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Native American and Indigenous Studies

Primary Sources

Primary Sources are...

Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, usually by witnesses or people who were involved in the event. Many primary sources were created at the time of the event but can also include memoirs, oral interviews, or accounts that were recorded later. 

Visual materials, such as photos, original artwork, posters, and films are important primary sources, not only for the factual information they contain, but also for the insight they may provide into how people view their world. Primary sources may also include sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated but not interpreted. However, in the sciences or social sciences, primary sources report the results of an experiment. 

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Secondary sources offer an analysis or a restatement of primary sources. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Some secondary sources not only analyze primary sources, but also use them to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion. Examples of secondary sources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, books, and articles that interpret, analyze, or review research works. 

Examples of Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Subject Examples Primary Source Secondary Source
Art original artwork  article critiquing the piece of art
Literature poem book or article on a particular genre of poetry
Political Science treaty essay on Native American land rights
Science or Social Sciences report of an original experiment review of several studies on the same topic
Theater video of a performance biography of a playwright

How to Analyze Primary Sources

While primary sources are often desirable for the raw, non-interpreted information they provide, it is important to analyze them for your research. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the creator and what was their relationship to the event or issue?
  • Why did the creator produce this source?
  • Was the source for personal use?  For a large audience?
  • Was the source intended to be public (newspaper) or private (correspondence)?
  • Everyone has biases. What biases or interests might have influenced how the source was created?
  • Can the source be substantiated by other primary sources? Can you confirm what the creator is saying?

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