History, by word of mouth

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 10, 2010 - 4:53 PM

An oral history project offers the state's newest immigrants a chance to tell their stories their way.

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Wangyal Ritzekura, Abdisalam Adam, and Ram and Neena Gada of India at the Minnesota Historical Society, which is running the new oral history project.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Someday, perhaps, Wangyal Ritzekura's descendants will return to his native Tibet and reclaim it as a sovereign land. And when they do, they can listen to him explain why he has dedicated much of his life toward making that possible.

Or maybe the grandchildren of Ram and Neena Gada will want to hear them tell about how their marriage was arranged by their parents in Bombay.

But why wait until the future? Abdisalam Adam hopes that right now Somali-American youngsters who know the country only as the site of a prolonged civil war will be able to get a sense for what his homeland was like before the fighting started.

They're all participants in "Becoming Minnesota," an oral history project launched by the Minnesota Historical Society that focuses on the state's recent immigrant groups.

The Historical Society has been recording oral histories for decades. What makes this project different is the availability: Instead of being stored in the society's library where only researchers usually access them, these recordings are online where everyone can hear them.

"I love that they are available at a click" of a computer mouse, Ram Gada said. Added his wife: "They are available everywhere. We've even heard from people back in India who have heard them."

The impact of hearing about history directly from the people who lived it adds to the program's allure, said Bob Horton, director of the society's library, publications and collections.

"You can hear the emotion in their voices as they tell their stories," he said. "Some of these people have come out of some really terrible situations, and the stress level and fear -- the absolute horror -- in their voices makes this unique."

The project, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Museum and Library Services, is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

Anxious to participate

The program began with the state's recent immigrant groups -- Hmong, Somali, Asian Indian and Khmer -- with the framework in place to soon start recording members of the Latino, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Cambodian and Laotian communities.

Initially, there was concern that the some immigrants, especially those from places where there's a distrust of institutions, wouldn't respond to the society's request to record them. But in most cases, just the opposite was true.

The immigrant communities "were quick to realize that this was a chance to preserve their own culture. It's a way to document things that younger generations otherwise might not know," Horton said.

A moderator asks the immigrants the same questions, but is allowed to pursue areas of special interests.

In describing his marriage in India, Ram Gada could have been talking directly to his U.S.-born children and grandchildren.

"It is important that they get to know their roots," he said. "And the fact that it is an oral history adds tremendous value to it. By hearing from the person who was part of the scene, it works in ways that printed history cannot. I would love to hear George Washington's voice."

The recordings provide a glimpse of history that sometimes runs counter to popular perceptions, Adam said.

"There are many negative stereotypes about Somalia that I hope we can change," he said. He's not talking just about non-Somalis. "No, even the Somali youngsters have negative ideas about it. They think of it as just a place of war."

The immigrant groups also are learning about each other, he said. By listening to the stories, "we are discovering that many of the immigrant groups have had similar experiences."

For instance, he's concerned that his native language might disappear entirely among Somali-Americans, an issue that is also crucial to the Hmong.

"Right now, many of our children cannot speak Somali," he said. "English is the No. 1 language. Yes, we should learn it. We should speak it, and everyone should be very proficient in the English language. At the same time, it does not hurt, and it's very beneficial, for one to speak another language. ... We should not lose our language."

It's the same reason many of the Hmong have insisted on recording their histories in their native tongue (with an English translation available). "To have the language spoken with an authentic accent is an important part of the process," Horton said.

The histories also give some of the immigrants a chance to aim at bigger goals. Ritzekura, who bounced from refugee camp to refugee camp for several decades after the Chinese takeover of Tibet, believes that telling his story is a vital part of his mission in life.

"My story is the story of the Tibetan people," he said. "I was born in 1950, the same year the Chinese invaded. I spent 33 years living in refugee camps in India before I was among a thousand Tibetans picked to be sent to the United States. Why was I part of that thousand? We were picked for a reason, and that reason was to tell the story of Tibet."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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