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Voices From The Past

February 21, 2014, 9:55 PM by Perry Groten

Voices From The Past

With the explosion of texting, email and social media, we tend to overlook the power of the spoken word. Researchers at the University of South Dakota are gaining a better understanding of the past by simply listening up. Sample some of the audio archives at the South Dakota Oral History Center. 

Voices, once silenced by time, are speaking out on the campus of the University of South Dakota. The South Dakota Oral History Center is a sonic storehouse of distant memories that span from reel to reel.

"Sometimes it's kind of like listening to your grandparents or your parents telling stories about their past," South Dakota Oral History Center Curator Jessica Neal said.

Stories recorded decades ago, like the harrowing tale told by Leo Olson who was taken hostage during the Dillinger Gang's 1934 robbery of the Securities National Bank & Trust in Sioux Falls.

"I saw tellers come and go, and I was going to go in back with the rest of the crowd, but I thought, well, I'll stand right up here in front. If they're gonna shoot, why, I might just as well get it first rate," Olson said.

Charles Little Dog recounts arriving at Wounded Knee a day after the tragic 1890 massacre of Native Americans. He was a six-year-old back then in search of his uncle.

"The day when they picked up the bodies, I was there," Little Dog said.

Interviewer: And you watched them bury them?

"The weather was kind of cold, you could see the snow on the ground, not much, just enough to cover it," Little Dog said.

"It's pretty chilling.  They were pretty horrible events that took place, especially to hear the memories of a six year old at the time," Neal said.

USD history graduate student Kelsey Kenzy Sutton is researching the role of women bootleggers. She's found the oral history center to be a valuable resource allowing her to tap into a little-known part of South Dakota's prohibition past.  

"And it's almost more compelling than reading a piece of primary document to actually hear a historical actor speak on a recording," Kenzy Sutton said.

Most of the recordings are digitized, allowing for easy Internet access.

"I can look up an oral history and I can get the audio recording online and listen to it at home, listen to it on my computer, which makes it very accessible," Kenzy Sutton said.

Last fall, the Oral History Center moved across campus from Dakota Hall to here at the library to make it easier for people to access the recordings.

"I think I've noticed that we do get more traffic now that we've moved here which is nice.  People had a hard time finding us in Dakota Hall," Neal said.

Demand for recordings is growing beyond the USD campus.  The Oral History Center has a global outreach.

"Just a month ago, I was able to share a fairly large number of audio interviews and transcript files with a researcher from Germany. I could get them to him in a matter of days, even hours," Neal said.

Neal says the recordings provide emotion to an event that you don't find in written documents. She says the spoken word is just as accurate as what you'll find on the printed page. At the South Dakota Oral History Center, hearing is believing.

The Oral History Center holds onto the original tape recordings as long as possible by preserving them in a climate-controlled storage room. 

A USD political science class is conducting interviews with South Dakota political leaders that will be archived at the center. 

Listen to Leo Olson describe what it was like coming face to face with gangster Baby Face Nelson by clicking here.


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