We’ve asked the SOHP staff to select an interview from the archive that celebrates or challenges the practice of oral history, along with interviews that serve as teachable moments. This week SOHP intern Blake Hite shares his reflections on Dr. Ruth Dial Woods’s interview from 1992.
In his book, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, Dr. Thomas King says that “once you hear a story, you can never un-hear it.” Growing up, I was always told stories about my family and my people, the Lumbee, so that I would know myself as an individual. One of my favorite stories is how my family left the Cherokee Nation a few years after Indian Territory became Oklahoma, and about the struggles they faced before they ended up in Robeson County, North Carolina. This story makes me proud of who I am as a person and my people. Stories are very powerful in shaping people’s identity but they are also very influential in initiating change in society, and that is what Dr. Ruth Dial Woods hoped she would be able to do.
Woods was a member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, and the Director of Indian Education. She was also a professor at Fayetteville State University. Throughout her life, she held multiple titles and positions where she was able to influence the next generation. She was heavily involved in the Civil Rights and feminist movements and their purpose: to ensure that she leaves behind a world that is better than the one she experienced. She wants to make sure that Native people are represented in all sectors of society, and she believes that by telling stories, individuals can profoundly affect society.
From her interviews, Woods wants us to know what it is like to be a Native woman and the obstacles that she faced and how she overcame them. She wants us to know why she had to lie on her marriage license, saying that she was white and not Native. She wants us to know how her people, the Lumbee, were discriminated against by whites in Robeson County and how Natives are disadvantaged when they apply to colleges, and the difficulties they face trying to afford attendance. Woods wants us to know what it is like to be a Native person who comes from a tribe that avoided Removal, and what being “Indian” means to her. Most of all, she wants us to know how she “made off the reservation,” and how she succeeded in a Non-Native world.
Stories are very powerful. They can alter the lives of individuals and help in changing society. Dr. Woods started the change but it is up to us to finish what she began and take up the Mantle of Responsibility, and share our own stories.
Woods’ oral history interview was conducted in 1992 by Anne Mitchell Coe and Laura Jane Moore for SOHP’s University of North Carolina: Individual Biographies project, focusing on notable North Carolinians connected to UNC.