at the end of Stacey Hayashi’s feature film, “Go For Broke – A 442 Origins Story,” excerpts from a few oral history interviews with World War II Japanese American veterans like Ted Tsukiyama were shown. The film dramatized the lives of these soldiers in Hawai‘i in the months following the Pearl Harbor attack, when young Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i demonstrated their loyalty to the United States through work with the Varsity Victory Volunteers and eventual formation of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
On Oct. 11, the UH Center for Biographical Research and COH cosponsored a “brown bag biography” titled, “Hawai‘i Okinawan-Owned Restaurant Project: Oral History and Community Archives.” This oral history project documented over 325 “beloved local restaurants in Hawai‘i owned by Okinawans, with oral histories, photos, menus, and other priceless memories,” according to the event’s publicity flyer. “In this presentation, the Project Leaders will share about their process, the traveling exhibits they have created from this tremendous work, and their visions for next steps in preserving this community history.”
The important role that COH can play in Hawai‘i’s present and future seems clear, as oral history research appears to be thriving in the Islands as a research method for knowledge-sharing and historical preservation. A shared insight at the half-day workshop was that there are still so many stories to be told in Hawai‘i, whether about one’s own family history or about historic communities, events and practices. At all of its programs during the “relaunch” event, the Center for Oral History asked attendees whether they had suggestions for an oral history project or individuals to interview, and whether attendees could suggest resources for oral history research. If you have ideas, contact the center at email@example.com or call (808) 956-6259. The Center for Oral History website is https://
Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.