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Discover Mid-America — September 2005

Voices of Native American and plains history

The South Dakota Oral History Center—The American Indian Research Project and the South Dakota Oral History Project—University of South Dakota Department of American Indian Studies; 414 E. Clark St., Vermillion, SD 57069; phone, 605-677-5209, fax, 605-677-6525,,

At archives in the Institute of American Indian Studies (IAIS) at the University of South Dakota, history lives in voices, written and spoken.

But these are not the mutterings of ghosts — voices preserved like museum pieces. They are dynamic and alive, regardless how long the people who once possessed them have been gone.

The IAIS houses the South Dakota Oral History Center, the home of two extensive and fascinating archives of historical material, the American Indian Research Project and the South Dakota Oral History Project.

The Oral History Center comprises nearly 5,500 tapes, many of which have been transcribed. The American Indian Research Project has 2,228 taped interviews in which interviewees discuss a wide range of topics: native lore, religion and life ways, as well as politics, economics and culture — from pre-settlement to the computer era. The first tape was made in the mid-1960s and graduate students still gather interviews today. The 3,178 interviews in the South Dakota Oral History Project were gathered from 1970 to 1977. These cover all aspects of American life and plains history — from settlement to marked changes in the American economy in the 1970s.

Both collections often cover the same topics. Most interesting, however, is how much the two relate to one another. With just a few minutes of reading these transcriptions, the dynamism, independence and fierce individuality of natives emerges from a constantly changing South Dakota. With the South Dakota Oral History Project, the Oral History Center reveal South Dakotans to be not merely Indian, white, black, Hispanic and Asian. Rather, careful reading of the transcripts — even just a few from both archives centered on the same subject — shows people, ethnicities (particularly native ethnicities) and cultures deeply influencing each other in a starkly beautiful place.

The Oral History Center is also backed with extensive and accessible archives in the I.D. Weeks Library Special Collections and historical archives and interpretive exhibits at the nearby W.H. Over State Museum.

I arrived at the archive at the beginning of August, having carved a few days from family and work. My only previous contact with the center (except through their Web site) was through a telephone conversation with research assistant Charles Anderson three months earlier. I told him I had learned of the archive online and that I wanted to look into a couple of things. Anderson replied that I was welcome anytime.

The campus was mostly empty, a echoing gap that, in just a few weeks, some 12,000 students would trample. Anderson was not around. Instead, IAIS secretary Margaret S. Quintal set me up with undergrad assistant Mike Maniscalco. Maniscalco turned out to know the archive, which, like any research center, has a personality with all its inherent quirks, facets, niches and foibles. Though I had brought my own list of transcript numbers that might be interesting to me, as a good archivist, Mike helped me negotiate or, rather, build a relationship with that personality. Moreover, he was there every second I was taking notes over the next three days, staying past his normal time off and fetching piece after piece and copying material on my request.

Most impressive is that the center provides this kind of service for any researcher — from the interested citizen to the academic researcher. Historians, journalists, interested citizens on vacation, novelists and filmmakers have used the Oral History Center. Any researcher at the Center also has access to the Dr. Joseph H. Cash Memorial Library, a collection of some 2,500 books and notes on South Dakota Indians, the frontier and literature of the West.

Overall, the Oral History Center has had enough different interviewers to create a broad picture of South Dakota history and life. But like any kind of research, each piece of the material has to be viewed critically to be useful in constructing a full picture. Some interviewers, particularly during the early-1970s, sympathized with the American Indian Movement and some were strongly critical of it.

A few interviewers seemed impressed by power; some by the common and ordinary. It’s important to ask: What were the agendas of the interviewer and the interviewee? How did the two interact and how did each direct the course of the interview? Who transcribed the interviews? Have they been edited and cleaned up or have the transcribers recorded as closely as they could the nuance of the spoken word? Where was the interview and who, besides the main speaker, was present? How do these surroundings affect the interviewee?

Of the over 200 transcripts I read, among the best interviews were those of Joseph Cash, South Dakota American Indian scholar and history professor Herbert Hoover, and researcher John S. Painter. More than other interviewers, these men seemed to have a deeper sense of the people they were interviewing, a broader feeling for the historical development of Native Americans, and a way to bring the personality and personal life of the interviewer forward.

The best way to access the Oral History Center is to visit the Web site at There, the IAIS advises “that researches check their local libraries, or request through inter-library loan, the abstracts to the collections and the Subject Index to American Indian Research Project (AIRP). These abstracts are brief, accurate summaries describing the contents of subjects discussed in each interview.” This gives a valuable insight to the archive and eases the researcher’s and the archivist’s work.

But one need not go to the archive to use it. From these above indexes, or by a searchable database (, a researcher can find specific interviews and order transcripts or tapes to be mailed to them with a simple form. Most of the Oral History Center’s tapes have been transcribed over the years, but many have not. Some have been restricted due to the wishes of the owner. Native Americans, especially, have certain beliefs regarding the recording and transcription of the human voice. Some non-native South Dakotans have personal and business reasons to restrict access or use of their interviews. In addition, the Center’s staff may also inquire abut how the material will be used — research, personal or for profit — due to the sensitive nature of the material.

Copies are 25 cents per page and reproduced taped interviews vary in cost depending on the length of the interview. Since most of the center’s tapes are fragile and considered artifacts, researchers mostly use transcripts for their work.

The University of South Dakota is just east of I-29 on SD 50, near the Nebraska and Iowa state lines. The South Dakota Oral History Center is in Room 12 of Dakota Hall, centrally located on the campus. It is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends and evenings by appointment. Call 605-677-5209, or email for more information.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at

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