I much prepare a lesson differentiating primary/secondary sources, and their functions, and usually this is clear cut, but I ran into a case that challenges me, and also is relevant to the course subject.

I was on a tour of a Native American site and the tour guide explained how her ancestors passed down stories that they estimate took place 30 generations ago, prior to written language, and 300 years prior to the arrival of any Europeans. These are stories the grandparents tell to the children often. The specific story told where they used to live, their story of abandoning their old home, and creating their new home, which is the location of their current reservation.

Would such a story be considered within the real of history, even though it is not written down? And would that be considered a primary source or a secondary source?

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    there are close votes because "too basic, can be answered by a single link". Maybe you can add some basic research or so on the matter ? – user43870 Jul 4 '20 at 20:07
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    Both can be historical sources, but consider the difference between oral history, which is a primary source (since the person is recounting their experience), and oral tradition, which is not. – sempaiscuba Jul 4 '20 at 21:22

Oral history, historiography of oral traditions, and historiography of traditional knowledges are a fraught area. This is in part because indigenous knowledge is currently politicised in settler societies, mainly over land rights sovereignty treaty and invasion. Oral traditions are a primary source for Western historiography (post-“Ranke” history) in some ways: there is a strong claim of archived transmission with high levels of intactness of the transmitted “text” or “document.” In other ways traditional knowledge systems assert claims to be complete and reflective works, definitive works. In this mode they are a secondary source (but obviously not a scholarly history in the Rankean sense.)

The chief element to engage with is the texts purposiveness: why it is produced recorded transmitted and honoured. Primacy isn’t necessarily a good thing: self serving diaries exist. Secondary status isn’t necessarily a good thing: many people’s competence and opinion on the past is worthless. But if you read a sufficiently broad selection of traditional knowledge documents with an awareness of their purpose and supplement them with other sources then they’d be appropriate documents for suitable questions. My tendency with cultural works of importance and meaning is to use them for culture and social organisation, and not to rely on them for happenstance conflict politics or biography. Rambo can tell us about US fantasy, but not much about Afghanistan.

  • Not that I doubt the underlying principle or reject the tenor (en contrario, I sympathize), but a few examples would make it easier to swallow, and they souldn't be too difficult to find. Most people don't even remember last years weather, and if they do, they blame the other party :-) – user43870 Jul 6 '20 at 6:59
  • I think I'm on record here in expressing extreme skepticism of the historical veracity of oral records beyond the first few generations. However, sometimes that's all we have, so its precious nonetheless. – T.E.D. Jul 6 '20 at 12:56

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