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Wyoming History Day:

Skill-building for Oral Histories

Wyoming State Board of Education Content & Performance Standard:

  • Language Arts--Reading

  • Language Arts--Listening

  • Social Studies--Time, Continuity, and Change

  • Social Studies--People, Places, and Environments

  • Social Studies--Processes and Skills

Learner Outcomes:

  • Students will read an excerpt of an oral history interview and describe details about an individual’s life and times.

  • From their observations, students will be able to draw conclusions and develop questions about the interviewer, the subject, and the importance of oral history.

Related Points of Discussion:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using oral history research as a source?

  • What can you do in preparation for an interview that will help you get the information you need?

  • Why is it important to do research before you conduct an interview?

Suggested activities:

Have students interview their parents or grandparents about their relationship to a historical event. The Depression, World War II, the Kennedy Assassination, and the Vietnam era are good topics of discussion. Students can develop questions based on information from their textbooks and compare the experiences of their subjects to others in the class.

Have students locate information about other groups of people or individuals involved in federal work programs from the New Deal. Have students compare and contrast that information with Edgar Teller’s experiences.

Historical Background:

In recent years many historians have spent more time studying the experiences of ordinary people. This is often called social history. Social historians look at people’s lives to show how groups of people were affected by historical events. One tool for gathering this information is the oral interview. The historian asks questions that focus on the information needed for their research.

In this activity, you will read an excerpt from an oral interview conducted with Edgar Teller (a pseudonym). A historian studying the New Deal work relief programs among Native Americans interviewed Teller.

In October of 1929, the Stock Market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of businesses failed, as did banks by the thousands. At least one-quarter of the country’s workforce was unemployed. Two years later Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised vigorous action and new hope for thousands of despairing citizens, was elected President.

President Roosevelt instituted many new programs to help individuals and the economy in response to the turmoil caused by the Great Depression. Included in Roosevelt’s New Deal were work relief programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established in 1933 to provide jobs for young men, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935 to create jobs in public work projects, such as road building.

The Indian Emergency Conservation Work program was established to administer the CCC in Indian country. In 1935 the IECW changed its name to the Civilian Conservation Corps – Indian Division (CCC-ID). CCC-ID, like the regular CCC, ended in 1942.

Ultimately the New Deal reduced bank closings, business failures, and unemployment, and it increased farm prices, wages, and salaries. Some of the nation’s most persistent economic problems, however, did not disappear until the advent of World War II.


Read the interview excerpt that follows. Mr. Teller is Shoshone Indian who was originally from Idaho. He was sent to attend an Indian Boarding School in Riverside, California when he was 12 years old. Answer the questions which follow by combining what you already know with what you learn from your reading.

Interviewer: I’d like to talk to you today about your experiences with work relief programs in the 1930s.

Edgar Teller: I worked at a few different reservations on this stuff but I started when I was sixteen in White Rocks Utah…they let us go to work in the summer time so I worked down there for three months when I was sixteen. And I worked up there for a short time and then I come back to Idaho…and I worked over there one summer but I don’t remember what year it was. After I ran away from school I went back to Utah and worked with the WPA for a short time and for the IECW a couple of years down there…then I was back to Idaho for a short time but that’s what I had to do with it.

Interviewer: How did you find out about the projects and the work?

Edgar Teller: Well they told us down at the school down in Riverside, California.

Interviewer: Oh?

Edgar Teller: I was going to school down there. After school was out this father come down from Utah to pick up his sons; he had a couple of sons and daughter down there. They’d use to tell him what to kids were going to do during the summer and the oldest boy was going to go to work for the CCC.

Interviewer: Hmm.

Edgar Teller: And he asked me if I would like to do that and I told him I was sixteen years old and he says well that’s the right age. You start at sixteen…so I got permission from the superintendent at school to go down there and go to work, I wasn’t going to go home to Idaho that summer so I went down there that’s how I got started. They were pretty damn good things for us guys.

Interviewer: Yes?

Edgar Teller: That’s all the money we had.

Interviewer: What did they pay you?

Edgar Teller: We got twenty-one dollars a month if you didn’t miss any days if you worked five days a week…if you worked all five days a week for the month why they give you thirty dollars.

Interviewer: Oh.

Edgar Teller: But they also gave you board and room. We lived in tents and some places had little shacks and barracks that they stayed in. Had to do your own laundry all that good stuff but it was a lifesaver for a lot of us kids. Well we never knew what money was until then and a dollar a day was big money for us. Everybody was damn hard up…that was big money.

Interviewer: Yes?

Edgar Teller: That’s why I quit school I thought I was going to be a millionaire getting a dollar a day (laughter).

Interviewer: What did you do with your money, did you keep it?

Edgar Teller: I saved it and bought school clothing and stuff like that. The one summer that I worked over in Idaho they had the CCC camp and IECW camp, that’s where I’m from, where my parents lived, so I got a job as a teamster, driving a team. I used my dad’s horses to team the wagon and that’s all you need to have to have. And so I got paid for the horses plus myself and it was pretty good, I had to furnish the hay and grain for my horses and take care of them but I got forty-five dollars a month there…

Interviewer: Was that one summer that you did that?

Edgar Teller: One summer I did that…I don’t know there might have been recruiters on them reservations when the kids come home from school or whatever getting them to go to work, I don’t know. When I did get finally go to work back over at home I knew there’s a lot of kids there going to work too and they were all mostly all school kids.

Interviewer: What was the work like when you were doing CCC or IECW?

Edgar Teller: Well oh we worked pretty hard.

Interviewer: Did you?

Edgar Teller: You know we… was working over in Idaho or down in Utah when I first went to work down there I was building…digging the holes and putting the wire up the hole but we had an engineer boss who knew what he was doing and we was done slave work digging the holes and that kind of stuff it was…

Interviewer: Hard work.

Edgar Teller: It was hard… you know we learnt how to work. We used picks and shovels and all that good stuff.

Interviewer: Yeah?

Edgar Teller: But we built a telephone line up to the ranger station up in mountain…that’s pretty hard digging…that kind of stuff and then they had some road projects going there too.

Interviewer: Yeah?

Edgar Teller: Building roads and it was mostly, they done a lot of team work with horses at that time and then they had a little machinery it wasn’t hell of a lot, some dozers and stuff… that was a pretty big project building that road.

Interviewer: What where your supervisors like? Were they Indians or non-Indians?

Edgar Teller: The one I had was a white man a big tall fellow his name was…I can’t remember his name now but he was a big engineer, that was his title…engineer. I can’t remember what his name was but he was a real nice guy…he was the head of us but everybody under him was Indian.

Interviewer: Hmm ...

Edgar Teller: But he was the only white man there and then over night oh why there were all Indians, all Indians… but also there was quite a few white boys in the spring.

Interviewer: Oh really?

Edgar Teller: You know there was more Indians then there were whites but we didn’t think nothing to much (laughter)…course most of the Indians they were half breeds like myself.

Interviewer: Hmm hmm.

Edgar Teller: So we understood what discrimination was and we didn’t pick on anybody… too much, but there was a little of it, not a whole lot.

Interviewer: Were the supervisors guys who had some kind of special skills or something along those lines or how did they become supervisors?

Edgar Teller: Well that I don’t know I know that this little guy down there his name is Ken, I can’t think of his last name, he was an educated engineer and he knew what he was doing pretty well. I don’t know whether he come out of the army or civil service or where; he was the boss. Then some of the guys who was doing that what little heavy equipment they had there they were pretty well educated men….doing that operating that heavy equipment they had some mechanics or…I don’t know where they got their education from but they were Indians and there was a few that looked liked they could have been white too but as far as I know they were all Indians.

Interviewer: Hmm.

Edgar Teller: Because it was an Indian conservation… I guess… what the hell did they call it?

Interviewer: Well there were a number of names that they had CCC ID (Indian Division)…

Edgar Teller: CCC was Civilian Conservation Corps, IECW was the Indian Conservation Corps.

Interviewer: Right.

Edgar Teller: And the WPA was Workers something.

Interviewer: Works Progress Administration.

Edgar Teller: There, you got it.

Interviewer: Did you do any WPA work?

Edgar Teller: Yes I did one summer down in Utah…it was ‘38 down there for a short time…we done some WPA… we was poisoning weeds.

Interviewer: Oh?

Edgar Teller: Some noxious weeds, our crew was working mainly on morning glories.

Interviewer: Hmm.

Edgar Teller: Morning glories, you see a lot of them around here.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Edgar Teller: But we weren’t spraying them or anything we were digging out, I mean digging the roots out.

Interviewer: One at a time?

Edgar Teller: Yeah one plant at a time (laughter) and you had to dig down so far to get most of the roots but hell, they just grew back.

Interviewer: Sure, that’s why they call them weeds.

Edgar Teller: Yeah, I think it helped them. But it was fun and it was a way of making money too and we damn sure needed the money. Sure helped the old folks out, we did donate a little to them.

Interviewer: Yeah?

Edgar Teller: When I worked over in Idaho and had the team, why I got quite a bit more money than guys did and my brother was working there too. I gave part of the money from machines to my dad.

Interviewer: You did?

Edgar Teller: He was involved with the CCC-ID too.

Interviewer: Was he?

Edgar Teller: Yeah, he was what they called a range rider and he rode and they had a lot of livestock crossing the reservation to and from somewhere on the range and that kind of stuff …he had to count all that stuff.

Interviewer: Hmm.

Edgar Teller: And he handled the paperwork and all that but he wasn’t educated pretty good.

Interviewer: He didn’t have to live in a camp or anything? He just came from his home and went out?

Edgar Teller: No. Just came from home. But he’d come to where we was camped there in the mountain, building that fence and kind of supervised a little of that fence building. We were building drift fences for livestock and I guess they were fixing some of the reservation.

Interviewer: What were the camps like; what was life like?

Edgar Teller: Oh it was…it was pretty interesting actually lot of kids we had a lot of recreational things…

Interviewer: You did?

Edgar Teller: …oh boxing that kind of stuff. But it was good it was lively it was learnt how to shoot the dice and cards and losing your pay check (laughter) playing for cigarettes…you know that kind of stuff but it was good it was.

Interviewer: You made some friends?

Edgar Teller: Oh, a lot of friends.

Interviewer: It sounds like there was kids from all over in these sorts of camps. And you got along pretty well with all these guys from different places?

Edgar Teller: Oh yeah. We had discussions over different tribes…we didn’t run into any Arapahos, if we did we’ve been calling them dog ears (laughter) they called us snake ears (laugher) Shoshones were snake ears that kind of stuff.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Edgar Teller: But there’s a lot of that kidding going on.

Interviewer: Good-natured kidding?

Edgar Teller: Good-natured…some of it turned into some battles or whatever…we was kids.

Interviewer: Were there a lot of rules in the camps? I mean curfews and things like that?

Edgar Teller: Yeah, your lights went out a nine thirty. Some of the CCC camps had some military stuff that they had to do.

Interviewer: What happened to you guys if somebody broke the rules or broke regulations in camp?

Edgar Teller: They could can you.

Interviewer: They could?

Edgar Teller: You could lose your job, yeah.

Interviewer: But you guys were probably glad to have the work?

Edgar Teller: We damn sure were.

Follow-Up Questions:

  • What kind of information did the interviewer want to get from this interview?

  • What types of projects did Mr. Teller work on?

  • Based on your reading would you say these types of projects were or were not typical of the work relief programs?

  • There were often many different types of people involved in work relief projects. Based on Mr. Teller’s recollections do you think people got along and were able to work together? Why or why not?

  • List three questions you would like to ask Mr. Teller about his experiences in the work relief programs.

  • Many critics of the New Deal said the work relief programs were simply "make-work" programs that did not really accomplish much. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

  • If you wanted to learn more about work relief projects that took place in your area how do you think you could locate that information?

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