Intro: In this blog post, OHMA student Caroline Cunfer reflects on colonized ideas of history and record-keeping, and how as oral historians we can reconsider and expand our processes of memory transmission to engage in ways that are natural and meaningful to the communities we are working with.
“We thought the Incas couldn’t Write. These knots changed everything.” During her public speaking event a few weeks ago, Fernanda Espinosa presented us with a photo of a beautiful and intricate series of knotted string splayed out in a circular formation. These khipus, or “talking knots”, were the Incas’ highly complex record-keeping system, some khipus containing data and records, and others believed to contain stories or narratives. In Cracking the Khipu Code, Charles C. Mann (an American author and journalist who has written extensively on the Americas pre- and post-Columbus) explains that khipus are constructed from a binary code, a set of choices including (1) color of string, of which Mann says there are at least 24 choices, (2) size of knot, (3) location of knot, (4) material, (5) spin and ply, (6) direction of string, (7) direction of knot, and (8) direction and slant of the main axis of the knots. As a result, there are a possible two to the sixth power x 24 potential “information units”—a total of 1536—that were used by the Incas to convey meaning. This elaborate three-dimensional language system explodes the idea that the Incas had no written language, complicating the hegemonic valorization of text as the supreme form of language, record-keeping, and memory transmission.
Espinosa, an Andean immigrant, does not know how to read these khipus. Why? Spanish colonizers destroyed the knowledge of khipu-reading, along with most khipus. This particular local knowledge system was undermined and obsoleted by a Western conviction and value that the written record was superior to methods of record-keeping as tactile and multi-sensory as khipus.
But text is not the only way communities have and continue to contain memory, to use the language of Espinosa, who created what she refers to as “memory transmission containers” to hold the stories of Ecuadorian migrants. Espinosa calls these containers the “true form of memory or experience.” This idea of memory containment taking forms that transcend the institutionalized archive leads me to consider how I, as an oral historian, can and must reimagine the ways in which I hold and transmit others’ stories. How can I challenge the colonized concepts—concepts that I too have internalized—of how memory and records are contained, preserved, and transmitted? The exchange of knowledge—the moment of encounter in the interview, and not the archiving process—is paramount to my oral history practice, but I’m still seeking ways of dislodging the supremacy of the archived document, and placing value onto the embodied, human moment of connection and exchange instead.
What form of archiving or memory transmission is most natural and accessible for my narrators and their audiences? Although in oral history there is often a central emphasis placed on the archiving stage of our practice, for certain projects and communities archiving may not look like Columbia’s Center for Oral History Research, and maybe not a transcript or even an audio-recorded document at all.
Yarning, defined as “an Indigenous style of conversation and storytelling also known as narrative” and “a process of making meaning, communicating and passing on history and knowledge” is another example of Indigenous memory transmission that has been delegitimized by colonizers. This method of memory transmission does not make use of written or audio-recorded records, and instead makes use of the body and mind to impart memory to future generations through a process of embodied knowledge transfer. As Anderson, Hamilton, and Barker explain in “Yarning up oral history: An Indigenous feminist analysis”, recording memory was not a priority for these Indigenous communities. Of importance, instead, was the transmission of memory from person to person, generation to generation, from one body to another who received and inhabited the memory; these acts were more valued than the memory itself.
These sorts of examples demand that we approach oral history with a deep consideration for collaboration and reciprocity, and for what this might look like for different narrators and communities. These dynamics inform how (or if) we will record, archive, and transmit memory. In lieu of assuming that one form of archiving and transmission is the right fit or best mode for preservation, I should instead ask my narrators what they perceive as the most meaningful way of memory transmission. Perhaps this is as simple as explicitly asking my narrators why they’ve chosen to speak with me, and how and if they want to preserve and transmit our encounter. Or perhaps even asking “what does a meaningful encounter look like for you?” The intersubjective and collaborative nature of oral history should not only exist in the space in between telling the recorder to “record” and “stop.” The process of co-creating with the narrators and communities we work with is ongoing, and should always be approached with curiosity and openness, with the purpose of acknowledging, legitimizing, and making use of “alternative” and innovative ways of memory transmission that extend far beyond the written word.
Caroline is a member of OHMA’s 2018-2019 cohort and is thrilled to have the privilege of spending this year taking in and carrying strangers’ stories with her. Her thesis project will explore the ways in which the November 13th, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris have had varying implications and impacts on people’s lives and well-being, including her own.