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Was Oral History Mere Hearsay? a Debate

A Critical Summary of the Article “Dane-Zaa Oral History: Why it’s not Hearsay”

This paper critically summarizes the debate in this article on whether or not Oral History is a mere hearsay simply because it is passed through the word of mouth, and for that reason it’s sources are undocumented. The paper critically analysis the debate presented in the paper in support of the theses that Dane-Zaa Oral History it’s not Hearsay, but a reliable and a credible source of information.

This article begins by looking at the controversy surrounding the application of the information from the oral histories of the Canadian aboriginal people in defence of the rights of the aboriginal Canadians in the Canadian courts. Section 35 (1), of the 1982 Canadian Constitution Act recognizes the existing rights and treaty of the aboriginal people of Canada. Despite this recognition, however, the application of the information from the oral history of the aboriginal Canadians in support of their rights has been quite controversial. The controversy rises from the question: Can undocumented information be used in a court of law as evidence in court? Should the undocumented historical information from oral history not be treated as hearsay?

Different lawyers and academicians have given varied views in this regard. According to Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, the information from oral histories can only be used in a court of law as evidence where the information is useful and reasonably reliable. According to some experts, who support the view that oral history is a reliable source of information, information from oral history cannot be used as an evidence in a court of law because, according to him, “ ‘oral history’ refers to first-person narratives of personal experience” (Ridington, 39). What this means in essence is that oral history is not reliable because it doesn’t not refer to actual events as they happened in the past. Some other scholars, however, contend that oral history is not a reliable source of information. According to Jan Vansina, for instance, information from oral histories should not be tendered in court as evidence because they are a mere testament of what people believed, in the remote past, when they gave such information. Vansina distinguishes oral histories from oral traditions. He defines oral traditions as, “‘recollections of individuals who were eyewitnesses or had personal experience or had personal experience of events occurring within their lifetime’ “(Ridington, 39). Vansina, on the other hand, defines oral traditions as, “‘documents about past events transmitted by word of mouth over at least a generation’ “. For Vansina, therefore, oral traditions are “’historical gossip”’ (Ridington, 41). Vansina concluded that oral tradition is not an accurate reporting about what actually happened in the past, and for that reason it cannot be used as evidence in court. Many Lawyers opposed to the use of information from oral histories or oral traditions as evidence in court have used Vansina’s views on oral traditions in support of their arguments.

The following findings from the study that the writer of this article carried out on the Dane-Zaa Oral History shows that oral history is a reliable source of information, and it is not a mere hearsay. The interviewees in the study were the Dane-Zaa oral historians.

To begin with, the interviewees in the study on Dane-Zaa oral history are the narrators of Dora-Zaa history, and for that reason they are the oral historians of Dane-Zaa. Dane-Zaa storytellers or historians are the ones who are the custodians of the history of Dane-Zaa, and although the oral historians do not document, in writing, the history of Dane-Zaa, the oral historians, however, are able to keep to information of the history of their people alive, through memory and through telling the stories to other people of other generations. From the experience of the author of this article, the information from the oral historians of the Dane-Zaa people, that he interviewed, is reliable information that can be used an evidence in a court of law.

Secondly, the author of this article realised, in course of his interview of the Dane-Zaa oral historians, that although the information from oral traditions may have some inaccuracies, the information from written history also may have some inaccuracies, he says “just because a written document has survived from a different time does not mean that it provides an accurate description of the way things were” (Ridington, 41). The author of the article, therefore, argues that the information from oral history cannot be dismissed simply because it may have some errors; even written history has some errors and yet it is regarded as a reliable source of information.

Thirdly, the author of this article argued that, oral history should not be dismissed simply because the information is not obtained from the people who had the real experiences of the past. The author argues that even written history is gathered from different sources, some of which are not first-hand experiences. For this reason, therefore, the author concluded that oral history is a reliable source of information.

In conclusion, the author of this article found, from his experiences in his study of Dora-Zaa oral history, that oral history is a reliable source of information, and not a mere hearsay as it’s proponents argue. The author of this article argued and demonstrated that all the arguments presented in opposition to the use of oral history as a reliable source of is fallacious and not based on fact. A critical look at the author’s arguments in support of the view that oral history is a reliable source of information shows that, oral history is, indeed, a reliable source of information.

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