In Santa Fe, learning to preserve vets’ stories

October 1, 2018

Archaeologist Mary Weahkee sat in the back of a room filled with military veterans, artists and observers Sunday morning, taking notes on how to interview.

Weahkee, an assistant archaeologist for the state Office of Archaeological Studies, works every day to preserve elements of history, but Sunday she was hoping to learn something new: how to capture the experiences of Native American veterans and submit their stories to a national archive.

“Any part of history needs to be recorded properly,” Weahkee said. “That’s part of being an archaeologist.”

As a member of Santa Clara Pueblo and the Comanche Nation, plus a relative of service members herself, Weahkee said she wants to preserve veterans’ stories for future generations.

“I don’t really hear anything about the Pueblo veterans and what they accomplished,” Weahkee said. “I would like to have that heard and seen by the young people who live [in Santa Clara Pueblo] now.”

Weahkee was one of a few dozen who gathered at the Center for Contemporary Arts for the oral history and interview training session, in which locals learned how to interview veterans for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

The training session was one of many vet-centered events held at CCA over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Love Armor Project, an exhibit that focuses on supporting veterans.

Over the weekend, the center hosted discussions on advances in art therapy for treating post-traumatic stress, bringing the community together through fiber arts, and the struggles and accomplishments of LGBT service members.

Sunday’s training session on interviewing veterans and archiving their stories was hosted by Lilli Tichinin, a program coordinator for New Mexico Arts. Tichinin said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask members of the arts and military communities already gathered for collaborative weekend events at the Love Armor exhibit if they were interested in archiving veterans’ histories.

“In terms of collecting the veterans stories for the Veterans History Project, they see it as beneficial to everybody involved,” Tichinin said. “They not only are collecting a record for researchers and the general public … part of it is also to provide civilians to have a better understanding of people’s individual history and experiences.”

Collecting these stories seems especially appropriate in New Mexico, Tichinin said. Not only does the state have a high percentage of veterans — New Mexico was among the top 10 states with the highest percent of veterans among all adults in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — it also possesses strong traditions of oral history.

“People are familiar with oral traditions and information being passed orally, whether that’s through family storytelling or verbal accounts of history that have been passed down,” Tichinin said. “There is a culture of storytelling in New Mexico that people are familiar with, so oral history doesn’t seem like a foreign concept. It seems natural.”

Sunday’s training focused both on the technical elements of submitting oral history interviews to the federal Veterans History Project, and how to conduct interviews with veterans in general.

Tichinin stressed to participants the importance of letting the veteran dictate the terms of the interview. She suggested pre-interviews with subjects so interviewer and interviewee get to know one another and build rapport; asking veterans whether they’d prefer doing video or audio interviews; asking for photos, maps or other records that could serve as prompts during the interview.

“It’s important to remember that this entire process is guided by the veteran,” Tichinin said. “Really, it’s about what the veteran is comfortable sharing.”

Nathan Dunton, who is working with a veteran to write a song about his life through an organization called Lifesongs, came to the training to learn more about the nuances of interviewing veterans, many of whom experienced some sort of trauma during their service.

He said he left with a better understanding of how to help veterans feel comfortable and supported when sharing their experiences, even the painful ones.

“By understanding the costs we can take care of our veterans,” Dunton said, “and make really careful decisions about when to go into these conflicts.”

If you go

What: Love Armor 10th anniversary exhibition

Where: Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe, 1050 Old Pecos Trail

When: Tuesday-Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday, Oct. 7; $5 general admission, free for CCA Members, Cinematheque ticket holders, active duty military and children under 12.

Exhibit information: www.ccasantafe.org

About the Veterans History Project: Information about how to record the interviews, what kinds of paperwork is required and the specific criteria for audio or video interviews are available on the Veterans History Project website at www.loc.gov/vets

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