Voices of the Ancestors Oral History Project
The following article was written by Doug Banner and published in the July/August issue of Storytelling Magazine, Volume 19 Issue 4.
Formed in 1998, the Bellingham Storytellers Guild is dedicated to building community through the preservation, perpetuation, and celebration of storytelling from all cultures, and to nurture, sustain, and develop the storytelling community of tellers, audiences, and enthusiasts in Northwest Washington. Two years ago, the Guild developed the Voices of the Ancestors Oral History Project to address a growing concern that local citizens were becoming strangers to each other. Due to the area’s rapid growth, decisions about the county’s future were being made without a clear understanding of our past. The intention of the Voices of the Ancestors Oral History Project is to provide a link between the region’s rich past and the strong sense of community that has made Whatcom County one of the most desirable places to live.
The project grew out of a collaboration of several community organizations focused on the preservation of dwindling farm lands, the support of a local sustainable farm economy, and a realistic approach to rapid development threatening to disrupt the natural beauty and appeal of the area. The Guild was approached by a team from Leadership Whatcom, a leadership training program of the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities. While touring the county, the team had heard many stories of what farming had been like in the 1940’s. Realizing the potential for loss due to the aging population, they searched for ways to preserve these stories and approached the Guild. During our initial meetings we decided that preserving the stories wasn’t enough. The real power of the stories was in sharing them with the community at large. People needed to have a historical context to understand the importance of preserving the farmlands.
Together, the Guild and Leadership Whatcom Team identified individuals and organizations to help locate key people to interview, preferably individuals who had been farming in Whatcom County prior to and during the 40’s. Initially, we approached the Whatcom County Agricultural Preservation Committee, Whatcom Farm Friends, Bertrand Watershed Improvement District, and Sustainable Connections Food and Farming, groups with a vested interest in the preservation of the stories we were intending to collect. They were all willing to provide funding for promotion and the purchase of needed digital recording equipment.
The real work began once the intention of the project had been publicized through local media. We didn’t anticipate the incredible community support that followed. People who had been archiving stories on their own gave us their material in both written text and electronic media. Individuals from the community began to contact us with names of elders they thought we should record. I carried a note pad constantly because every conversation on the street provided yet another contact. Guild members traveled throughout the county to collect stories. Interviews were recorded digitally and we provided copies on CD to interviewees and their families. We researched the local historical archives to gain the proper historical perspective for the tales we would tell based on the stories we were given.
We created performance stories by adopting the historical storytelling approach of the third person everyman from the time period and told the stories as if the characters had been our neighbors. The challenge was to create narratives that were historically accurate, educational, meaningful, and entertaining. We also knew that there would be members of the audience who had lived here during that time and would hold us to the truth. The kick off event filled the Bellingham Ferry Terminal auditorium and the critics were well pleased. “Good work,” stated one elder. “That’s just how it was.” “We’ve lost something important,” lamented another, “family and working with the land just aren’t important anymore.”
All our performances for the project are video taped and burned to DVD’s. It is our intention to provide copies to local libraries and museums and to sell copies to interested parties as a way to sustain and advance the project.
The Voices of the Ancestors Oral History Project continues to grow as the project gains interest from the community of tellers and listeners. We collected and performed stories for the Broadway Park Centennial Celebration in September and we will perform our third concert based on stories collected from settlers of the Ten Mile Creek Watershed in July. We plan to expand into other areas of local history such as fishing, mining, timber, and immigration. There is also interest in collecting stories of famous places such as buildings, homes, and historical sites in the county.
With interest growing, keeping up with interviews, cataloging contacts, editing, and creating performances while still conducting our personal lives keeps the Guild well challenged. “If I were independently wealthy, I could do this as a full time job.” said a guild member.
Community Coaching of High School Students
Members of the Bellingham Storytellers Guild make themselves available to act as Community Advisers to students in surrounding School Districts who are completing culminating graduation projects. The students' school councilor or adviser can contact the Guild for more information.
Nu WA Peace Delegation to China 2010
In 1997, the first delegation of American storytellers helped renovate the village school
In 2002 the second delegation helped pave the first road into their village and repair the Hall of Stories. Supplies, new books and shelving were also donated to the school.
The 2006 delegation brought more books and supplies to the school as well as brought in a film crew to document the village and their treasure trove of stories and storytellers. Doug Banner of the Bellingham Storytellers Guild joined the delegation at this time as a cinematographer and sound technician.
In 2007 Doug and seven others returned to Gengcun to continue filming interviews of Master Tellers and their families. The goal was set to help the villagers rebuild the shrine to their founder. This shrine had been destroyed during the unrest in the 1960's.
In 2010 the NuWa Peace Delegation will return to China to continue the work begun by earlier groups. Anyone interested in joining the NuWa Peace Delegation and finding out more information about the tour may contact the Guild or link to: Nu Wa Peace Delegation
for more specifics on cost, travel arrangements, and registration see;