Oregon History Day: It’s All About the Journey

May 14, 2019

By Erin Brasell

Alan Zhou (left) and Kyler Wang (right) won second place for their documentary titled “Echo of Falling Water: The Destruction of Celilo Falls,” at the April 27, 2019, Oregon History Day contest held in Portland. They plan to revise their documentary before heading to the National History Day Contest in June and visited the OHS Research Library this month to conduct additional research. 

This past fall, Oregon students began preparing for the 2019 Oregon History Day contest alongside half a million middle and high school students across the country. The National History Day® (NHD) program, organized locally by the Oregon Historical Society, includes various levels of competition — school, regional, and state — that lead to the national contest held at the University of Maryland at College Park. This fun program encourages students to become historians and critical thinkers by developing research, analysis, presentation, and social skills

At the state Oregon History Day contest on April 27, students impressed judges with a wide range of projects in five categories: papers, websites, exhibits, performances, and documentaries. One of the outstanding projects that qualified to advance to the national competition was a documentary that high school students Alan Zhou and Kyler Wang created. Zhou and Wang are a returning team who went to nationals in 2018 as middle school students with their documentary The Pig War: Confrontation, Escalation, Arbitration (now featured on NHD’s website). Although they now attend different high schools, they were excited to apply what they learned through their experience last year to a new documentary project, Echo of Falling Water: The Destruction of Celilo Falls.

Still from Echo of Falling Water by Alan Zhou and Kyler Wang.

Alan Zhou's and Kyler Wang's documentary features clips from interviews they conducted about the history of Celilo Falls, including one with Ed Edmo, a Shoshone-Bannock storyteller. 

Echo of Falling Water (the meaning of Wyam or Celilo Falls) begins with two clips from interviews the students conducted and a powerful narrated introduction:

In 1952, a project began on the Columbia River with the goal of bringing electricity and prosperity to the Pacific Northwest. Despite fierce opposition from local tribal leaders, The Dalles Dam was completed in 1957, submerging Celilo Falls and destroying centuries-old traditions and natural resources. The dam, though a symbol of American progress, took away the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples in the region. American’s consuming need for triumph, fueled by technological innovation and great feats of engineering, led to the tragedy of Celilo Falls. The story of The Dalles Dam represents a recurring pattern in American history where Native American rights and resources are overlooked to promote what is regarded as the “greater good” of the United States.

The documentary includes historic photographs, drawings, maps, and archival film clips and audio recordings that guide viewers through the story of The Dalles Dam and destruction of Celilo Falls — a part of Oregon’s history that had been unknown to them before this project.

When asked about why they decided to do another History Day project this year, they both expressed their love for history and how they wanted to learn more about their local history. According to Zhou, this year’s National History Day theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” afforded them the opportunity to explore a wide range of events. After seeing other inspiring documentaries at the 2018 national contest, they were motivated to return to the competition.

Going to nationals last year was an amazing experience for us. Not only did we get to showcase the documentary that we worked on for months, we also got a chance to see other documentaries and meet people from around the country. We learned that NHD isn't only about the final product — it’s about the journey and people you meet along the way.

Alan and Kyler at Nationals, 2018.

Wang (left) and Zhou (right) are pictured here at the National History Day Competition in 2018.

Now that they’re seasoned History Day participants, I asked them if they could give advice to students who are considering making their own documentaries for next year’s contest. Zhou and Wang agreed that “research is the backbone of your project. If you don’t have quality research, it’s hard to make a good documentary.” Interviews, they suggested, “can help you understand your topic” and are useful for generating footage for your documentary. Zhou and Wang also recommend that students use plenty of primary source documents but also “read a lot of books and articles on your topic” — which happen to be essential components for writing great OHQ articles as well!

Earlier this month, we met Zhou and Wang in the OHS Research Library as they were conducting additional research to refine their documentary submission before attending nationals in June. They were gracious enough to let us lurk around with a camera while they poured over vertical files. We were even able to get them to talk a bit about their project before the library closed. We hope you enjoy our latest “Two-Minute Take” video featuring one of the Oregon History Day teams heading to the National History Day contest next month!

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