Oral History: An Interview with Miyamoto Loretta Jensen.

‘Oral history’ is a widely-used term that we are struggling to understand. On one hand, online searches for this term bring up synonyms such as ‘myth’, ‘folklore’, and ‘fairy tale’. On the other hand, Indigenous cultures rely on ‘oral history’ for the generational exchange of information. In the field of genealogy especially, a majority of researchers verify their research with vital sources to meet a standard of proof. Often, any conclusions reached without sufficient evidence will be rejected. This leaves little place for genealogists with ancestral information outside of the written medium.

Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, image from Twitter @miyajensen

To understand more about the importance of oral history and its current and future place in genealogical research, I reached out to Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, a prominent, young, Indigenous genealogist who specialises in Polynesian genealogy.

Miya describes her work for the genealogy community as “barrier-breaking, fresh and authentic”, always trying to “”keep it real” whenever talking about complex issues”. She has certainly, over the past few years, come to my attention as an important role model for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous genealogists.

What does the term ‘oral history’ mean to you?

Oral history is family history to me. Oral history really is everywhere, if you really think about it. The movement, motion, and expression of emotions via the body and voice are all forms of oral history. My ancestors transmitted their power, stories, families, and lives through the spoken word way before the written language was ever introduced to them. It was once said that my ancestors knew to etch their histories in the minds of their posterity and people because the ocean can wipe away anything. When I listen to oral histories, I feel something move within me. I connect deeply and intimately more than I ever could just reading a piece of paper. Oral history is the giving and receiving of power. Period. I would also say, too, that oral history is literally everywhere. We would die if we didn’t practice oral histories. From news reports to songs being sung on the radio to lectures to talking with friends and family, it is literally everywhere. We would not progress as a society and people if we didn’t have oral histories.

Is oral history important to you, and why?

It matters because this was how my ancestors lived and breathed. In order to understand who they were, I need to take the time to know why oral history was important to them. And I can’t help my own people if I don’t know how they functioned.

How has oral history influenced your understanding of your own history, and what role has oral history played in your own/family/community history?

I used to be angry that oral history was my ancestors’ way of preserving their lives. I used to think that paper was the only thing that mattered. I’ve since then have “come to myself” and decolonized my methodology. I needed to understand my ancestors from their perspective and not impose myself and today’s standards on them. It has changed my life since I have done this! I know now that oral histories were taken seriously. There was a protocol and strictness to learning the oral genealogies of our families. In other words, these were not taken lightly because of the functions oral histories had in society. It determined everything in one’s life including land ownership, marriage regulation, feud support, etc. I can’t relate to these perspectives as much because my genealogy has not determined my life, but I can understand now why they were vital to one’s survival. 

Upon doing a google search of the term ‘oral history’, the synonyms that are associated with it include ‘mythology’, ‘fairy tale’, and ‘folklore’. Does this association damage our perception of credibility in oral history? 

If you are thinking in terms of Polynesian genealogy, then yes. Our oral histories were crafted in poetry and were riddled with metaphors and symbolism. These stories were actual histories, but portrayed in ways that reflect the importance of ancestors. So, I personally reject the idea that oral histories are just made up stories. They all contain treasures of truth within them. It is only a matter of language skills and internalizing ancestral perspectives and history that unlocks them.

Why do you think oral histories are perceived as untrustworthy sources of information in Western societies?

Great question. I have thought, too, about why paper has become such a vital part of our Western societies. Many indigenous societies believed that their word was their bond. Somewhere down the line, that practice was destroyed and no one could be trusted except through the signing and writing down of paper. I understand that paper does allow us to remember things that we may have forgotten throughout time, but paper holds so much value because we do not put an importance on practicing remembering. To me, that is why Western societies don’t trust oral histories as much. Their faith in remembering comes from paper, not from themselves or their families.

How can we change the way oral histories are perceived by some societies in the modern world?

I think this has to start with each of us. We need to commit to practicing remembering. That can come in so many different ways and forms. What can be extremely meaningful for us is looking to our ancestors and learning how they remembered, then practicing those rituals, sacraments, and skills ourselves.

How do you contribute to continuing the legacy of oral history in your own life, and what role does it play going forward?

 I enjoy listening and watching my own cultures in practice via songs, dances, and chants. Because of our unique challenges with COVID-19, I have only witnessed these practices via video. They still carry so much power within them and I am moved every time. I also have been interviewing the elders in my family more. I have called my grandmothers more than I ever have before during quarantine. I am eager to record their stories to make sure they are preserved before anything happens to them. At night, I enjoy reciting these stories to my four year old son. Even though he doesn’t understand much, I know these stories will come back to him in times of need as he experiences life himself. All in all, I am trying my best.

History in academia has become almost ‘scientific’ (in my personal opinion). It is focused on finding the truth through evidence, a common pattern in a white Eurocentric setting.  To me, history is the study of human thought and memory, which never conforms to a particular structure. Has oral history had a voice in historical academic settings, if not, how can we give it a voice? 

Such a good thought and question! Oral histories and the practice of transmitting oral history was heavily disregarded in the past. With the introduction of Christianity and missionaries to Oceania, much of the sharing of gospel involved destroying indigenous cultural practices because there was no room for embracing what was outside the norm of Eurocentric Christian culture. The effects of this are seen today when my own people struggle with researching their ancestors. Many still believe that it is not possible to research their ancestors pre 1850 because there are no more written records then. This mentality calls for decolonization in our genealogy industry. To save our people, we have to shift our mindsets and perspectives. Academia is extremely biased and full of Western perspective because they are used to being the loudest and being respected for their thoughts. Many before me in Oceania have put their feet down and said no more to these biases. They are desperate to share our histories from our own people. To give these individuals, myself included, a voice, just listen to us. We have so many wonderful platforms to speak up and speak out on these issues and many of us are. Take the time to listen to what we are saying and check your social biases. All of us have them. To end the social biases, we all first need to check ourselves. Please choose to not get so defensive when a call of correction comes your way. 

In a world that is progressively becoming more scientific, we, as the future of genealogy, need to ensure that other non-written sources are being validated and not ignored. It is not only a way to ensure Indigenous genealogists and their genealogies are accepted into the community, but the process is also a step towards decolonizing our own mindsets.

I would like to extend a big thank you to Miya, who graciously accepted my request to interview her and responded with the most profound answers. I hope the readers of this interview take her words into their future research to create an awareness and a validated space for Indigenous histories. Miya really epitomizes the next generation of genealogy and is one to keep an eye on!

If you wish to follow Miya,

Twitter: The Polynesian Genealogist (@miyajensen)

Instagram: Miyamoto Loretta Jensen (@thepolynesiangenealogist)

Emmy and P.J. Review: Genealogy Standards (2nd ed.)

This article was written in collaboration with P.J. Elias.

A few months ago I (Emmy) began looking at ways I could get certified as a professional genealogist. While it may be a little while off yet, both P.J. and I were intent on furthering our genealogical journey. That is when we stumbled upon the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) and their ultimate how-to guide in Genealogy Standards. We both bought the most recent edition (pub. 2019) and read it at our own pace. If you wish to purchase the book, click here.

I was hoping this book would help me to hold my genealogical work to a certain standard, as previously I had been lost in which referencing style to use and I couldn’t answer the question of how much evidence is enough? To P.J., this book was considered to be “the gold standard of genealogy” as it is used by many professionals in the field, and to him it was the “logical next step” in his journey.

We were both impressed by the book but it also left us thinking about things that hadn’t been mentioned. So, let us take you through our list of pros, cons, and what we would like to see for the future.

Firstly, we both noticed how clear and easy to read the book was. We also loved the fact that it was small in size and length, meaning that the authors got straight to the point. P.J. specifically noticed how handy having a guide to citation standards would be to the fellow genealogist, which the book presents on page 7. Teens who are new to citing sources may get muddled up in the plethora of different citing styles imported from other fields, so it is extremely handy to have one clear-cut citation standard laid out in this book.

Another good point is that Genealogy Standards outlines steps, standards and ethics for the use of DNA. DNA, while it is a very useful new addition to the world of genealogy, certainly has many more legal boundaries than other genealogical evidence out there. Personally, the idea of working with DNA other than my own scares me because of the legal complications it can bring (unintentionally, of course), and so I am glad that BCG have come up with a way to ensure legal and ethical standards are being met. (NOTE: However, you should always consult legal documents in your area as well)

Furthermore, Genealogy Standards describes the point at which evidence can become proof, something that can become quite tricky for the wannabe professional genealogist. To someone who does not take genealogy quite so seriously, an Ancestry ‘hint’ may be the only proof they need to forge a conclusion. To the budding professional, more evidence is needed. Genealogy Standards outlines the criteria needed to make this reasonable conclusion, taking the reader through the concepts of assumption, inconsistencies in evidence, reliability of evidence and much, much more.

However, this is where we would like to see more. While this book is well written and provides logical definitions, it might be more useful to a younger reader, a visual learner or someone who is not well versed with academic terms to have an examples guide. Each of the criteria outlined in the book could have an example that has been taken from already completed research, to show how an unsound assumption can harm your research, or how ignoring inconsistencies in your evidence can lead to the wrong conclusion. I think I would have a better understanding of the criteria leading to a reasonable conclusion if I was able to visualise an example of that criteria.

P.J. and I also noticed that the structure of the book and the way the standards were explained were quite scientific and methodological. This isn’t a criticism, as in more modern times it is obvious that the Westernised academic study of family history and history in general has become akin to a science with a focus on paper evidence. However, it is important to note that we are not all Western. Many of us kids and teens may not have much Western ancestry, if any at all. The limitation of this book lies in the fact that it seems like it is tailored to Western genealogical standards. An Indigenous family who do not have census records or vital records may rely on their genealogical knowledge through oral history (which I will be expanding on in a later post), and it is important that oral history is considered by these organisations as a genuine source of information. This cannot be done if genealogy is turned into a science.

Therefore, I would like to bring this article to its conclusion. We (P.J. and I) would like to thank BCG for writing such a definitive guide on the standards that genealogists should be achieving in their public and private research and we hope that more consideration of non-Western methods of research are discussed in future.

What’s In A Name?

So, my first ‘tip’ for young genealogists is to not take names so seriously. Unless you have someone named, for example, Robert Herbert Marshmallow and you are able to find a vital record for a Robert Herbert Marshmallow. In that case, you are lucky. But what happens when the names don’t work in your favour? I never realized how important spelling and names were in genealogy until I began research on my McDonald ancestors.

Let’s have a look at an example from my own family tree.

This one family, consisting of Findlay McDonald, Catherine McDonald and their five children Ferchan, John, Nancy, Margaret and Catherine moved from Scotland to NSW, Australia in 1839. I had always had trouble finding information on this particular family before and after their arrival in Australia, and it was all because of their names.

To begin with, my grandfather has always told me that these McDonald ancestors were always spelled with a ‘Mc’, never ‘Mac’. It surprised me to find that many of the records had the family listed as ‘Mac’. The marriage of Findlay’s parents, Ferchan McDonald and Mary McIllwraith (spelling from the Immigration records) turned up no results. It turns out that Mary’s maiden surname was in fact, Macillavrae. Findlay, the father, has been found many times in other Australian records with his name spelled as Finlay/Finley and even Finly. If that doesn’t make it hard enough, I could find no record of their eldest son Ferchan, so I looked at other variations of the name, including; Ferchar, Fearchar, Feracher, Fergus and Farquhar, all of which have turned up no results. To make that even more confusing, it seems to be that Findlay and Catherine had another son after their arrival in 1844, by the name of Francis. This leaves out any possibility that “Ferchan” could be “Francis”. Francis, you would think, would be easy to find information on. However, on Findlay’s death certificate the informant was his son, Frank McDonald. This meant that Francis went by two names. Still no results.

For a while I gave up on the males and began looking for the female children, which is notably a lot harder as at marriage they would have changed their surnames. Searches for Margaret/ Margarete turned up no results, so I looked for Nancy. After finding nothing with the name “Nancy McDonald” I turned to Rootschat.com to see if anyone else could find anything for this particular person. A baptism notice for the particular year of her birth in Scotland came back with the father as Finlay, no mention of a mother, and the child’s name as Ann.

Moral of the story, be lenient with your names. A name registered at birth may not be the name they used in the Census records, they may go by their middle name or even by a nickname.

Thanks for reading!

Emmerson B~

G’Day from Down Under!

G’day! I’m Emmerson and I’m one of the newest members of The Hidden Branch. If you can’t guess from the title, I’m from a little country in the Southern Hemisphere called Australia.

I’m 21, which admittedly is a bit older than the rest of The Hidden Branch. However, I started my family history search when I was 12 years old. So that’s 9 whole years of genealogy!

I remember what it was like, with little access to money in order to purchase those vital records, and how annoying it could be as a 16/17 year old.

With that experience, I hope to help other young genealogists who encounter that same paywall problem with the tips and tricks I used! As well, I hope I inspire others to understand that family history is much more than dates and places. I would like to show you how you can access the emotions of your ancestors with these vital records.

I specialize in Australian and New Zealand records, as well as English records. I’m trying to enlighten myself upon the Scottish and Irish record system as I also have ancestors from there!

I have almost finished my History degree, and have just started my Diploma of Family History. After both are completed, I aspire to become certified as a genealogist and am studying hard to do so!

When I’m not at work or University, I’m in the archives room at the library, at home compiling my family histories or strolling around the local cemetery.

If you are on Instagram or Twitter, you can reach me at: @/ourpasts