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Eccentric linguist left behind priceless hoard of native history

Los Angeles Times

Few understood the significance of John Peabody Harrington's work when he died at 77. For some 50 years, the linguist and anthropologist had crisscrossed California and the West, finding the last speakers of ancient American Indian 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 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."

Harrington's legacy now is regarded as a Rosetta stone that unlocks dozens of all-but-forgotten California Indian languages. The work of deciphering it is far from over.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, backed by a National Science Foundation grant, are transcribing Harrington's notes — 1 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 project is expected to take 20 years.

"I very much doubt I will see the end of it," said project co-director Victor Golla, 65, a professor of linguistics at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. "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 also has played a crucial role in reviving languages. The Muwekma Ohlone tribe in the San Francisco 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 University of California, 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."

Harrington 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 traditions. Songs, dances and games. Family histories. Even gossip.

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," one entry reads, "a pipe ... made of clay, and has no stem, it is necessary for a person to lie on his back to smoke it."

More typical are rambling, hard-to-read descriptions of games, stories and sacred rites.

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.

Harrington, born in 1884 and reared in Santa Barbara, Calif., 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 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 a 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, followers 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, 83, a retired 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 Indians?' "

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, Calif., 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 routinely would not answer the door.

While in the field, Harrington routed letters to his bosses in Washington through Marr's mother, so they would bear a Santa Ana postmark and would not reveal where he was.

Unlike others in his field, Harrington was not the least bit eager to publicize his discoveries. 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 is 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, he 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 '40s, 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 guy."

Harrington's bosses at the Smithsonian accommodated his eccentricities because of the quality of his reports. 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 about to be razed.

The material eventually filled two warehouses. Gerald Ford was president when work began in the mid-1970s to transfer the written collection to 500 reels of microfilm. When the job was completed, Ronald Reagan was leaving office.

A Smithsonian editor who worked 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 separating Harrington's papers from his dirty laundry, Callaghan, the Smithsonian linguist, 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.

Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneno tribal leader in Orange County, Calif., 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 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 language.

"We wept," Perry said. "It truly was like our ancestors were talking directly to us."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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