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.

  • 1
    Do you have an advisor or professor you are working with? Apr 17, 2020 at 21:21
  • 7
    @Beliod You almost certainly need one, and especially in an area like this, if you lack prior training...
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 18, 2020 at 0:11
  • 2
    @Beliod You might want to adjust your question to show that, then.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 18, 2020 at 0:17
  • 1
    @BryanKrause I think I did. I used the hypothetical "would," and went on to make a "made-up example." If you'd like to edit it, feel free to.
    – Beliod
    Apr 18, 2020 at 0:20
  • 3
    Folks: No, Beliod does not "need" a faculty advisor to ask this question. That is not a prerequisite for using the site. Apr 18, 2020 at 15:07

3 Answers 3


You ask specifically about an "oral tradition", but only speech which has been somehow recorded can be cited. Oral history is a whole subfield with an Oral History Association which has published Principles and Best Practices for using these histories. Most of the best practices pertain to the acquisition of new oral histories, but there is also a section on using existing oral histories:

All those who use oral history interviews after they are made accessible should strive for intellectual honesty and the best application of the skills of their discipline. This includes

a. avoiding stereotypes, misrepresentations, and manipulations of the narrator’s words;

b. striving to retain the integrity of the narrator’s perspective;

c. recognizing the subjectivity of the interview, including, when possible, verification of information presented as factual;

d. interpreting and contextualizing the narrative according to the professional standards of the applicable scholarly disciplines;

e. contextualizing oral history excerpts;

f. providing a citation to the location of the full oral history.


For some things you have no options but to take what information is available. If a community doesn't have a literary tradition then oral histories is all that can be managed. The option is to simply let such things die - a sad fate.

But you need to be careful. First person interviews are very valuable, but are obviously colored by the life history of the one interviewed. This is generally recognized.

Two works that I've found valuable come to mind. The first is The Ten Grandmothers by Alice Marriott. A group of scholars interviewed members of the Kiowa people of Kansas. Some of those interviewed had been children before the destruction of the buffalo culture of the plains. There was little else in the way of information available.

The other is Nisa: the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Schostak. The title character was a San woman from the Kalahari as their lifestyle started to be overcome by the modern world. Again, the San have no written tradition, so oral interviews is all that was open.

There are many other examples, of course, including the work of Margaret Mead.

But all such works need to be honest about sources. The data is influenced by the lives and views of those interviewed. But it is also necessary to assure that assumptions made by the interviewers don't color the story. Missionary observers of the Hopi People, for example, made many very serious mistakes of interpretation and caused a lot of damage.


Oral tradition is at least as unreliable as any other single source. In general, you need to confirm very single piece of important information using as many independent sources as you can. Any single source can serve as guide when looking for other sources, but it can rarely stand on its own.

In the case of a war involving native Americans, the war might very well be documented by several independent explorers, hunters or missionaries who passed through the area during the conflict. Knowing the oral tradition is useful as it will allow you to narrow the search for other sources.

When citing oral tradition, I would clearly identify it as such, i.e., "According to Navajo oral tradition, see Refence [xyz], the war starting during the summer of [year]" and then state whether or not this information is consistent with other sources.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .