To me, the most fascinating thing about the Smithsonian Institution's Kin and Communities Symposium is the way it explores that boggy frontier where experience turns into history.
You can see it everywhere in the week-long schedule that runs formal panels opposite informal workshops, in the welter of films, exhibits, closed working sessions and even a picnic at the zoo. You can see it in the range of people taking part, from scholars all the way down to journalists.
"The first question anyone has to deal with in examining the past is, of course, accuracy. Is it true? And I mean in the broadest sense: Is it the whole truth? I submit that only by studying history at the very closest range - our grandparents, our parents, our own childhoods - can we get the necessary skepticism and humility to make reliable statements about whole races of people in the dim past.
I saw a nice contrast in yesterday's panel on "Where Did Americans Come From and Why?" In his introductory remarks, William Demmert of the Bureau of Indian Affairs sketched some research he has made into his own background, Tlingit and Sioux Indian. He speculated on how long his people had been on this continent, explained how their singularly abstract art could be read for clues to historical events.
Particularly he noted that our notions of how long people have lived in America seem to be constantly stretching, from 5,000 years to 27,000 to 50,000 and far beyond, though the evidence for 100,000 years is gossamer thin.
Following him was T. Dale Stewart, a Smithsonian anthropologist who - after some comments about "wild stories" of early finds - outlined what he called the scientific view of the peopling of America.
A map depicting our present idea of what the Bering Strait looked like in the last ice Age showed a great plain 1,000 miles wide. Another map showed how the glaciers retreated, leaving a corridor through Alaska just east of the coastal ice.
Indian remains dated 12,000 years ago have been found at sites around the south end of the corridor, he said. Then he too mentioned the possibility that people lived here much earlier.
Not to get into the argument about the Bering Strait, it seemed to me that I was hearing two different approaches to history, the personal and the academic. Each needs the other and indeed both speakers used the two perspectives to make their points.
At the same time this was going on, Ralph Rinzler of the Smithsonian's folklife programs was running a public workshop on "recording oral tradition," warily avoiding the word "history."
Here, one major concern was ethics: Should the interviewer pass along some historically useful insight his subject has given without realizing it? How much should the interviewers allow his own biases and feeling to intrude? What if an interview that the subject believes is private finds its way to television?
Someone pointed out that in today's anonymous society some people are willing to pay an enormous price in self-exploitation for public recognition. As in "The Gong Show."
Other amateur historians wanted to know how to be sure a subject was telling the entire story and not embellishing it or shading in his own favor. The best answer seemed to be: Ask the questions repeatedly, over a period of time; be tactful; check with other subjects; hold multiple interviews sometimes.
"But people are going to tell you what they want you to know, you can't get around that," one veteran interviewer said.
What I got out of these contrasting sessions was this: The transition from experience to history is the transition from chaos to order, from life to death, to overstate the case just a trifle. Like yang and yin, these two elements partake of each other and grow from each other.Academic historians must learn not to reject anomalies and "wild stories" simply because they upset the smooth perfection of established theory. And recorders of family history must learn to be scrupulous and fearless of the facts if they are serious about putting their people down on paper.
The Smithsonian knows a lot about studying the past by now, and Wilton S. Dillon, its director of symposia and seminars, outdid himself this year. He gave us insights into the nature of the historical process, presented with the institution's customary professional competence.
But also he got across something that is almost impossible for a conference of express: the charming casualness of family life itself, the friendly connectings, the caring. When Alex Haley hugged Stan Margulies, producer of the TV "Roots," during their joint appearance at Ford's Theater, the applause turned on like a hailstorm.