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Interview with Truex Vail Carter and Dr. Susan Gardner

Carter, Truex Vail and Gardner, Susan
Waters, Ryan
Date of Interview: 
Oral history; Native Americans; American Indians; UNC Charlotte; Interviews; Elders; Lumbee; Cherokee; Education
Vail Carter and Susan Gardner talk about their respective roles in the creation of the Native Carolinian and Indian Elders collection, which was born out of separate projects of their own in the early 1990s. They discuss the origins of the project at UNC Charlotte as well as how their interests aligned. They discuss what went into the average interview and some of the challenges that arose before, during and after the interview process. They also describe what they feel is the purpose of this collection and this kind of work, as well as its legacy and their hopes for the future.
North Carolina; 1990s to 2000s
Interview Setting: 
Study room in the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte, in Charlotte, N.C.
Native Carolinians and Indian Elders Collection
Interview Audio: 
RW: Let's get started. Well, my name is Ryan Waters and I'm here with Mr. Vail Carter and Dr. Susan Gardner in the Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte. Today is Tuesday, the 2nd of July 2013 and we will be talking about the Native Carolinian Indian Elders Collection which Dr. Gardner and Mr. Carter were pivotal in creating in the mid-1990s. So for both of you, and it's totally up to you guys who answers first -- just tell me a little bit about your background and what you were doing in the mid-1990s when this project kicked off.
SG: Would you like to start, Vail?
VC: OK, thank you. I was born in North Carolina, a Native North Carolinian, born in Lumberton which is the -- sort of the home of the Lumbee Nation, an American Indian tribe that's been located there for many many years, has historical ties, and so I grew up in that community and lived there 'til I was 18 years old and then moved to Charlotte, so I've been in the Charlotte area now for 43 years. But still have the roots there in Robeson County, where Lumberton is the county seat. Came to Charlotte to go to school here at UNC Charlotte, and upon graduating remained here and worked in several different companies and in 1994, I think, when this project took off or somewhere in the mid-90s there, I was working with Bank of America, and so -- but at that time I had connections with the university here on various projects, and also with the American Indian community, and that's when I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Gardner and we collaborated at that point on various topics of interest related to the American Indian community and I think that's our connection, the background is how we met.
SG: Yes, and when I was thinking about this I couldn't actually remember when it started. [laughs] I had been to the Newberry Library in Chicago at a workshop, and it has the largest collection of American Indian materials except for the Smithsonian. So it's really an impressive, very impressive place, and the workshop was on -- what was on oral history. And so the Newberry had started a project with American Indians in Chicago, of whom there are quite a few, and I don't know if their Urban Indian Center is the first or the second in the U.S. But it's very well known and kind of the equivalent of the Metrolina Native American Center -- when it's functioning. [laughs] And so I got very interested in it, and in their project they didn't know how to start really. And so they used a template used by a Jewish organization, and so I became familiar with that, and of course Vail already had his own formats as well, and so that was how it started. And then I was teaching a graduate course and based on what I learned in Chicago about American Indian life narrative, and somewhere along the line, I still remember we met at Gus's and we were talking about your project, and somehow I had gotten wind of it, and then my students, when I had these students, I thought, "well, they could make themselves useful," you know, their class project could be to collect some -- more of these interviews with the elders, it started with elders over 80. And so it was really interesting for them, and you helped line up some of the people they could interview, especially on the Catawba Reservation.
VC: Mm-hmm.
SG: You knew a number of people there who were interviewed. And so, that's how it got started and I think I taught that course in 19-- summer 1995, but I won't swear by it! [laughs]
VC: Well, I think once I graduated from here, actually it was on a Sunday -- that Monday I actually started work with the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. And so that's really what connected me with the local Native community here, and subsequently with some of the surrounding tribes like the Catawba Nation and eventually, over about a three year period, working with the Commission, had the opportunity to become director of the local Urban Indian Center here, and then so that connected me with the Native tribes across the country, 'cause we were travelling to Washington and California where we had national meetings, and sort of saw some similarities between the tribes here in North Carolina which were primarily state-recognized, and traditional communities, as well as some of the urban Indian tribes, and that sort of was an interesting and enlightening to learn about other folks and the similarities we had as Native people. But also the differences, and of course they pointed out to me that we were at the beachhead, if you will, of the European influx, and that those tribes in the west in particular were paying particular attention to how we dealt with those cultural influences, and that we needed to preserve our language and our culture as best we could, because you know, there was that threat of it being lost. And so I think that sort of added to my spirit of going about, collecting these stories and realizing that we did have something special back in North Carolina [laughs] because we had had exposure for hundreds of years but we had preserved some things and it was mainly because of the oral traditions -- that was the libraries, if you will, of our people, because in the early days we didn't have the written language and it was passed on orally and we told the stories over and over, and so I felt it incumbent on myself to try to begin to do that, you know, with my daughter and expose her to the culture that I grew up in, so we did that. And so she has the stories now. But I think one of the inspirations came, and we worked with the American Indian community here in Charlotte, through the local school system. We had an opportunity to begin to teach Native kids that were here, had maybe some of them had grown up in the urban center, to also make that connection with their traditional roots, and so that's why we went about getting these stories here locally, and I had begun to do that on my own before I ran into Dr. Gardner. [laughs] And began our collaboration, but it was really neat though because on my own, I was able to do very little and then with the students, we were able to leverage that and go out and reach a large number of people in short order, so it was really a godsend for me to make that connection, and let them take it and run with it.
SG: And they did. I'm sure they all still remember that course, because they just loved meeting the older people, and although we had this interview template, we didn't always adhere to it because the more people got used to us, the more they'd think of other things they wanted to say. And so I would sometimes try to bring them back on course, but basically what they were remembering was much more interesting than some of the information we were requesting. They were troopers, they really were.
RW: (to Vail) I had heard that your father had been doing some kind of similar work to this before this project got started. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
VC: Actually when I was here at UNC Charlotte back in the early 70s, I think in 1970 actually, he started a project capturing some of the history of the UNC Pembroke. And my dad was, although by trade an educator, he was a historian [laughs] -- armchair historian if you will, gave me his sense of history. He was a consummate teacher, and so he was fascinated to go out and talk with some of these folks, the chancellor asked him to go about doing this special project, and so he got excited about it after the first couple of interviews I could tell. I found some tapes in 1984, a couple years after he had passed, and that's how I discovered the project, I didn't even know about it at the time I was here in school, had no idea what he was up to back at the university, and this was right before he retired from the university, as the registrar, and -- but once I discovered these couple of cassette tapes, and sat down it was just very emotional for me at first because hearing his voice, which had been captured, and then the fact that he was interviewing his elders, all these folks had been long passed, it was just a very emotional, sit there and listen for hours.
RW: Yeah.
VC: It was just mesmerizing, and so I felt at that point a sense of obligation to capture more stories and also share the ones that he had captured. So the first people I reached out to were the survivors of those elders that he had interviewed, and they heard the tapes, and it was also emotional for them to hear their parents, but also I picked up on the history that they were sharing, the wisdom that I got from those interviews, I had heard answers to questions I'd had for 15 -- almost 20 years. They were answered in the interviews, it's like "now I know!" And it was because of little things that happened in the community and these folks were filling in the blanks, and they were giving very vivid detail about things that happened in the community and you could go back and actually document the timelines, and it all fit, so it was just a neat package. But that's what prompted me to say, you know, there is a value in capturing these stories, getting our oral tradition and carrying that on because it is being lost, if some of us don't take the initiative to revive that. And so that's sort of what prompted me to begin in a small way with what equipment I had and he had his cassette player then and I guess that was top of the line for 1970! [laughs] But the technology had improved, so I had to first capture and make copies of those cassettes. To capture that and upgrade it a little bit because they were potentially degrading. And we're still facing that with the technology because 20 years later, we're here looking at the technology we used 20 years ago is now very fragile, and I feel this sense of urgency to get that transferred, so that's why I'm excited that you're here to -- and the university -- the resources to actually capture that.
SG: And as far as UNC Charlotte is concerned, I found out very quickly after I moved here, which is 23 years ago, unbelievably -- I had heard about the Charlotte Narrative Collection as it was then called in the Special Collections, and because some of the linguists in my department had conducted interviews with a range of interesting people, but there were no American Indian voices in it, so that sort of spurred me on as well. And I believe the idea of donating them to Special Collections was actually the former Associate Dean, Ed Perzel, and he had had his students collecting oral histories in --
VC: One of my former history professors! [laughs]
RW: We have interviews that were conducted by Perzel, in our collections.
SG: Yeah, so he suggested, "why not donate them here?" And I hadn't even thought of that but then I thought "well yeah, they'd be safe, they'd be cared for," and so on. And so Vail agreed to that.
RW: Was that at the beginning or was that after everything had been done?
SG: At the beginning.
RW: Ah, so Special Collections was in mind from the very beginning basically.
SG: Mm-hmm.
RW: OK. So, when it came to actually selecting the interviewees -- like I know, Vail, that you had said that, you know, you kind of formed these connections so to speak. What were the criteria for selecting them? I know you guys had mentioned they were usually elderly, above the age of 80. Was there anything like beyond that?
VC: Well, over the 20 year period that I worked at the Native community here and met several people that had a sense of voice and felt like those folks could definitely have a story because I'd heard some of their stories, and at least they had maybe a willingness to talk. I think Dr. Gardner wondered if many of her students had a little bit of hesitancy about going out -- "Can I really do this?" But I think we saw with using the template that folks, at least the template I had developed -- she'd mentioned that I had my own format that I shared with the students actually, she invited me out one day to talk with some of her graduate students and I just shared my format for going, and it was deliberately designed where you'd put people at ease with some easy questions, the first three or four questions, and then they forget about your equipment, the cameras if you have them, and they'd just begin to talk and recall these stories. So I felt like if we could identify people who could fit that mold, that had a story, had a sense of voice, and had sort of lived through some of these periods of time that we wanted to maybe get them to talk about, that they would be good prospects for us. And then as I actually went about talking with people in the early days, other folks found out that I was doing the interviews and we had folks that would volunteer to be interviewed, and all of a sudden I had a list of six, eight people waiting to be interviewed. I'm sad to say that some of those people passed before I could get around to interviewing them. And that was why I felt a real sense of urgency to -- when this opportunity came along to collaborate with the university to have them go out and actually capture some of those folks that were on the list, and get the students engaged, and so it was really a win-win situation for the students who were enriched by the experience, I think the elders really appreciated the fact that someone was willing to listen to them and felt like they actually had a story to tell, and for us, of course, we had to capture that as invaluable. They have no idea what they've contributed to the Native voice. And here, 20 years later, when I listen to some of the interviews or read the transcripts, you know, as I'm talking now, I'm getting little chills and a little emotional thinking about it because of the fact that many of those folks have passed on, and they do have a voice that's still strong and now, it's like we need to share that. We have an opportunity for the world to actually tap into that, and -- but I'm more concerned about the Natives who are out there that still are at risk of losing part of their heritage because they don't know these stories. They haven't been passed on by their parents, or their grandparents, but they do have an opportunity through the technology to sort of reach back and hear -- maybe not their ancestors, but someone who lived with them and has a similar story and lived through the same experiences, and they can be enriched by that.
SG: And quite simply, the project for my students would not have existed had not Vail had some stature as a leader in the community, and he knew so many people [laughs] and so we relied on him to find them and then bit by bit -- I remember going to a United Methodist conference at Lake Junaluska and my purpose was to recruit people there who might like to be interviewed, and so that is how I made contact with Freeman Owle and Isaac Welch and Amanda Swimmer and so it then became -- you mentioned in one of your questions that the whole project seemed very much southeastern North Carolina-oriented, and for the obvious reason that this is where we are, and Vail knows everybody! [laughs] But then it expanded a bit, and so that was -- it was nice to see that too.
RW: Yeah, there are -- there's something like at least one Cherokee interview. I know it's not exclusively, uhh --
SG: Oh, there are several, let me look at this list here and to refresh my memory about this.
RW: OK. [pause]
SG: Freeman Owle, there must be two with him, I think, Amanda Swimmer, there are two with her--
RW: Hmm.
SG: And Isaac Welch, there are two--
RW: Yeah, that's the one, I was thinking of Isaac Welch.
SG: So, umm -- [pause] Marijo Moore, is part Cherokee. So, yeah, we've got quite a few in. Yeah.
RW: That's -- it's really impressive how there's such a good spread despite the fact there's this, uhh -- you know, there's that tilt on eastern North Carolina. But there is still that element of the Cherokees, and there's actually -- I think there was one interview with somebody who was from New York, who was like Abenaki--
SG: Oh, Joe Bruchac?
RW: Joe Bruchac.
SG: The storyteller? Yeah, mm-hmm. And he came to Charlotte several times when the Novello Festival still existed, and told stories. And we've recently regained contact after all those years, because I wanted permission to use something that he -- some information that he had given me, and so it was as if we'd never really parted, and he's a very gracious and generous man, so he was glad to give his permission, so it was rather nice to make that reconnection after all these years.
RW: So, how did the university as an institution support the efforts of this project? Or was it mainly just the two of you kind of singlehandedly pushing this along?
SG: I did get travel money. We had gas money at least. And I remember that back then, when gas cost 98 cents a gallon -- [all laugh] you could put in ten bucks and go to Pembroke and back.
RW: Not bad.
SG: And they supported my attending these workshops in Chicago, so yeah, I'm very grateful for all the grant support that I had. Yeah. (to Vail) So I don't know how that affected you. We did just take off. We'd meet in a mall on Independence Boulevard and one of the other of us would drive, and off we'd go, yeah.
VC: Sometimes to powwows and other events.
SG: That's a great place too to find people who are willing to be interviewed. In fact, didn't you do some interviewing at powwows? Did you ever --
VC: I actually -- some informal interviews. Unfortunately, you know, some of the interviews I did, particularly before the collaboration with UNC Charlotte took place, I was not actually asking for permission, for permission slips, it was very informal. Did get verbal permission obviously, an agreement for folks to be interviewed. We have several interviews like that, that are still in my possession that I need to get digitized and taken care of. But yeah, informally you had the camera going and so people were aware they were being interviewed, and some of those stories that they had forgot they were on tape, so I had to make personal decisions about what's actually published on those, and so I would respect that, because there were some questions that folks didn't want to entertain. You know, it was a little sensitive, and I was always aware of that, when you're crossing the border in terms of their comfort zone, so there might have to be some editing done if the family even gave permission at this point, and I have actually entertained that with some of those old interviews, since those folks have passed, I felt like that I could approach the family and say, you know, considering what we're trying to do to preserve, would you have an objection to -- if we did editing, and I have had some folks that have agreed to have it become even part of this collection, I guess if they signed the permission slips for the university, and have the university be a repository of those interviews. We haven't explored that yet--
SG: Yeah, we should.
VC: --but that's something that's still out there that could be done.
RW: That leads pretty nicely into my next question, which was when it came to conduct these interviews, were there any problems that regularly came up that you can think of?
VC: Well, for me it was fairly easy because I was approaching folks that knew me and they understood what I was trying to do, and it was very open, but when we got to the project with the university and the students got engaged, and with the permission slip that had a lot of legalese in it, could be somewhat intimidating! [laughs] It's like, OK, let me think about this. And I think Susan alluded to the fact that in some cases, going back to my own home community, having lived in Charlotte most of my life at that point I had to reconnect back with some of those interviewees by my father's connection to those folks, so they knew my father and his character, and that passed on to me. [laughs] So we were able to use that to open some doors and make some connections, and then many of the interviews we had a third party there that was maybe a support system if you will, a child, typically or a sister or sibling to kind of give them a sense of comfort and in many cases, it helped leverage the interview, because they prompted questions, and it was really a positive experience. So that was about the only problems I think we ran into, but it was -- when you put into proper perspective, they were small.
SG: And in the beginning, we interviewed together. A number of the people like Ms. Jessie, Mr. Champ and others, but then as I grew in confidence, I would go off alone, like to Cherokee for example, wasn't always feasible for Vail to come along. So I got over my shyness, but I think people just appreciated that they were listened to, you know. And so I didn't dominate at all, I just sort of facilitated or guided, and as you make that important point about other relatives being there and saying, "Mom, do you remember the time when...?" [laughs] And then another great story would come up. So it was really very good. You had a question, this printed out so small at home I can barely -- hardly read it.
RW: Yeah, it looks microscopic.
SG: Oh, thank you, Vail. So there was one question that I found so intriguing. [pause] Let me see. "Were there any particularly great stories you can remember hearing in your time working on this project?" [pause] There are numbers of stories that people were willing to share with us but they did not want them to show up in the transcript. So I really can't say very much about it, I can't identify anyone or tribal belonging or whatever. But one woman whom I interviewed mentioned that she had to leave grade school when she was in third grade, and she said, since her mother was gone, and the others were much older than her, her father really needed somebody around the house to care for him. So that's why she quit school. And I said, "Where was your mother, then?" That just sounded a bit unusual to me. And as it turns out, her mother was in prison in Raleigh, because she was accused of murdering a white man. Actually she had been entirely framed, you know, she had not done so. And the mother was very enterprising too, she started a lacemaking business in the prison, and sold stuff! [laughs] And eventually she was released, but she was in there a long, long time. And in fact, [pause] it was the spouse who had actually murdered this man, it wasn't this lady at all. But there she was out picking berries and she sort of wound up taking the fall for them, and didn't really know how to defend herself or have access to legal counsel, it was that long ago. And so that's a fabulous story but it's not included in the collection.
RW: That is a great story, though. That is--
SG: Yeah.
RW: I imagine there just has to be many more that are like that, you know, these stories happen all over the place.
SG: Yeah.
RW: But, this is kind of a hard question, I think this is probably the weirdest question I could come up with, but -- so, from the beginning, just what went into, like, the average interview -- from basically, you know, finding the interviewee, and scheduling the interview and so on, to being done with it? What was it like?
SG: It's never done with. That's the reason we're sitting here. [laughs]
RW: Well, that's a good point, but -- [laughs]
SG: But of course, I understand what you mean. Well, I certainly remember that Vail would make the initial contacts, and then schedule and we did a lot of driving. Pembroke is, what, 112 miles from here? A good two and a half hour drive, still! And so we spent a lot of time on the road, which was rather fun actually. And so then we would show up, usually at their homes, and some of them were in very poor health, although they were very brave about it. One had had a stroke, another one had some limbs amputated because he was diabetic, and so forth. But anyway, so that's why we often met them at their homes. And then we would set up, Vail with his tripod and video camera, and of course the tape recorders, and these were cassette tapes -- technology had moved along, it's not the old reel-to-reel that some of Vail's father's I think were. And so, you know, we'd set it up and we'd just chat and have coffee or tea or cookies or something, and just, you know, breaking the ice again. And I remember one interviewee who was so pleased to be part of the project that whenever I came to Pembroke she insisted on taking me to the Pizza Hut. This was a real development in Pembroke in those days. And so -- yeah, and then we'd come back home, and I'd transcribe, and of course that took hours of very, very difficult work because I wanted to preserve the way that people talked, and just -- well, anyway I undertook that part, I think I had more time than Vail had available, and and of course Vail got copies, and we sent copies to the people who had been interviewed also, and in some cases they had thought of even more things to tell us so hence the second interview in several places. We'd come back here late at night, I remember some definitely -- and again, another one of the old ladies, she was the one who was recovering from a stroke, but had made a very good recovery. And so she kept on until 11 o'clock at night, I was exhausted but she just kept on talking. [laughs] And then the permission slips of course. And so -- can you think of anything else about the way we went about it?
VC: No, I think that's it -- there's, I think there's for me, getting the person to commit to doing the interview, the logistical part, you know, I can deal with, to have a commitment to getting the interview done, and to show up, I think that's the pivotal part, you know. And then of course, then we'd go about our way and they're all happy because they've done their hour interview or whatever and not realizing surrounding that one hour is about 50 or 100 hours of transcribing! [laughs] You know, pre-work and post-work, and here we are 20 years later still doing post-production! [laughs] So it's a never-ending story, but it's certainly well worth it. And it's good to be able to invest what time we had to make it happen. And to make it as convenient as possible in reaching out to them as opposed to requiring someone to come to our turf, and we found it was much more convenient and -- literally sitting on the front porch and talking, or in their living room, or at the local tribal center, I remember down at the Catawba Nation, we went down with a student one day, we met at the Catawba Nation, and that was sort of inspirational because the person could look at some of the pictures in there and that sort of got the juices going, you know, thinking about, reminiscing about, you know, the past times, and you just slid right into the interview, and it worked -- to be surrounded by photographs and we often had that with our interviews folks bringing out pictures that would revive memories or maybe even Susan looking at an artifact or picture that was in their living room and that just went off on a tangent! [laughs] "I got a story about that, let me tell you about that piece!"
SG: But there are tremendous backlogs in these kind of collections as Tina was mentioning, so really the longest time spent on it is getting it transcribed and catalogued and made available. And at the public library, for example, in the Carolinas Room, they have a huge backlog of interviews, and a friend of mine is a librarian in the Carolinas Room, and so they're behind in almost every collection I know of. There are so many interviews waiting to be processed as well.
RW: Hmm. Umm, let's kind of shift to -- this is something I had always wondered about when I was working on these interviews, and digitizing and et cetera, is -- how did the graduate students respond to the challenge of conducting these interviews?
SG: They were nervous at first--
RW: Sounds familiar.
SG: --but they did -- they had met Vail, they had the template, and so -- but they really got into it, and they had an enormous respect for the people that they interviewed as well. It really enlarged their world. And my world enlarged in that -- I don't know, maybe Vail knows, but you probably don't, I work as a volunteer at a work release facility for women felons, and there are two -- there have been two Lumbee women there, and they talked about Robeson County as if it were the Moon and I would never have heard of it, you know, and I said, "Well, just try me. Tell me where you come from." "You've never heard of it, it's called Back Swamp," and they were staggered that I knew where Back Swamp is! So it opened up a whole new kind of environment for me which I loved, still love -- I still go to Pembroke when I can.
RW: Yeah, I'd love to visit. Hopefully soon.
SG: Yeah. Well, I can recommend some people you ought to meet! [laughs]
RW: So, after they were done with the class, how did the graduate students feel about the work they had done?
SG: They were just very grateful to have had the opportunity.
RW: And did many of them go on to continue in working in oral history?
SG: I don't know, I honestly don't know. Yeah. I have had students who have taken my Native American literature courses and they go on to, for instance, become experts in federal American Indian law, and they teach that. So there are a couple who have been profoundly influenced, but I would say for most of them, that was it. It was a great experience and they moved on.
RW: And how did the interviewees feel about their words being part of this collection that was, you know -- to this day, still exists.
SG: Well, as I mentioned -- I think I mentioned earlier, yeah, that we had about 50 interviews but only 16 were willing for them to become public.
RW: So they were pretty reluctant to actually have it made public, then?
SG: Yeah, mm-hmm. And there are all kinds of reasons for that, like they may have told a story about a family member and the family member wouldn't like it at all, so yeah, they were very intent on preserving their privacy, and we were also.
VC: Made for interesting and very rich interviews, but because of the content [laughs] sometimes brutally frank, and that's what we like, but it's like "uh-oh, shouldn't have said that." Not for public consumption!
SG: And I do remember one incident when we were both rather appalled, interviewing an elderly man and he said that if any of his daughters ever married a black person, he would completely disown her.
RW: Oh my god.
SG: And Vail and I sort of traded glances, we were speechless. But in his generation, that was a common attitude.
RW: Wow. Well, how did both of you feel about doing this kind of work? I mean, I know you'd mentioned your father's -- taking his mantle of responsibility, I guess.
VC: Well, I hoped to resume an active role in doing more structured interviews because I still have, since I've talked with you, Ryan, just a couple weeks ago, I had another one of my folks on my list who was actually a Diné from the Navajo Nation that I met a few months ago, and we talked for about twenty minutes and I'd realized this is someone I need to get an interview with because he's telling me in a twenty minute interview, that was so rich, with his war experience -- had been both a Marine and in the Army, and then married a Lumbee lady and how they met. It was just fascinating, and then his siblings -- it was going on and on, like "I gotta capture this," and I asked for an interview -- "oh no problem," you know. And then I get this call a few days ago, he had an accident -- and fell in his garage, and died from the injuries. So, you know, you start thinking, "I can't procrastinate to capture some of these," you have be - have to have that sense of urgency and when the opportunity presents itself, really to seize the opportunity and unfortunately my biggest regret is that I didn't do that on many of the folks that had given me permission to come and interview, or found out that a relative was interviewed and they felt like they had a story as good or better [laughs] and had shared similar experiences we might be interested in. It's like, "yep, put you on the list." So I think there's that -- definitely a need to continue with that tradition, and so I hope that I can live long enough to, in the next coming months, retire and put that back in high gear.
SG: That would be wonderful.
VC: And capture some more stories and be a little bit more deliberate, a little more organized, given the fact that there's a lot of logistics involved, and maybe even get some higher-tech equipment and be a little more deliberate about going out and capturing the stories and probably keep the same format that we have, that's worked in terms of getting folks to ease into it, but maybe go about and say "what's some topics that we need to capture that we haven't captured?" Because you can see themes, I think, Susan and I had talked about the fact that there was various themes that started showing up and we even talked about trying to try to pull that together in some way, some kind of a written piece that would be what we've learned from this collection, and the themes, whether it be Native medicine, or economics, or social living structures, whatever the themes were, and capture those, but then go back and fill in some of the gaps, and say "OK, who can we reach out that maybe will help us fill that gap?" And have that interview to make it a sort of a complete, enriched collection.
SG: I actually did publish an article on it and you mustn't have seen it, I wouldn't have -- it was in Studies in American Indian Literatures, but it was rather difficult to write because I wanted to share our experience yet I didn't want to name anybody, and again preserve the confidentiality, and so I wrote around it, kind of, and so I could send you a copy of that if I hadn't already done so to go with the collection.
RW: Yeah, that'd be perfect.
SG: Yeah, OK, I'll do that.
RW: Awesome. So it's been almost 20 years since this project began, you'd mentioned the whole backlog aspect of -- the fact that these things take a long time. Is that why it just didn't immediately get to the point where it was available for public consumption, or were there other problems that you guys ran into?
SG: Well, when Stanley Wilder, who is the director of the library was hired, I was the library representative for the English Department, and I raised my concern then because we had used some of the Cherokee interviews in one of my courses because we were reading a Cherokee novel, and so we were able to make those accessible but it was then that I discovered, when I saw what they gave us, that they had really butchered the interviews. My endnotes had gone in most of them, everybody was speaking so-called "Standard American Edited English," and their whole character was gone, and I had lots of endnotes because many people would not have any idea what the people were talking about. And so I got very disillusioned at that point. And I told him about that, and he was very concerned, and then things started picking up again. So there was that period when I thought, "oh, we went through all this work, and now look at what has happened to it, it's not recognizable," and how that happened, I don't know.
RW: Are those interviews that never went into the collection as being put online?
SG: They were in the collection.
RW: Oh, OK.
SG: And then they were made available to my students, as PDFs.
RW: Ah, I gotcha. So now that -- I mean, I've been working on this, hopefully it will be, we'll be able to get this done. Now that it's kind of in the process of being finally made available on the internet, at least partially, what purpose do you think this collection serves in the 21st century?
SG: Oh, well -- a very largely underrepresented and over-stereotyped people have had the chance to make their voices heard.
RW: And what do you think its legacy is -- which is almost kind of like its purpose, you know, now that two decades have passed since it was being done? So much has changed, although if you think about it, a lot hasn't changed in the last twenty years. But given that the way our world has kind of changed, what do you think the legacy of something like this is?
SG: Well, this is the wonderful thing about going online. So students at UNC-P could easily access it. And might even know of yet other people -- "oh, my grandma!" you know? And so that is very reassuring. I don't believe, but I'm not sure about this, if we ever made them available to UNC-P, but I'm thinking probably not because we would've had to get permissions all over again. So I just don't know, but now that all of these will be online, and that collection has so many African-American interviews, Jewish interviews, lots of white southern interviews, it just seemed like it was essential to get some Native voices. And that's the part I'm most pleased about.
RW: So what do you think are some of the lessons that you guys learned in the 90s that could be applied to a similar endeavour in the present day? What are some things that could be done differently or some of the lessons that, you know, have stuck with us?
VC: Well, I think that we found that certainly everyone has a story -- whether that person's approachable to share initially or not, we had sort of work with that but like I said earlier, it's sort of a -- in retrospect, a small obstacle for the folks that did present that, but we found a workaround whether it was a relative or maybe in the case where we got the story but didn't get the right to publicize it or what have you, but you know, maybe we can still revisit that. But I think that some of the things that we learned certainly still can apply today, some of the techniques that we used, I don't know that would need to be changed. The parameters that we put out, in terms of trying to get folks that were, you know -- certainly our seniors, and I found the most -- some of the enriching stories were folks who had actually travelled outside of their county or outside of their state and the profound experience --
RW: Or their country.
VC: Yeah. And the country with the folks in the military, had gone and maybe had never left their county and all of a sudden they're all over the world, it had a huge and profound impact on their perspective on life, on who they were as a Native, as they met other Natives as they travelled, and the condition that they lived in, and so it was capturing those life-changing experiences, I think is something that we can certainly learn from, and certainly their grandchildren and the generations to come. So I think that's sort of my perspective, what can we capture now that would be of benefit to the seventh generation to come? Because when I read some of the history that was actually written, fortunately I do have some history going back seven generations at least from my daughter, six generations back from me, that was written in the 1850s that some of my ancestors captured and put in print, and we have that preserved and those stories are more formal because it was documenting things that were happening in the community. But it was still certainly enriching to me that you could go back and have that in print, so I think we need to keep that in mind when we're telling our stories, how is this going to be used for the future generation? What can they learn from what we're talking about? So if I had to change my template at all I would probably put two or three questions in there that would probably sorta allow me to pivot from that point and think in terms of the seventh generation to come. What is it, what kind of wisdom do you want to impart, not only for your children and grandchildren but trying to think and have enough vision to go out seven generations, you know, and when you're thinking seven generations back what would you have liked those folks to have shared, and passed on to you? And sort of frame it like that, in terms of some of the interview questions.
RW: Well that actually leads pretty nicely into the question I was about to ask, which is what are some of the lessons that younger American Indians and even members of the Lumbee and other Native tribes of North Carolina could learn from this collection, and from doing this kind of work?
VC: Well, I think just simply the fact that stories are valuable, that we do have and can still have a strong oral tradition, you just have to practice it, you have to take the time to share the stories and for me, it was listening to stories over and over and over until it became a part of your being. And then be able to repeat that to your children, you know, verbatim, until they have it. So now that we have some of these new stories that have been captured, I think that it's a matter of listening to those stories over and over and over because you weren't there in person to hear them, but now we have them captured. Anyone can sort of go in and claim that as part of their story. It didn't have to be your mother, your father, your grandfather, passing them on, but -- and even a part of your tribe. We have wisdom that can be shared from other tribes, as we've talked with -- I guess we talked with at least four different tribal nations that are part of the collection already, so I think when we can see those similarities and things between the various tribes, but I think that's enriching in that we can listen to those and hear how it starts to become sort of a patchwork or woven together and sort of an overlay, and you find those common grounds that everyone had in common, and that's what so neat about if you can sit back and not just listen to one story, but take the time to hear all of it which fortunately, as Susan and I have done while we were collecting, we could see and hear things like, [laughs] "Oh we've heard that before! That sounds like that guy from Alabama said the same thing as the person from Cherokee and the Lumbees have experienced that," so you see these connections, but until you take the time to actually sort of immerse yourself in that, it really won't be of as much value by taking it a piece and fragment at a time. Have to get the whole body of work to really appreciate it, right? [laughs]
SG: Yes, really, really. Yeah. I also worked for a number of years with Dr. Linda Oxendine who was the chair at the American Indian Studies Department at UNC-P. And we gave a conference paper together once about interviewing. The title was “1 + 1 = > 2.” And Linda said that she realized, she grew up with her Great Aunt Sugar, and Aunt Sugar would sit out on the porch and she would tell all these wonderful stories so Linda feels very connected to her past, but she said that with her contemporary students now there hasn't been a Great Aunt Sugar, and so they are not cognizant of a great deal of the past, you know, people aren't living on farms anymore and not having to entertain themselves with telling stories and so forth, and so that's a big loss there. It also occurred to me as we were talking -- excuse me -- that one thing we didn't really touch upon or at least not in any particular depth was the Lumbee communities in Baltimore, and in Detroit. One Lumbee man in Baltimore ate the pigeons that came to roost on the window sill of his room. You know, their experiences looking for work. So often away from their community for decades. But they come back, you know, at Lumbee Homecoming, people who haven't seen each other for 40 years or something even if they're relatives, that these people are regarded returning heroes -- you know, they left, they succeeded, but they came back. That impressed me a lot. That attachment to a particular place is so strong.
RW: Yeah, that is really impressive. I can't think of many communities where people would do something like that. I think -- I've, I was born in Charlotte, I've lived here for the last 14 years. I tend to say that once I leave I probably won't be living here again, but you know, we'll see. But I think, I am increasingly finding more reasons to have that attachment, which is good. One question for you, Susan, is -- you've worked with oral history your entire career --
SG: Well, I wouldn't say that. Not my entire career.
RW: Well, part of it at least, I mean --
SG: Ever since I got here.
RW: Yeah, I guess that's probably what I should have said. For me, honestly, I didn't really fathom the value of oral history until I started studying the roots of American Indian oral literature and things like that. To like, a layman -- or laywoman -- who has no experience in oral history at all, what sort of value do you think you could use this as an example of good oral history -- or let me rephrase that. Like, how could you use this as an example of good oral history? Of proving that oral history does have value? That kind of project.
SG: Well, I think there are numbers of examples of that in the mainstream culture in general. Studs Terkel, for example, and all the people he interviewed during the Great Depression, you know, and the big books of oral histories. And there again, they span a gap, and even one can look at these in kind of a comparative sense and find -- and I think Vail has alluded to this -- the more you know about the history, the more you understand other people's history too, and how much you have in common or don't.
RW: Yeah. I mean, how could this project specifically though be used as an example of that kind of oral history, to somebody who might not see as much merit in it?
SG: I'd love to see them used in the schools for example, and students could be encouraged to tell their own stories such as they know about them and of course be included in classes at the university. But also public venues [pause] -- I'm thinking of the various grants Vail had from the North Carolina Humanities Council and he would sponsor a number of public events , at pow-wows, so there are innumerable ways, nowadays, certainly.
RW: Yeah, I know the internet is one, but I'm almost wondering if there's maybe a better way to engage the audience in these stories. Because, you know, when I listen to them, I hear these voices and I get sucked in. And that's hopefully what the end result will look like on New South Voices, the website for this.
VC: And that's, you know I mentioned earlier about the various themes that seemed to be woven throughout -- that's what my vision was, to capture, take the body of work -- and I know this is [laughs] -- you know, but you would take some time, to go through and capture snippets, maybe a minute and a half here, two minutes there of the interviews, and sort of put it into those themes, and sort of have one, maybe a thirty minute piece that is just segmented and you hear the voices coming out on this one theme. And present it like Susan said maybe as a way to introduce people to the larger body of work, to say here's some snippets, but look how rich this is, and just thirty minutes of it. You need to hear the rest of the story, or all the stories, but at least you got a flavor of what the whole work's about, and then you could present that as a -- in a public venue, leverage that, for discussion piece, you know for a kick-off for another oral history event, whatever. There's many ways I think it could be done, but I think until you can get -- it's almost like the YouTube concept, you know. [laughs] You get a little bit out there and hope it goes viral. But you're giving a little snippet to whet the appetite for this larger body of work, or maybe to inspire someone to say, "hey, I can do that!" You know, "how can I go about doing it?" Well, it takes some work, but it's not that complicated, there's a lot of work involved but it's not complex work. It's just a matter of getting organized and going about, being inspired.
SG: We also did a program for UNCC TV, Spotlight on Research, do you remember that?
VC: Mm-hmm.
SG: And we did show clips from the interviews. Yeah. Maybe I can get my hands on that somewhere too -- no promises, but I'll try.
RW: That would be good to see. So there is there anything similar to this project that you did that -- the both of you did -- in 1994, that you'd like to see done in the present day? Is there anything you can think of that is kind of along similar lines that you'd like to see done, maybe in the future?
SG: Well, Charlotte has become so much more diverse than it was when I first arrived here, for example. And I don't know whether the collection has Latino voices, for example, or Asian voices.
RW: I'm not sure.
SG: It'd be interesting to know, because I think those would be very worthwhile too. And the recent immigrant experience and so on.
RW: So is there anything else either of you want to talk about that we didn't get to? We're at like, just over an hour, and I'm out of questions. [laughs] Anything? Alright, well, I guess we'll wrap this one up. Thank you guys so much for taking part in this interview, and that's about that!
VC: Thank you.
SG: Thank you for the opportunity, I'm so glad we had it.