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7. Overheard on the Web

John Peabody Harrington: the clue to lost Native American languages: Mike Anton LA Times Staff Writer

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 ƒ. 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 to die.”

Consider the thousands of pages Harrington devoted to the Luiseöo Indians of Southern California. Some of the material, gathered in the 1930s, is straightforward. “Hu-ka-pish,” reads one entry, “a pipe ƒ made of clay, and has no stem, it is necessary for a person to lie on his back to smoke it.”

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 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 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 door.

While in the field, Harrington routed letters to his bosses in Washington, D.C., through Marr'smother, 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 crackersƒ. It was quite an adventure for a 17-year-old guy.”

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 again.” When another subject, a Chinook man nearly 100 years old, suffered a stroke, Harrington was heartbroken „ for himself. “Have just gotten over crying ƒ 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 leaving office. 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 the surface. 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 they've been.”

Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneöo 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 Juaneöo language. 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.”

TONGUE-TWISTERS. Linguists writing down Aboriginal languages create more problems than they solve.

PAUL TOOHEY) The Bulletin Thu, 8 Jul 2004

“Linguists to blame again!.” comments Doug Marmion to

New road safety signs are being posted throughout central Australia in different languages, and local Aborigines have not been forgotten in the campaign. One of the signs warns, in big letters, “Ngkwarnge arrenelhetyeke”, which means “seat belt”. Now you know why Aboriginal children have such profound literacy problems. English is a daunting enough language for new Australians but our own first people face mountainous obstacles trying to write and make sense of their own. Take “Ampilatwatja”, which describes a community north-east of Alice Springs. It's actually pronounced “Um-blood-a-watch”.

Take, on the other hand, “Anindilyakwa”, which describes people from Groote Eylandt, off Arnhem Land. The word looks to be hard going but, with patience, a pronunciation will reveal itself. That's because there's really no other way to write it.

It's the Arandic languages of central Australia (Aranda people these days go by the name “Arrernte”) as interpreted by linguists where real trouble rears. “The problem with linguists is they perceive minute differences in languages,” says a Northern Territory government person who doesn't want to be named because he works with linguists. “Maybe the differences are there. But most people don't hear them. No human does. Except for linguists.”

In the easy-going Warlpiri (or is that Walpiri?) language of the north-western NT desert, a person who dies loses their name and becomes known as “kumanjayi”. Linguists have decreed that in Arrernte it should be spelled “kwementyaye” - even though both pronunciations are identical. And if you're ever bogged in central Australia, try telling your Aboriginal rescuers you're hopelessly “mwernelheme”. They won't know what you're talking about but with luck they'll have a tow-rope.

Keepers of a Lost Language: Mountain Maidu

By Dashka Slater

After devoting his life to understanding the mechanics and music of languages, William Shipley speaks fewer than you might expect. The 82-year-old linguist studied Latin and Greek as a youth, learned Mandarin during World War II, and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. But the language Shipley is most proud of knowing, the one that has shaped his career and much of the course of his life, is understood by less than a dozen people on earth. It is Mountain Maidu, and it was once spoken by some two to three thousand California Indians who lived in the northern Sierra Nevada.

Shipley learned the language 50 years ago, from a half-Maidu, half-Dutch woman named Maym Benner Gallagher. As a 32-year-old graduate student in linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, Shipley had arrived at Gallagher's door in Maidu country, roughly 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, one snowy December afternoon in 1953. Armed with a tape recorder the size of a footlocker, he explained that he was looking for someone to teach him Maidu. Gallagher's husband, Lee, was concerned that Shipley had traveled a long way for nothing. “I've always heard it told,” he explained, “that white people couldn't learn these languages.”

Maidu is certainly unlike anything most white people are likely to have encountered. It has eight cases and no prepositions and contains an arsenal of sounds not found in any European language—glottalized k's and g's, imploded b's and d's. Like many Indian languages, it is polysynthetic, meaning that what we would express in a sentence the Maidu express in a single word containing a long string of suffixes.

Yet Shipley thought he might be able to manage it. Languages came easily to him—as a child he used to invent his own, a pastime his father considered a sign of impending lunacy. After studying anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, he joined a kind of linguistic salvage operation funded by the California Legislature. Each summer five graduate students were provided with a car, a tape recorder, and enough money to hire a native teacher. The goal was to document California Indian languages before they disappeared.

Maym Gallagher was 64 when Shipley met her, although she looked and seemed much younger. She had wavy black hair, a talent for the violin, and a raunchy sense of humor quite unlike anything Shipley had ever encountered in a woman. She had grown up both bilingual and bicultural, speaking Maidu with her mother and English with her father, a Dutch settler who had come to the Mount Lassen foothills from Wisconsin by covered wagon as a child. Her formal education had ended after high school, but she was a natural scholar. Within a few weeks of working together, the two had dispensed with the traditional relationship between academic and informant and began collaborating as colleagues, thus commencing what Shipley describes as “one of the great friendships of my life.”

Over the course of the next two summers, the pair developed a routine. They worked on the language three or four afternoons a week, knocking off around five to drink beer and talk. Some days they'd go driving around Maidu country, looking for old-timers who could still speak the language and stopping off for a drink at a local tavern on the way home. Gallagher loved to sit there smiling pleasantly at the overweight white clientele and then lean over to ask Shipley in Maidu, “Did you ever see anything fatter and more disgusting?”

Shipley still has the pale turquoise eyes and easy grin he had as a young man, and it sometimes startles him to realize that those backcountry rambles are a half-century in the past. Throughout his career as a linguistics professor at the University of California, Maidu has been his enduring passion, and Gallagher—who died in 1978—has been the blithe spirit inhabiting his work. He developed a system for writing the language and has published a grammar, a dictionary, and a lyrical translation of Maidu myths and stories. He is now one of the last living speakers of the language, and he sometimes worries that there is no one left among the tribe who can teach it with Gallagher's level of particularity and care. “I have all this language in my head and I want to get it down,” he explained recently. “Because if I don't do it, nobody else can.”

But lately, Shipley has been worrying less than he used to. Two years ago he acquired a roommate, a young Maidu of mixed blood with an uncanny ear for language, a sweet and openhearted view of the world, and a firm desire to return the Maidu language to his people. His name is Kenny Holbrook, and he is Maym Gallagher's grandson From: Andre Cramblit andrekar@NCIDC.ORG ENDANGERED-LANGUAGESL@

Honduran island risks losing Garífuna
Wilson Ring, Associated Press
Saturday, June 05, 2004 -

PUNTA GORDA, Honduras -- When Reina Martinez speaks to her 14-year-old granddaughter she uses Garífuna, the language of her youth in this colorful island village. But when Cassandra Ballesteros answers, it's not in Garífuna.

"I understand, but I don't speak it," she said. "I can't."

Instead, she responds in Honduran Spanish, the language she learns in school, and the one she's more likely to hear on the dirt roads that run through her centuries-old village tucked between dense mangroves and vast coral reefs on the island of Roatan.

Martinez, 52, and her companion Celso Zapata, 59, are two of the older residents of Punta Gorda. Over the years, the couple has watched their Garífuna traditions fade into memory as the world has reached into their community of about 1,000.

Now they are watching their language disappear, too. Children "don't want to speak Garífuna anymore," said Zapata, who runs Punta Gorda's public water system. "You've got to blame the parents. We parents, we've got to teach the kids."

When he wanders through the community on the north side of the 40-mile-long island, Zapata is as likely to speak Spanish or even a dialect of English Creole to his neighbors as he is Garífuna. "Even the old people, you find many of them who don't want to speak Garífuna," he said.

Linguist Genevieve Escure laments what is happening to "a complicated and beautiful language," with roots in the Amazonian tongues of Arawak and Carib still spoken in parts of northeastern South America. So she is recording the Garífuna, hoping to spark their interest so they will work to keep their language alive.

Still, some of Roatan's leaders argue it isn't the language that is in danger. "It's not disappearing," said Arad Rochez, a Garífuna who is vice mayor of Santos Guardiola, including Punta Gorda. "What is disappearing is how we used to live in the past."

When Martinez and Zapata were young the Garífuna lived in mud houses with thatched roofs. Men fished from dugout canoes and steamed, rather than fried, their catch. Traditional folk dances were set to the rhythm of African-styled drums.

Slowly Garífuna men started leaving Roatan to find jobs on the Honduran mainland or to work on freighters and cruise ships.

Dugout canoes that once sustained the community were abandoned on shore. The Garífuna are no longer dependent on the fish, lobster and conch that are plentiful in the coral reefs.

In the late 1980s, the Honduran government started developing the island, bringing tourists, retirees and developers attracted by the balmy temperatures year-round. A main road now runs across the spine of the island, from the western end of Roatan, with its luxury beach hotels and exclusive waterfront homes, past Punta Gorda to the still, nearly pristine east end.

The hurricanes that belt the island every generation or so -- Fifi in 1974 and Mitch in 1998 -- also brought change, blowing away the thatched-roof homes of the Garífuna. The villagers rebuilt, first with wood and then cement blocks with tin roofs.

Thousands of Central American Garífuna now live in the United States and the money they send home helps their families buy luxuries like televisions and refrigerators that would otherwise be beyond reach.

"We don't hardly live how we used to live," Martinez said. And their language is receding along with their old lifestyle. Linguists estimate 190,000 people across the western Caribbean speak Garífuna. But when a language isn't being used by young people, the numbers can drop fast.

"Everybody agrees we are going to lose half of the world's languages. Some say 90%," said Lenore Grenoble, a Dartmouth College professor and chair of the Linguistic Society of America's Committee for Endangered Languages and their Preservation. Linguists estimate the world at one time had about 10,000 languages. Today, there are about 6,800, Grenoble said.

Four years ago, Escure gave tape recorders to some Punta Gorda residents and asked them to record family and friends as they spoke Garífuna. Most of her work is with older people because few Garífuna under 40 speak the language. Even when they do, more and more English and Spanish words find their way into the conversation.

"Spanish is dominant. It is the language you need to be successful in life," said Escure, who is based at the University of Minnesota. "That's how a language disappears. The speaker doesn't see any benefit in speaking it. They'd rather switch to Spanish or English Creole."

One afternoon earlier this year Escure and Martinez had a discussion about the Garífuna word for cassava, the root crop that is a dietary staple throughout Latin America and much of the developing world.

" 'The pot with which I cooked cassava,' OK, how do you say that...?"' Escure asked.

"O-yay lay idabway nobowa yucca," Martinez answered. The hard Bs, Gs, Us and Ps make it easy to distinguish Garífuna from Spanish, English and even the lyrical sweetness of French, all of which make up significant elements of Garífuna. Escure repeats and dissects every phrase, looking for the origins of the words, the way the verbs are conjugated and how the sentences are put together. She's also trying to assemble a vocabulary, get a better understanding of the way the Garífuna use prefixes and suffixes, the way plurals and possessives are formed and how it all fits together.

These are ancient sounds. The Garífuna are an extraordinary mix of Arawak Indians who migrated from the Amazon to the Caribbean 1,500 years ago, and Africans who escaped when two Spanish slave ships wrecked off the island of St. Vincent in 1635. Their language is a kind of living history, studded with relics of their encounters with other peoples.

Now, it seems to be slipping away. Escure says she alone cannot keep Garífuna alive. "I am trying to describe the language as it is now," she said. "You cannot impose a language. It has to come from the community."