Historic Technique Taps Plain Folks’ Special Tales

Times Staff Writer

They were simple conversations with common folk. But they produced stories of courage, industriousness, independence and heartbreak too.

In the sweep of recorded time, the tales--of the Navajo and lost sheep, of women working during the war, of the quirk that increased Chinese-Americans’ exposure in Hollywood and of Japanese-Americans’ role in expanding Southern California’s economy--probably never will go much beyond footnotes.

But they are bits of history snagged in a new but familiar way: Working with tape recorders, historians nationwide now are returning to an original tool of their craft to collect memories of American immigrants, particularly those of the first generation.

The method the experts are employing, and one which many families also are trying, is called oral history.


Its techniques date to the time of Herodotus, who wrote of heroes’ glorious performance in grand battles. But in its modern form, it is helping to put in perspective the roles that women and minorities--otherwise ignored by traditional histories--have played in society.

“History is often written from the perspective of what the statesman were doing and what was happening at a policy level. . . ,” noted Donald Miller, an oral historian and associate religion professor at the University of Southern California. “What we have done is deal with the experience of common people.”

In Los Angeles, that has meant that scholars have pursued and recorded experiences of such disparate groups as Chinese, Japanese, Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants, American Indians and women who worked in World War II defense plants. The results have not always been startling, but they have been historically enlightening. For example, an oral history project involving interviews of 165 people by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California provided a clearer view of the historical quirk that expanded work for people of Chinese descent in wartime Hollywood.

Though they “did not play major roles in the movies during World War II because the opportunity wasn’t there,” those of Chinese descent got more shots at extra roles portraying Japanese, partly because those of Japanese descent who might have held such parts had, of course, been interned by the U.S. government, noted Suellen Cheng of the Chinese Historical Society.


For many more Chinese, however, it was not the movies, but the produce industry that provided the most work. Cheng said the Chinese became a major force in the Los Angeles produce industry “very early. In the 1880s, 80% of the city’s produce business was run by Chinese.”

Their industriousness was matched by the Japanese in Orange County, according to another oral history project, which helped explain why men of Japanese descent learned English faster than women did.

Based on interviews with 15 elderly Japanese, said Arthur Hansen, director of the oral history program at Cal State Fullerton, experts learned that “men had to encounter the outside culture as farmers who bought and sold produce.” In contrast, “many of the women were cordoned off into more restrictive activities. . . .”

But historians also “saw how hard and involved the women were in terms of work. . . . They not only had to rear children and maintain households but to work in the fields, often if pregnant, right up to delivery and very quickly afterward,” he said.

He noted that researchers learned there were diverse views and characters within Japanese families, findings that were “jostling stereotypes. . . . It’s an important lesson for us because too often we are anxious to compartmentalize people and to erect public policy on the basis of these compartments, which are false.”

Yet another oral history project helped to provide a truer look at the evolution of women’s roles in the work place.

After interviewing 45 women who had worked in wartime defense jobs, Sherna Berger Gluck, oral history director at Cal State Long Beach, found that: “Even those (women) who left work and returned home after the war felt different about themselves and their capabilities.

“They had experienced changes, which laid the basis for the evolving consciousness among working class women over the next 20 years. Relationships between couples changed, and women planted seeds in the minds of their daughters.”


The women’s work experiences, especially after the government desegregated defense industries, also affected race relations, Gluck noted, adding: “If the women weren’t working side by side with African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, they were certainly interacting with them. This kind of relationship was new . . . and there were some striking breakthroughs.

“By no means did racism vanish, but the work atmosphere created opportunity for changes, if not in relationships than in perceptions.”

As for oral history itself, perceptions about it have changed over the years. The technique of interviewing subjects and recording their memories once was extremely popular; it was a mainstream method for creating the historical record.

But the invention and spread of printing diminished historians’ reliance on the technique so that by the 19th Century, noted Enid Douglass, director of the oral history program at Claremont Graduate School, “the historian began to associate reality with documents. If information was in print, that was by far the most important source.”

With the invention of the telephone, radio and other electronic media, however, historians again found their techniques overtaken by technology. “People are not creating documents, diaries, correspondence files or records of meetings,” Douglass said. “They are teleconferencing or getting on the plane and going to see someone.”

Though interview subjects, many of them elderly, can suffer lapses, particularly about recent events, properly prepared questions, the right setting and the providing of mementos from a period can spur memories, experts said, offering advice to individuals interested in recording their family history.

Professionals sometimes find the material they collect can be unpleasant, as happened to Gary Shumway, a Cal State Fullerton professor who interviewed 40 Navajo about their bitter memories of a destructive government policy with roots in the Reconstruction.

That’s when the federal government gave two or three sheep to each tribe member on a Western reservation and “said you could kill them now and have a feast or develop herds and support yourself,” Shumway said.


The Navajo chose to protect the sheep, using their wool to make blankets and rugs that were sold nationwide.

Then the Depression slashed the market for Navajo blankets, carpets and mutton. A drought left thousands of thirsty, hungry sheep overgrazing. That led the commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington to decide that the Navajo would have a few months to get rid of all but a few before his range riders killed the rest.

The “Navajos did not believe (the policy) because it made no sense,” Shumway said. “They glowered as they watched the range riders shoot and burn the sheep. They will never forget it.”