Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Oral History of Lakes Menomin and Tainter

This summer, I focused on oral history of the Red Cedar Watershed, and more specifically, Lakes Menomin and Tainter. But what is oral history, you ask? Oral history is much like written history; it has its own slants and perspectives depending on the source. Unlike written history (you might have guessed), it is spoken. In this way, one can gather an understanding of the past as well as the significance that people place on certain events depending on how much or little they talk about them. I used this concept - the way people talk about the past affects their actions in the present - to understand how people perceive the lakes and how they have changed.

A postcard from the mid 1900s featuring "the old swimming hole" at Wakanda Park.
That means that over a couple of months, I interviewed more than 10 people in the Red Cedar Watershed, read interview transcripts conducted by previous REU students, attended various public meetings relating to the lakes, did archival research, and took a lot of field notes. As I and my research partner, Madison, started wrapping up data collection, we also started analyzing the data we gathered. The data filled various roles in my research. I analyzed the interviews to get an idea of how people talk about the lake health as they’ve known it. I used the information I found in the archives to fill in the spaces of what people didn’t say in interviews. That is, people tell things as they know it. The archives proved to be a useful resource that allowed me to gather a fuller representation of the lakes’ history. By participating in public meetings, I experienced what sort of things are being done in the present to address lake health.

After all of that - data gathering, coding, and analyzing - I drew a few conclusions.
  1. Personal experience, strength of memories, and sense of place influence how they perceive current lake health, what they think should or can be done about declining lake health, and how they are involved in lake clean up efforts.
  2. Based on the interviews conducted, the dominant theme is that the lake has gotten worse. Most people expressed that they were unsure of how to move forward in addressing declining lake health, even if they are involved in a lake protection organization.
  3. Even though uncertainty exists for a variety of stakeholders, steps are being taken to slow the declining lake health.

So, people that have lived in the area certainly had stories to share, but what comes with that is a sense that the lakes have gotten worse, and there’s too much to do in order to reverse that decline, and that it’s an insurmountable problem. Result: little movement forward.
There was also a sense that the lake has always been green, and we don’t know how to begin to address that, and that it’s an insurmountable problem. Result: also little movement forward.
There was even a small sense for some that the lakes have improved, and there isn't anything to be done. Result: you already know - little movement forward.

Why does this matter? So what - some community members feel frustrated about lake health and don't know how to proceed. Can't we move ahead anyway? Well, yes, you can try to do that. But a very important part of this is that the lakes are a part of the community, and it's unlikely that people in the community will choose to be involved with something that feels like an uphill battle. This presents a disadvantage to all parties. Instead, make it easy for the community to understand what is going on. Work to build a consistent community understanding about the lakes' present health. Host educational events about the history of the lakes in order to establish a consistent, unified narrative in the community about the lakes' history as a community center and a clear vision for the future. In this way, people can better comprehend the situation, and are more likely to come together for such a worthy cause.

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