If I wanted to write a scholarly paper on, say, Native America wars, would I be able to cite oral traditions as reliable sources of information?

As a made-up example, "the war lasted exactly seventeen days, with 3,000 men on either side. The enemy had initiated the rebellion by capturing one of our women," (Native Tribal Chief). Obviously terrible citation grammar, but the point remains, I suspect.

Can one use oral traditions as legitimate sources in scholarly papers, or is it more supplemental in nature? Or just illustrative of something else?

Can you please cite sources showing this as viable citation? Thank you.


2 Answers 2


Oral tradition needs to be documented properly and put into context. Your source can be something like "statement by a tribal elder, interview by the author in April 2020 at ..."

Side note -- check with your research institution about privacy protocols. Do you name the elder in the publication? Your own records need the exact name and date, of course.

Then you need to gauge the transmission, relevance and biases of the source. Not much different than any other historical work, except that transmission is a little more complicated.

  • Can you confirm that this is actually the oral tradition of the tribe as of today and not just the fancy of one elder? Multiple independent sources would be nice. Multiple related sources are still better than one.
  • Does it seem credible that nothing was lost or added in the retelling? (I know some of what my grandfathers did in WWII. I'm certain that they heavily censored what they told little kids.)
  • If you find it credible that the oral tradition properly reflects the original story, you need to judge that like any other piece of evidence. (I recall President Bush talking about Iraqi WMD. The reality was more complicated. Even internal, classified government documents will not show the truth, they only show what officials saw fit to put into writing at the time.)

An (almost random) example of how interviews can be quoted is chapter 1, page 3, footnote 11 of this study.


At risk of pointing out the obvious, just about every early text of significance was oral tradition of some shape or form put in writing, with varying degree of research and reinterpretation on top -- not unlike, let's face it, oral tradition itself. Think the Bible, Herodotus, etc. all the way to the Middle Ages when sources become common enough that you're able to continually corroborate what happened through other sources. (And even those correlate significantly, because as the saying goes, history is written by victors.)

In that light, it's a perfectly valid source. Capturing the oral tradition is, of course, an important part of the value of the work if you go down that path. Putting it in context is another. It's an even more important one if anything: what is said? who is narrating? why? what might that tell you? what's omitted? why? what might that tell you? etc.

Assuming you're looking for a source that sketches out how to use such sources, and that you're open to learning by example, I found Wickham's "The Inheritance of Rome" extremely dry but thoroughly illuminating in this respect -- especially in the early chapters, where he spends enormous amounts of time discussing the merits of the sources he's referencing. Surely you'll be able to find inspiration on how to use equivalently dubious sources for your own research topic.

  • 1
    Yes, I'm aware that most of history has been oral tradition, but no one seriously thinks that Homer is a reliable source of history as it applies to the Greeks, no? Or that Herodotus is a reliable source of Greek history. Or that the writers of the Bible (who wrote many of these books decades after the events, with very obvious biases) were fully honest about every event. Nor do I suspect that most people think these traditions have been passed down verbatim. So, with that in mind, are these sources reliable? Meaning do they carry serious wait about the factual history?
    – Beliod
    Apr 17, 2020 at 20:05
  • Posted that comment before seeing your third paragraph. Going to give it a read. Thank you.
    – Beliod
    Apr 17, 2020 at 20:06

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