I was born, raised and completed my primary and secondary education in the city of Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, a country situated in Central and West Africa. Like every young Cameroonian, I read histories about Cameroon and the colonization of Africa written by French and English historians. In this sense, Chinua Achebe said, “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
My grandparents told me their story and their ancestors’ interactions with Westerners. After the independence of many African countries in the 1960s, African authors such as Chinua Achebe revived the African oral history tradition through novels like “Things Fall Apart.”
Africans, nowadays, understand that their history cannot be told only through Western historian’s voices. They need to take into consideration the account of their oral heritage that writers such as Chinua Achebe revived in his literary work. Now, people around the world and Africans can re-examine their history through the lens of the Western historians and their own historians.
Therefore, in Achebe’s term, “the history of the hunt” belongs now not only to the hunters, but also the lions. The lions here metaphorically represent all the oppressed cultures that have their story told by the oppressors.
Africans, like Native Americans, have been colonized by Westerners. Africans, as Native Americans, transmitted their history orally through generations, until recently Western historians narrated the history without these African or Native American’s voices.
When I started working at the University of South Dakota Oral History Center, I was very excited when I came across transcripts of oral interviews with Native Americans. After reading some of these interviews, I realized that African cultures share similarities with Native American cultures and traditions. One particular aspect that immediately caught my attention was the importance of oral history to both cultures.
The art of story telling has kept a living memory of Native Americans. The same tradition lies in the African cultures and societies. For instance, and Elder in a Native American community tells stories about the past, just as a grio, a storyteller in an African village, tells stories of the old generation to the new generation in an attempt to keep the memory of their ancestors and the way of life alive.
Today, these interviews provide people, in particular students and scholars, the opportunity to listen and to witness these other versions of history. In doing so, people have both sides of the story and should be able to detach the facts from the fiction.
Working at the Oral History Center has given me the opportunity to understand the wisdom of Chunua Achebe when he said, “until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
In other words, these interviews clearly demonstrated that Native Americans constitute a vibrant part of American history despite the fact that their history has largely been ignored, or reported partially though the voices of European historians.
Now, people can listen and witness this other side of the history, as told by the Elders in Native American communities. In listening, we appreciate an accurate account of the history of the past. It helps us understand the present and how far we have come as a nation of immigrants who met Native Americans here and it requires acknowledging their historical significance.
Therefore, the current research and preservation done at the South Dakota Oral History Center allows us, through the vivid and lively oral histories, to refresh history, embrace the present with its flaws and to progress to an interesting future that embraces all our histories.
South Dakota Oral History Center Graduate Assistant