Saturday, December 29, 2007

"These languages ... were just sleeping"

The following is a condensed version of an article that recently appeared in the San José Mercury News. I was briefly involved with this project for a few months before I left California to pursue my doctorate in Kansas. I transcribed about 50 pages (a mere drop in a very large bucket) worth of Rumsen Ohlone notes that Harrington had gathered back in the 1930s. This is how my interest in the Ohlone languages, native languages of central coastal California, came to be. Thankfully the microfiche version of Harrington's notes are accessible here at KU, and I continue working with the notes when brief bouts of spare time permit. I'm hoping to get three Rumsen stories published in the Journal of Folklore Research in the near future, which, to the best of my knowledge, would be the first time that the actual tales will have been published in the Rumsen language as well as with English translations.

Here is the article:

Bringing voices from the grave, volunteers at the University of California-Davis are working to decipher nearly a million pages of notes from conversations with long-gone Native Californians, reviving more than 100 languages from the distant past. Word by word, they type the scribbled and cryptic notes left by John Peabody Harrington, an eccentric and tireless linguist who in the early 1900s traveled throughout California interviewing the last surviving speakers of many native tongues, including the local Muwekma Ohlone tribe. Their effort to organize a database of Harrington's vast material will build a Rosetta Stone for these languages and their dialects, creating dictionaries of words, phrases and tribal tales and customs that were destined to disappear.

"It is an enormous amount, and it is incredibly difficult to read," said Martha Macri, director of the UC-Davis Native American Language Center and co-director of the effort to computerize Harrington's papers.

"He was totally obsessive. We've become a bit obsessive ourselves."

San Jose native Margaret Cayward is using his notes to study native music as part of her doctoral thesis at UC-Davis. "It's helping us rediscover old knowledge and values in the music," she said. "Music was a major part of life for Californians, with ritual or sacred significance."

In Fremont, descendants of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe used his notes to create Chochenyo flash cards, puzzles and bingo games for their children. In Macri's office, eight large file cabinets are filled with 182 reels of microfilmed images of Harrington's work, copied from his original papers that are stored at the Smithsonian Institution's warehouse in Silver Hill, Md. Each reel, costing $1,000, contains 500 to 2,000 pages of material. Seven years into the Harrington project, funded by the National Science Foundation, it is about two-thirds complete.

"They have changed my life," said Linda Yamane of Seaside, who based her book of Ohlone tales, called "The Snake That Lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains," on his notes. "Along with a lot of hard work and perseverance, they've made it possible to bring back my Rumsien (Monterey area) Ohlone language and other cultural traditions from the brink of extinction."

Hired in 1915 by the Smithsonian Institution, Harrington spent four decades wandering California with unbounded freedom to document languages before they disappeared. It was a time when Native Californians faced fierce discrimination. Few elders spoke the languages to children, so little information was passed on for future generations.

"They trusted him," said Bev Ortiz, an anthropologist at California State University-East Bay. "The tribal elders had the wisdom and courage to see that the time would come when it would not be bad to be an Indian - and the language would be there for their descendants."

Harrington traveled by car and on foot to find surviving speakers, collecting maps, photographs, and plant and animal specimens along the way. One camping trip, on horseback, took him through the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. Gifted in phonetics and lexicography, "he spent more of his waking hours, week in and week out, transcribing Indian languages than doing any other conscious thing," said Victor Golla of Humboldt State University. "No linguist, before or since, ever spent so much time engaged in the field collection of primary data." Yet Harrington published little of his work. Although he sent back reports to the Smithsonian, many of his notes seem to have been deliberately hidden from colleagues.

After his death in 1961, as Smithsonian curators began cataloging his papers, they discovered stockpiles of boxes stored in warehouses, garages and even chicken coops throughout the West. Six tons of material - among them Indian-made flutes, Kachina dolls, dead birds and tarantulas, baskets, rocks, empty soup cans, half-eaten sandwiches, dirty laundry and two shrunken heads from the Amazon - eventually arrived at the Smithsonian, filling two warehouses. His translations of native words are littered with puzzling abbreviations. And his notations do not represent a standardized phonology, just impressionistic phonetics. Also troubling is his practice of shifting, over the years, the symbols used when transcribing sounds into words. The bilingual Harrington wrote many translations in old California Spanish, with idiosyncratic spelling. And much of his material is disorganized, with notes about one language interspersed with those of another.

"There was a method in his madness. He was trying to get as much down as fast as could," Klar said. "But reading it takes endless patience."

Despite the frustrations, the Harrington project team says its efforts are slowly shedding light on a long-lost way of life - and educating a proud new generation of Native Californians about the ways of their ancestors.

"We're learning not only about the languages, but day-to-day life - the culture and customs, the politics. A language is a universe; it's family, society, religious practices. When you start pulling it out, you start to understand."

"These languages never died," she said. "They were just sleeping."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Culture, anthropology, and what it means to be human

OK, I realize it has been far too long since my last blog entry, but the constant demands of grad school sort of made this, along with many other things, lesser priority. The crazy semester is now over, thank goodness. Now the wait to see how I did on finals and term papers and what my ultimate grades are.

One of my planned winter break activities is to catch up on some non-course-related reading. One of these readings is by a KU professor, Robert Minor, titled, Scared Straight. The subtitle is: "Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People And Why It’s So Hard to Be Human." I’ve only just started it, but I’m already enthralled with his writing and teaching about why LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) people are so feared in our culture that there is an average of one gay man killed every two weeks in America just for being gay. Minor states: "I still see a nation obsessed with maintaining gender roles … I see men’s groups struggling to know why they exist and where to go next. I see therapists who are still trying to help people cope with a system that is profit-oriented and coping-oriented, not human-oriented or healing oriented" (Minor 2001: 4).

In his own words, Minor’s purpose for writing this book is to argue "that none of us, regardless of sexual orientation, will be able to live as human beings until we are able to fully accept transgendered and bisexual people and lesbians and gay men as invaluable gifts of our common humanity. The fact is, getting in touch with our humanity, no matter what our sexual orientation, is tied to doing the fear work we all need to do so that all of us can embrace gay people. And that means that, by doing their own fear work, gay people themselves will find a greater self-acceptance" (ibid.: 1, my italics).

On a personal level, I am working on that last italicized sentence. After doing my own self-exploration in therapy this past long summer, I came to accept what deep down I’m sure I’ve always known: I’m gay or at least somewhere on that end of the continuum between gaydom and bisexuality. And, as I explore (although not physically yet) and learn more about myself and accept who I am, I’m also exploring our predominant cultural views and prejudices against homosexuality and bisexuality. At least Minor’s book is helping to explain why there is so much fear about homosexuality. And, as a Religious Studies professor, Minor also explains that the Bible does not in itself claim homosexuality a sin, but rather that it has been reinterpreted by Christians to match our predominant cultural views of "normal" vs. "aberrant" behaviors just as it was once "reinterpreted" to allow the continuance of slavery and the gross mistreatment of indigenous peoples not only here in the US but worldwide.

Perhaps this is why I’ve become an anthropologist. (As an anthropologist, I’m in good company, by the way, since Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were both bisexual.) Perhaps this is why I became interested in other cultures and peoples at an early age—not just out of mere interest but because somehow I knew there was something about myself I would eventually have to face and explore from "outside looking in" in order to gain some measure of self-acceptance, to realize that what our culture proclaims is "normal" is by no means universal and unchanging.

As an anthropologist, I see different cultures on their own terms of what is acceptable vs. not acceptable. Minor states that we "live on the basis of the definitions and ideas about reality our culture gives us. And we do so without much reflection about them" (ibid. 27). He uses the apt metaphor that we’re like fish in water: the water surrounds us without calling attention to itself, and most of us never live in an alternative to the "wetness against our scales."

Drawing of heart-taking ritual from Aztec codex, ca. 1500 A.D.

Anthropologists are often asked: How could such amazingly advanced and sophisticated civilizations as those of the Mayas and Aztecs have committed such "atrocious" acts like blood-letting from tongues and genitals, the ripping out of still-beating human hearts, ritual decapitation, and human sacrifice? The answer is easy. They grew up in their own cultures, their own water against their scales, their own beliefs of right vs. wrong, their own need to ritually appease their own gods (1), living with the taboos and fears of their own culture that happened to be different from ours. (By the way, lest one think that 500-1,000 years later we are so much more advanced and less brutal, think about it: we still kill and maim in war [look at Iraq] and in the streets of our cities, and many in our own culture [including sports heroes] take pleasure in organizing and watching boxing, street-fighting, dog-fighting and other such forms of "ritual blood-letting".)

Yet, living in our own prescribed culture of right vs. wrong passed down to us through our families and constantly reinforced through symbolism, the media, and religion among many other things, we resent anything that threatens to shake those foundations of our reality, such as love and marriage being only between man and woman. Hence the fear, the often violent reactions toward those of us who break that mold of reality that provides us with that deep sense of who we think we are—that hodgepodge of beliefs, rituals, morals, and behaviors we call our "culture."

As an anthropologist, I explore not only the contemporary and historic "realities" of other peoples and cultures, but also my own deep-rooted sense of "reality," its origins and foundations. And exploring and breaking through the boundaries of one’s own culture, one’s own deep-seated prescribed sense of reality, is scary. It’s part of that "fear work" Minor discusses that each of us must do if we truly want to be human. Truly living and being human, I’m coming to realize, means separating myself to some degree from what my culture "expects" of me as a man, a human being, and that takes courage and guts.

(1) Olmecs, Mayas, and Aztecs believed human sacrifice was necessary--the shedding and offering of blood in death was believed equated with the shedding of blood in childbirth and was considered a means of rebirth, to continue the life-giving and life-sustaining forces of sun and rain, necessary for agriculture and food production. It is believed many in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations considered giving their lives in this way as a god-given honor.


Minor, Robert. 2001. Scared Straight. St. Louis: HumanityWorks!