John Peabody Harrington
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Jul 10 15:28:06 UTC 2004
from Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Jul 2, 2004. pg. A.1
A Packrat's Path to Indian Past; A California linguist's mountain of
scribbled notes is the key to nearly forgotten Native American languages.
Mike Anton. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Jul 2, 2004. pg. A.1
Full Text (2497 words)
Copyright (c) 2004 Los Angeles Times)
Few understood the true significance of John Peabody Harrington's work
when he died at age 77. For some 50 years, the linguist and anthropologist
had crisscrossed California and the West, cheating the grave by finding
the last speakers of ancient Native American tongues and writing down
their words and customs. Secretive and paranoid, Harrington was a packrat
who stuffed much of his work into boxes, crates and steamer trunks. After
his death in 1961, the papers turned up in warehouses, attics, basements,
even chicken coops throughout the West and eventually made their way to
his former employer, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
"Six tons of material -- much of it worthless," recalled Catherine A.
Callaghan, now 72, a linguist who sorted through the Harrington papers
when they arrived at the Smithsonian. "There was blank paper, dirty old
shirts, half-eaten sandwiches. The low point came when I found a box of
birds stored for 30 years without the benefit of taxidermy .... But mixed
in with all of that were these treasures."
Forty-three years later, Harrington's massive legacy is regarded as a
Rosetta stone that unlocks dozens of all-but-forgotten California Indian
languages. But the work of deciphering it is far from over. Researchers at
UC Davis, backed by a National Science Foundation grant, are transcribing
Harrington's notes -- a million pages of scribbled writing, much of it in
code, Spanish or phonetic script -- into electronic documents that can be
searched word by word. The job is expected to take 20 years.
"I very much doubt I will see the end of it," said project co- director
Victor Golla, a 65-year-old professor of linguistics at Humboldt State.
"Like Harrington's original project, you do this for the future benefit of
other people." Harrington's work has been used by California's Indians
trying to establish federal tribal recognition, settle territorial claims
and protect sacred sites from development.
It has also played a crucial role in reviving languages. The Muwekma
Ohlone tribe in the Bay Area, for instance, is using a dictionary compiled
from Harrington's research to teach its members the Chochenyo language,
which had been dead for more than 60 years. "They've gone from knowing
nothing to being able to carry on a short conversation, sing songs and
play games. Now they're starting to do some creative writing," said UC
Berkeley linguistics professor Juliette Blevins, who works with the tribe.
"We are reconstructing a whole language using his material."
Scholars of Indian anthropology are drawn to Harrington's archive as the
definitive work of its kind. There's only one problem: His handwritten
notes are as comprehensible as Aramaic. "It's impenetrable," said Martha
Macri, director of the UC Davis Native American Language Center and
co-director of the effort to computerize Harrington's papers. "It's too
hard to read his handwriting. Few people can tolerate looking at it for
long periods of time."
The significance of Harrington's work lies not in individual great
discoveries, but in the preservation of millions of words and customs. His
archive is a detailed inventory of the everyday.
He pumped his subjects -- often the last speakers of their languages --
for everything they knew on topics ranging from astronomy to zoology. His
papers describe centuries-old ceremonies. Medicinal cures. Songs, dances
and games. Family histories. Even gossip.
"You've got a RICH lot of information there. Just record them all DRY....
Get all that each one knows," Harrington wrote to one of the many
assistants he hired, often with his own money, to record Indian elders.
"Get all the old people, get ones I never heard of and all who are about
Consider the thousands of pages Harrington devoted to the Luiseno Indians
of Southern California. Some of the material, gathered in the 1930s, is
straightforward. "Hu-ka-pish," reads one entry, "a pipe ... made of clay,
and has no stem, it is necessary for a person to lie on his back to smoke
More typical are the rambling, hard-to-read descriptions of games, stories
and sacred rites. One of Harrington's "informants," Maria Omish, told him
about two smallpox epidemics that ravaged the tribe.
"When the smallpox came 1st time," Harrington wrote, "the Inds. were
having a big fiesta at Sjc. [San Juan Capistrano], and a man came who had
smallpox, & the people were talking of making him go away, but he threw a
cloth that had small pox matter on it into the fire, & then all of them
got it, pretty near all of them died."
There's the description of a religious ceremony involving two men who
slowly dance while quickly playing flutes made from the shin bones of a
deer. The legend of a dying man who asks not to be buried and who returns
to life as an elk. The behavior of a particular black beetle that crawls
away quickly when placed in the hand of a generous man -- and plays dead
in the hand of one who is stingy.
"For Harrington, it was all about getting the information down on paper,
and he lived in fear that he couldn't get it done in his lifetime," Macri
said. "He wasn't heavy on analysis. His gift was to record what he heard."
When Gloria Morgan, a member of the Tejon tribe in Kern County, read that
UC Davis was seeking Native Americans to help computerize Harrington's
work, she jumped at the chance. Morgan discovered that Harrington had
recorded her great-great-grandmother Angelita singing songs in the
Kitanemuk language, of which there are no fluent speakers today.
"I didn't grow up exposed to my own culture, so this is such a huge
thing," said Morgan, 30, a 911 dispatcher. "I had never even heard of
Harrington before this."
Typing Harrington's notes into a spreadsheet is tedious work. But with
each page, Morgan has learned something. A description of a death
ceremony. How paint was made using deer marrow. That her ancestors had
words for 40 different native grasses but didn't know what a shark was.
"A hundred little things that wouldn't mean anything to anyone," Morgan
said. "Except if you're a Tejon."
Harrington, born in 1884 and raised in Santa Barbara, studied classical
languages and anthropology at Stanford University and graduated at the top
of his class in three years. He turned down a Rhodes scholarship and
studied anthropology and linguistics at universities in Europe. Professors
marveled at his flawless ear. He also had the ability to write down every
word said to him.
"He was able to take phonetic dictation at conversation speed, like a
court reporter," Golla said.
He returned to California to teach languages at Santa Ana High School. But
Harrington had a wanderlust. He wanted to follow the ethos of
anthropologist Franz Boas, who promoted the then-radical idea that
"primitive" societies were as complex as those in Europe. As modernity
overtook the West, advocates of Boas saw the preservation of Indian
cultures as nothing short of a rescue mission.
In 1915, Harrington landed a job as a field linguist for the Smithsonian's
Bureau of American Ethnology. Over the next 40 years his travels took him
from California and the Southwest to Canada and Alaska as he immersed
himself in a world that was evaporating before his eyes.
"I thought he was a little nuts at times. But I never met anybody who was
so devoted to his work," said Jack Marr, an 83-year-old retired Fullerton
engineer who worked for Harrington as an assistant, beginning as a
teenager. "He'd travel into a remote area by bus and get off and walk
miles by himself to a trading post and ask, 'Where can I find the
Harrington was a recluse who didn't care about money, dressed in tattered
clothing and slept on the dirt floors of his interview subjects' homes. He
rented Marr's grandmother's home in Santa Ana and used it as a base for
several decades, turning it into a warren of papers and boxes that left
little room to walk. He had no phone and would routinely not answer the
While in the field, Harrington routed letters to his bosses in Washington,
D.C., through Marr's mother, so they would bear a Santa Ana postmark and
would not reveal where he was. Marr was instructed never to tell anyone
where he or Harrington were going or what they were doing.
In contrast to others in his field, Harrington was not the least bit eager
to publicize his discoveries. Quite the opposite. Marr said Harrington
once told him of a tribe in the Sierra that had discovered the skeleton of
a Spanish conquistador in full armor in a cave. Fearful that the find
would attract reporters and other anthropologists, Harrington told Marr he
had the Indians bury the body and swore them to secrecy.
Harrington's life was full of contradictions. He was sensitive to the
nuances of native cultures but revealed himself in his private letters as
a fervent anti-Semite. He was a workaholic who never quite finished a
project. A social misfit who had no close friends but could charm
suspicious strangers into divulging their most profound secrets.
"He preached it to me over and over: If we didn't do this, nobody else
will, and these languages will be lost forever," said Marr, who hauled a
35-pound recording machine powered by a car battery around the West during
the late 1930s and early 1940s, sometimes through mountains on horseback.
"We'd be gone for a month or two at a time, living off cases of dried beef
and chili and crackers.... It was quite an adventure for a 17-year-old
When Marr took trips on his own, Harrington wrote long, rambling letters
exhorting him not to come back empty-handed. When one of his aged subjects
took ill, Harrington exhibited sheer panic.
"Tell him we'll give him five dollars an hour, it'll pay all his doctor
bills and his funeral and will leave his widow with a handsome jackpot,"
he wrote Marr regarding a sickly Chinook Indian elder in Washington state.
"DON'T TAKE NO. Hound the life out of him, go back again and again and
When another subject, a Chinook man nearly 100 years old, suffered a
stroke, Harrington was heartbroken -- for himself.
"Have just gotten over crying ... this is the worst thing that ever
happened to me," he wrote Marr. A few sentences later, though, Harrington
encouraged him to remain optimistic.
"You know, a paralysed person often GETS OVER the first stroke, it is the
third stroke that carries them off. And between strokes they get well and
sit up and talk."
Harrington was married once, to a linguistics student. He immediately
turned Carobeth Tucker into an assistant, dragging her from one dusty
outpost to another, even late in pregnancy and with their newborn daughter
in tow, she recalled in a 1975 memoir. She divorced him after seven years
and went on to become an accomplished linguist and ethnographer.
Harrington's bosses at the Smithsonian accommodated his eccentricities
because of the quality of the reports he sent back.
It was only after his death that the extent of his material became known.
It took the better part of the 1960s to bring most of the stuff together.
Managers of storage units shipped boxes of notes to the Smithsonian
seeking unpaid rent. Forgotten stockpiles turned up in post offices that
were about to be razed.
The material eventually filled two warehouses. In the mid-1970s, Gerald R.
Ford was president when work began to transfer the written collection to
500 reels of microfilm. When the job was completed, Ronald Reagan was
The size of the archive makes a mockery of time. Spend a month plowing
through what took a lifetime to compile, and you haven't even scratched
A Smithsonian editor who worked for years to commit the archive to
microfilm wrote, in a 10-volume overview of the collection: "One can
easily fall prey to the 'Harrington Curse': obsession."
After six months of separating Harrington's papers from his dirty laundry,
Catherine Callaghan had an epiphany.
"I could see myself becoming more and more like Harrington. I had wanted
to devote my life to pure research as he did," she said. "But I realized I
could not survive as a human being that way."
For a man who worked so desperately to save something, Harrington gave
surprisingly little thought to how his stuff would be used -- or whether
it would, in its vastness, simply be admired.
"He thought these languages were dying off so rapidly that he could not
afford to take the time to publish any of his findings," said Macri of UC
Davis. "I don't think he envisioned [his archive] being used by Indian
people. I don't think he thought Indian people would be as resilient as
Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneno tribal leader in Orange County,
discovered the depth of Harrington's legacy in 1994 as she and others
searched the Smithsonian for documentation to support federal recognition
for their tribe.
On a dusty shelf, they found a box of recordings one of Harrington's
assistants made in the 1930s. On them was the voice of Anastacia de Majel,
a tribal elder then in her 70s and one of the last speakers of the Juaneno
Her words were preserved as if in amber.
"We wept," Perry said. "It truly was like our ancestors were talking
directly to us."
Perry, who also runs a nonprofit Indian education and cultural foundation,
estimates that 10,000 pages of Harrington's notes refer to her tribe. As
they are entered into the database, a dictionary of her native language is
emerging. So far, it contains 1,200 words.
Through Harrington, Perry has made discoveries about her ancestors' way of
life that have affected her profoundly.
"I didn't know that animals would talk to my ancestors and that my
ancestors understood them. I didn't know that the stars communicated with
my ancestors or that when a crow flies overhead that I'm supposed to say
certain words to them," Perry said.
"It was humbling to acknowledge how much our ancestors knew."
Perry's backyard garden is full of rocks that represent people in her
life, a tradition she learned from Harrington's archive. Every room in her
house has something in it that her ancestors told Harrington it was
important to have -- sacred items that Perry won't reveal to outsiders.
"Harrington is our hero," she said. "There's something magical about his
work.... It changed how I pray and how I see the world."
Caption: PHOTO: GRATEFUL: Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneno tribal leader
in Orange County, holds a portrait of her great-great grandmother.;
PHOTOGRAPHER: Mark Boster Los Angeles Times; PHOTO: NOTES: These
Harrington field notes are about a children's game. The example was taken
from microfilm of his archive at UC Riverside.; PHOTOGRAPHER: UCR Special
Collections Library; PHOTO: LEGACY: The work of John Peabody Harrington,
shown in 1927, has been used by Indians trying to establish tribal
recognition.; PHOTOGRAPHER: UCR Special Collections Library
Credit: Times Staff Writer
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or
distribution is prohibited without permission.
Section: Main News; Part A; Metro Desk
Text Word Count 2497
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