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Navajo Library Seeks To Preserve Rare Oral Histories

by on February 10, 2017

A lot of us can recall stories and tales told to us by our grandparents when we were much younger. Many stories were purely for entertainment but some may have been oral histories about our heritage and ancestors. These invaluable stories may have even shaped our upbringing due to the foundation they established in our lives. Many of us hung on to these oral histories and have retold them plenty of times to our children in the hopes that they, too, will keep the tradition going. But what would happen if these oral histories were lost? Future generations would never know about their family’s history. Such was almost the case for the Navajo Nation.

Thousands of hours of Navajo oral histories recorded onto film reels were miraculously discovered in a jail cell in the late 1960s. These oral histories were eventually transferred onto VHS tapes to be used as a historical tool for Navajo preservation. Their backups had already been destroyed in a fire, so all that was left were the originals. The Navajo Nation Library “is asking the Navajo Nation Council for $230,520 to digitize the five dusty filing cabinets of tapes so the collection can be protected, distributed to schools, and made available to others.”[1]

The Navajo Nation once saw funding for this sort of preservation. In 1968, funding from the Federal Office of Economic Opportunity “was used by the Navajo Office of Economic Opportunity to begin recording oral histories.”[2] Funding for the project ran out and the tapes were left idle until 1978, when the Navajo Nation Library acquired them. Nobody knows for sure what the plans initially were for the recordings, but their historical significance can be respected today and the need to preserve these oral histories that highlight daily life among the Navajo can easily be appreciated.

“The content of these recordings are very culturally sensitive. There are some legends we only tell at certain times of the year and the nine-night ceremony is very sacred, very private,”[3] stated Irving Nelson, Navajo Nation Library Program Supervisor. Indeed, because of this sensitivity, the library plans on coordinating with Navajo religious authorities to determine when and where certain recording should be played. The library also plans on coordinating with local educators to help promote Navajo history as well as develop curricula on the subject.

Nelson stated that “the benefit of restoring these tapes extends beyond the reservation, since the tapes share a lot of the local history that’s of significance to the area. The state histories of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona will all become richer when these personal histories are known.”[4] This is a new chapter for the Navajo Nation and could be the start of something very special.


[1] Claire Caulfield, “Navajos hope to digitally preserve thousands of hours of oral history,” Cronkite News (Arizona PBS), December 21, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Irving Nelson, ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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