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John Peabody Harrington

    Angry god, perfectionist, paranoid worrier, culture hero, obsessed genius, thorn-in-the-side, doggerel poet, ruthless slave driver, inattentive father, valued friend, skinflint, ascetic, academic outcast, great phonetician, indefatiguable fieldworker, outrageous, laughable and endearing eccentric -- these are all ways people view J. P. Harrington, one of the most important linguists in California History.  

    Harrington was a Californian from birth, educated at Stanford University (B.A. 1905) and the Universities of California, Leipzig and Berlin, and later in life given an honorary degree from USC.  An undergraduate summer session at UC Berkeley taught by A.L. Kroeber and Pliny E. Goddard launched him into a life of total and passionate devotion to the cause of saving dying languages by recording the last speakers.  For most of his career, he worked for the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology and did fieldwork with their support until he retired in 1954.  Even then he continued working on Chumash until just a few months before his death.  He worked on languages all over the hemisphere, but his most extensive work was on the languages and cultures of California.

    During his lifetime, he collected close to a million pages of notes on more than 90 different languages, as well as numerous recordings and artifacts.  Everyone agrees that he was a great phonetician, able to hear and write down the sounds he heard with great accuracy; and everyone agrees that the high quality and sheer volume of his fieldnotes are a tremendous gift to posterity.  For many languages now no longer spoken by a living being, these fieldnotes are the only record of their nature.

    Harrington also drafted other people to his cause.  One person who worked for him for some years was his teenage neighbor, Jack Marr.  Marr, now retired as the general manager of an international engineering firm, says that Harrington was a "family project", for his mother and brother also assisted Harrington many times and in many ways.  

    Young Jack sometimes accompanied Harrington, but more often was sent alone, to 48 different tribes in California, New Mexico, Arizona,  Washington, and Alaska.  At Harrington's command, Jack got into his old car and went off for months at a time, using hand-drawn maps to search out people in the remotest areas, carrying a 150 pound "portable" aluminum disc recording machine over mountains and across rope bridges -- to him it was an adventure, one that allowed him to meet people and have experiences and learn things he never would have even thought about otherwise.  But he does admit that he probably enjoys thinking and talking about it now more than he enjoyed it at the time, given how often he had to go without enough food or warmth.  When he and Harrington's nephew Arthur were in college, Harrington would show up from time to time and talk them into heading off on another fieldtrip.  

    "We were both going to college at the time, and Harrington would stop by and grab us and send us off, and I don't know how he did this!  He really was a con artist at this.  He'd grab us out of college, we'd be off for two weeks somewhere in some remote place, and then we'd have to work like the devil to recover our grades when we got back to school!  It's a wonder we even got educated, except by Harrington's method."  (Jack Marr at the California Indian Conference, UC Berkeley, October 1992).  

    But Jack added later that he thanks God that Harrington used him that way, because of the great good that was accomplished by it.  He also says that Harrington gave him an excellent education in vocabulary and writing, and that much of Jack's success in his own career must be attributed to this.

    Jack recorded many texts on Harrington's giant recording machine, often reading a text in English and having the native speaker say it back in the native language.  To date, only about a third of the 950 discs at the Smithsonian had been transferred from the old aluminum discs.  Victor Golla and Geoff Gamble are now searching for grant support for transferring the rest of the discs.

    It is through Harrington's letters to young Jack that we can best see the depth of his passion for his work:

    ..."You've been a good friend if I ever had one, you just rushed at the work.  You know how I look at this work, you and I are nothing, we'll both of us soon be dust.  If you can grab these dying languages before the old timers completely die off, you will be doing one of the FEW things valuable to the people of the REMOTE future.  You know that.  The time will come and SOON when there won't be an Indian language left in California, all the languages developed for thousands of years will be ASHES, the house is AFIRE, it is BURNING. That's why I said to go through the blinding rain, roads or no roads, that's why I thanked God when you tried to cross the Matole River, haven't I gone back even two weeks later to find them DEAD and the language FOREVER DEAD?"...  (Jan. 22, 1941)

And another:

    "[There is an old saying]: He robbed the cradle.  Do you know what occurs to me, Jack.  What you are doing with old Kokel [Coquille Thompson, of Siletz Reservation, who was over 90 at the time, and a speaker of Coquille Athabascan] is something for the ages; you are robbing the cemetery."  (undated, 1941)

    At times, Harrington's letters seem almost cruel and unfeeling for individuals, so focussed is his devotion to the higher cause of saving the languages.  George Clipp, the last fluent speaker of Lower Chinook, whom Jack was sent to work with, had a stroke not long before he arrived, rendering him unable to speak.  Jack wrote about this to Harrington, who wrote back:

"Dear Jack,
    I have just gotten over crying, that is, partly over; this is the worst thing that ever happened to me.  I would much rather have lost five thousand dollars or have been sent up for ten years....Is there NO hope.  Who is the doctor that attends him?  Tell the doctor your whole story and ask him if ANYTHING can be done.  Frachtenberg found an old lady who was sick abed and got in with her doctor and that doctor gave the old lady some asperine [sic] or hypodermics in some way that PEPPED HER UP so she felt like a spring chicken again and talked and talked for days.  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.  Some powerful pep might come as a Godsend and make him so he could talk...."

    Mr. Clipp did recover enough to go home, and Harrington wrote Jack to do anything in his power to force him to dictate:

    "Now you do just as I say....with the machine set up, let Emma [Mr. Clipp's niece] do all the talking, and tell her in advance never to argue with John Clipp, you get five dollars greenbacks ready and actually thrust them into his hands, let him keep them even if he still refuses, then Emma will just tell him to take pity on you having come so far for nothing and that MONEY TALKS,...just to take the five bucks as a PRESENT, and to come across even with just a few words and then rest up and then with a few more.  JUST KEEP AT THE PURE CHINOOK WITH HIM TILL HE KEEPS DICTATING MORE AND MORE, ANY OLD THING, for he will die and what you don't get now he will die with.  It is a damn lie that a lot of people have been there to try to get him to work, nobody has been there except Ray twice and... Jacobs once, and they wanted to write down on paper, which would be hard on Clip.  Have Emma tell him that what you want is something ENTIRELY different, just for him to talk into the mike, 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.  DON'T TAKE NO.  Hound the life out of him, go back again and again and again.....He'll come across, and you'll have the rarest thing on earth.  And stay with it, if he turns Emma down twenty-five times, still stay with it, prove that you have the qualities of a GO-GETTER, of a lawyer that will not be defeated, but who CONQUERS over the most nasty obstacles that ever stood in the path of man.  Don't take no,...just talk your head off and stick with it.  Don't take no, don't think of taking no, he has admitted he knows it and he's going to come across, just size up the whole situation and if you can't negotiate it any other way, just you and Emma pester the life out of him till he finds it easier to dictate than to not dictate and he'll do it just as the easiest way out.....Now here's to you, Jack, show that you can handle the very devil of a tough proposition with VICTORY.  (1941.)

    Jane Walsh describes another such bizarre situation:

    "In a letter to Matthew Stirling, Harrington described a scene in which his aging Luiseño informant, Bernardo Cuevas, died in his arms, while Harrington copied down his last word.  At that point in the letter he launched into a long and involved dissertation on the etymology of his informant's final utterance.  He concluded by writing, 'When he got too sick to work, I started right in with old Luisa, and have been rushing one informant after another with fine results, building up a lot of good information.  Luck is with me."  (Walsh, 1976.)

    Harrington could not be bothered with many of what he considered the small things in life -- clothes, housing, even food were considered unimportant trifles.  He was very much against smoking and drinking, and walked as much as possible, rather than driving.  He would work 16-18 hours a day when circumstances allowed it.  While he was penurious and fearful of not having enough money to do his work, he nevertheless had money in bank accounts all over the country.  Jack remembers that every time they went to a major city, Harrington would visit a bank where he had an account to get some cash.  Apparently, he just ignored the existence of these accounts when he stopped travelling.  After his death, a number of them were found, some with several thousand dollars in them.

    His fanaticism was portrayed in the biographical book Encounter with an Angry God,  by Carobeth Laird, who was once married to him, and who bore his daughter Awona.  Even his family was mainly seen by Harrington as field assistants.  Right after his daughter's birth, he wrote to a colleague telling him of her arrival, and then added

"Then I want to make the Esselen trip, in the auto, my wife going along.  She knows how to drive and works hard and no roughing it is too hard for her." (Walsh, 1976.)

    This willingness to commit the lives of all around him to his cause was a poor recipe for a successful marriage.  At age 60, he began to toy with the idea of marrying again in order to have a son who could carry on his mission.  "He wanted a blonde, preferably German, very tall, as much as 6 feet, an intelligent woman who knew how to type.  I believe that the final qualification was the most important." (Walsh, 1976).  Needless to say, Harrington never did remarry.

     The people he worked with and those who worked for him sometimes railed at his fanaticism and laughed at his eccentricities, and yet they saw that his goals were in large part selfless, and they accepted the tasks he put them to.  He was better liked and better respected by the Indians he worked with than by academics.  Academics noted that he was too obsessed with recording languages to ever publish much or make contributions to linguistic theory.  As A. L. Kroeber put it in a letter to Edward Sapir:

    "Harrington is too wholly under the sway of an obsession ever to do more than collect...." (1921 letter; Golla 1984, p. 362).

    Even his greatest talent, that of writing accurate phonetic detail, was considered to be too extreme by Kroeber, as he revealed in this letter where he was talking about a project of Sapir's to develop a standardized phonetic alphabet:

    "I should not be surprised for instance if you would have a good deal of trouble from Harrington.  He is as keen and well informed on the subject as anyone in the country, but perhaps because he is a young man has shown a riotous inclination to indulge in the expressions of fine shades of sounds in the symbols used for them." 1913 letter; Golla 1984, p. 76).

    Still, despite the criticism, one also reads between the lines of his letters the respect Kroeber had for Harrington's genius.  Harrington once said to Jack Marr that he spoke 9 different international languages, and 18 different Native American languages, all fluently.  Ernestine McGovran, whose mother Mary Yee was the last Chumash speaker and probably Harrington's closest friend in his later years, confirms part of this claim:

    "...I have to go along with Jack Marr about Harrington being able to speak 18 Indian languages; I can tell you right now he spoke Barbareño Chumash as fluently as my great grandmother, and great great grandmother, and wrote it fluently.  And they [Harrington and Mary Yee] corresponded in Chumash. "(Ernestine McGovran at the California Indian Conference, 1992.)

A footnote on languages from Jack Marr:

"I have to tell you that there was one language, though -- when Harrington was out in the back yard, and we had a duplex; he lived on one side and we lived on the other -- my brothers and I used to torment him by getting out there and talking in Pig Latin, which was one language he did NOT understand!  And I can see him now, cocking his head and looking at us with an inquisitive look.  And we even talked about him.  Hopefully he never knew what we were saying!"

    Harrington was full of fear, worry and jealousy.  Despite his deep concern about getting the languages recorded, he wanted no-one else to work with the speakers.  He was continually running away from summonses by the Smithsonian to come back and write up his work.  He swore Jack Marr and his brother and mother to total secrecy about where they went and who they talked to.  Instructions from his letters make his passion for secrecy clear:

"Then drive to Mrs. Codman's.  TELL HER NOTHING.  HAVE NO CONVERSATION WITH HER WHATEVER [double underline].  Then drive south... " (Letter to Jack Marr, 1941.)

"Be very careful about publicity.  You know they can call by long distance telephone from these remote places to the newspaper office and the clipping bureau in San Francisco gets the clippings in time.  Tell them that you are from Los Angeles." (Letter to Jack Marr, 1941.)

"If any telegrams come to me from Monterey region, please accept them in my name just as if I were at Santa Ana, open them, and then forward what they say as a new telegram to me, sent by you to me, send the wording by a new telegram addressed to John P. Harrington, Smithsonian Inst., Washington D. C., COLLECT.  Do this so the people will think I am at Santa Ana, which is my official address.  Please tell Paul Garcia not to give my address to anybody.  (letter to Mrs. Seeley, from JPH in Washington, D.C.)

    Harrington did everything in his power to keep other linguists from working on California languages.  He once offered Bill Bright $50 to not work on Karok!  (Bill refused the money.)

Ernestine McGovran discusses his jealousy:

"...Yes he did guard everything, and yes he was jealous, and I can see it now, because I'm becoming like that.  That was his baby, the Barbareño.  Yes he fought with other linguists and other interns when they came around [my mother].  Deby Beeler, who is my good friend, her husband [Madison Beeler] worked with my mother, and they worked with my mother kind of like suitors, because my mother would ship one out the back door [when the other came in the front]."

    But Ernestine, too, goes on to talk about how important Harrington was to her family.  Mary Yee worked with Harrington frequently during the childhood of her daughter.  Ernestine thought he was boring, and Mary Yee told her that when she was a child and Harrington worked with her mother, Mary thought he was boring too!  Ernestine gives this personalized account of the relationship between Harrington and her family:
"Harrington worked with my great grandmother  [and grandmother and mother], so I'm fourth generation.  I didn't get to work with him, but I did get to get in his way.  His relationship with my family was as intimate as he was able to get.  He had a close relationship with my family, and my mother nursed him right up until the end, until he couldn't get out of bed any more.  So -- someone made the statement that she got paid when she was working with him.  But he got more than his money back, believe me, in nursing care and love.  I don't work with his notes, but I can look at them and they are very familiar to me, but I prefer to work with my mother's, because it's more of a personal entity, and everything about him is in there anyhow, because as he was writing, she was writing.  All their little anecdotes and arguments and her doodling -- she was an artist too, in her way -- so I have the whole ball of wax right there in my hands.

"He would bring things, he would send gifts, he would give my mother gifts towards the end.  And so it was kind of nice to see him.  I always knew I might get a couple of dollars or something to get lost.  And it worked!  I was able to go out and hang out at the malt shop just to stay out of their way."  

"My mother would always call him a cuckoo and draw a caricature of him [in her journal], because they would fight over various words, and they sometimes didn't agree.  But they respected one another."

    While Harrington sent many a box of notes back to the Smithsonian while he did fieldwork, there were many more boxes that he would store in the attics of friends or relatives and forget about.  After his death in 1961, boxes of "Harringtoniana" began arriving at the Smithsonian in droves.  There is still material coming in.  A set of about 175 baskets collected by Harrington was recently reported at San Diego State University by Margaret Langdon.  When Harrington's old home in Santa Ana was sold, Harrington materials found there were given to a professor at Pepperdine University, who kept them for ten years, and then gave them to Frank Latta in Santa Cruz, who later gave them to the the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara.  More materials arrived in Santa Barbara in 1983, willed by Awona Harrington. Just a few years ago, Catherine Callaghan found and had shipped to the Smithsonian [sic] a long-missing important set of Harrington notes on Chochenyo in the Survey office at U.C. Berkeley.  

    Catherine Callaghan was the first person to try to organize the Harrington notes at the Smithsonian.  When she arrived in 1962 for a few month's worth of work on his materials, she quickly realized that organization would take lifetimes rather than months.  The materials filled portions of 3 warehouses, and more kept arriving -- from California, from Albuquerque -- as she worked.  The boxes contained notes, but also a rich store of photos, baskets, pressed plants, and even a dessicated half-eaten sandwich or two.  Callaghan writes:

    "I found a blasting cap in the first warehouse.  When I discovered a bag of unidentified white powder in the second warehouse, I took it carefully downstairs for official identification.  I do not remember what it turned out to be.  But employees told me that Harrington had once rented an additional compartment in which he stored prune juice, which fermented and blew up one day, fortunately before I arrived.  The low point was the discovery of a box of birds that had been stored 30 years without benefit of taxidermy.  The name of each bird in some Indian language plus species identification was affixed to the claws.  I realized what a life of compulsive research could do to a person, and I resolved to mend my own ways." (Callaghan, ms.)

 Her months there stretched to five, and all she could hope to do in that time was to label the general contents of a portion of the boxes.  

    In 1976, the Smithsonian Institution received a grant from National Historic Papers and Records Commission for work on the Harrington notes.  Smithsonian archivist Elaine Mills was installed as the project editor.  She has worked on the Harrington materials for many years, and her quite heroic endeavors have led to making most of the linguistic materials now available to the general public through microfilms.  They are not cheap -- somewhere around $24,500 will buy the complete set; but luckily they can be bought in smaller chunks.  U. C. Riverside has a complete set.  And a number archives and libraries around the state have portions of the microfilms.  There are dozens of scholars now working on the notes, writing dissertations and papers about the languages portrayed in them, including even Old California Spanish, which Harrington also transcribed.  There is now a network of Harrington scholars, united through a newsletter.  There was a Harrington conference in Santa Barbara organized by Victor Golla in June 1992, and a second is planned at the Smithsonian Institute on November 16 and 17, 1993.  There are many lifetimes of work ahead for people studying the materials collected by this driven and inspired man.

 While scholarship has benefited greatly from the organization and microfilming of Harrington's notes, there is a deeper and more personal value that the notes have to Native Californians.  Linda Yamane (Ohlone) reminds us that the people Harrington worked with are the beloved ancestors of living Native Californians:

There's a real personal, more of a heart connection, for some people whose families these people are.

    At the 1992 California Indian Conference, Linda Yamane discussed her feelings about her discovery of microfilms of Harrington's Rumsen notes:

    That was the beginning of the answer to a lot of dreams.The beginning of a lot of frustration, the beginning of so much excitement, at the same time all mixed up with the overwhelming feeling that I would never be able to get through all of this and that there was a lifetime of work ahead of me, but all kinds of incredibly exciting things that I just thought were lost, and that I never would get to know this much about our language, which is what started me off on it to begin with.

    But what I didn't know was that I was going to find all this other rich stuff -- like little tiny, maybe just a few words, one sentence, and it seems so simple, but such a big, important traditional piece of information for me.  For example, accidently running across this little story, and in fact it was my friend's great grandmother who someone was referring to, the tradition of putting ashes on the face when someone died.  Well, that's one thing, to know about putting the ashes, but what we found (and this was great that my friend and I were sitting together when we read this) was that his great grandmother burned acorn, and it was the ashes of the acorn that she put on her face, at the death of her son.  And so things like that, that can sound very simple and you wouldn't write a book about that one thing, but you can imagine knowing that little detail means so much to me.  It's not just some old ashes out of a fire pit, but someone deliberately burned acorn and used the ashes of that very important food.

    There are stories, or so-called myths, there -- but so as not to mislead those who haven't worked with it before, it's not like you just go to the story category and then copy down the stories in a row.  You look through frame after frame after frame, and you get headaches, and you feel like your eyes are burning in their sockets, and your back hurts, and you spend 25¢ a sheet to photocopy one page of something that's real important to you, and you spend maybe a year or so to learn how to read Harrington's handwriting, and you look through everything and find all the pieces, and eventually you hope that you can put it all together right.  But there is just so much there.....  It's  not just words on a piece of paper, but it's saving something from the past that connects with people now.

Harrington's work does not only inspire linguistically.  L. Frank Manriquez, Tongva-Ahachmem artist, has been influenced artistically by Harrington's notes and publications:

    Coming from a background as I did, where if you graduated from highschool you were doing real well, drifting into Harrington's work is a real stunning thing.  I first picked up a book called  Encounter with an Angry God.   The illustration on the cover, well, I'm an artist, it caught my eye, and I thought, well this looks fascinating, and I opened it up, and it was about this man and this woman and their lives and, you know, tying her to the front of the car, and all these different stories.   But at that point when I read that book, I didn't know I was California native.  I knew I was native, because I'm the family throwback, so it's been pretty obvious my whole life.  But I found out that I could be connected to this anthropologist, through my people, and that leads me to the Morongo Reservation -- Malki put out this book, Chinigchinich, (revised and profusely annotated by Harrington) and this is kind of my bible.  I use this to start off on just about any topic, mainly it's our language, but what I get from it-- it's a connection back to my people.  You know, you get so immersed -- he writes about the cosmology, and the plants, and the village sites, and it's all in these bits and pieces, and it leads me to museums, and microfilms; just little bits and pieces, and then I meet this person over here, and they have this little piece, and then another person there, and they have a little piece.  And then I try to put all these pieces together to see what rings true with what actually I dream and I feel.  I do, as I said before, artwork.  In Chinigchinich I read about these steatite bowls, and Harrington goes on a little bit more about the steatite, and it was mined by our people off of the soapstone shelves off of Catalina Island down south.  And so, that led me to museums and books of photographs, and museum basements so that I could see actual soapstone cooking bowls.  So two years ago I made the first soapstone cooking bowl in 200 years.  And it was actually this book, and different anthropologists in different fields, that led me to making that bowl.  And that bowl is one of the few arts that ever talked to me, where I felt something with it or it transcended time.  In this book he talks about basket materials, about basket shapes, basket designs.  That led me down another road to ... weaving with the native materials, so that leads me to go out to gather, which leads me to ethnobotanists who tell me which twig, which tree, what time of year to choose.  These are two examples of art which come basically from Harrington....

    I work with Harrington's papers because I'm compelled to.  He was just so esoteric, he's so hard to work with, but somehow it's kind of fitting to people who made stone bowls instead of clay pots, and made a canoe with planks sewn together instead of digging one out, a complex man for kind of a complex people.  And I feel with Harrington it's kind of like what the basket people talk about, that baskets are all around us, we just have to go gather them together.  And it takes a long time to do this; it takes a long time to make a basket.  And so that's kind of how I feel with Harrington's work, I have to go out gathering all the materials to come together, and it will be a pretty good picture at the end."

    One cannot help but be fascinated by Harrington as a person; he was quite possibly the most eccentric man that most people ever knew.  But more importantly, he had a sure vision of something that transcended his individual life and his quirks, and he devoted his life to that vision.  His gift to posterity was far greater than we can measure.  To end in Ernestine McGovran's words:

"If it were it not for him, all of you would not have your publications, and your stories, and your dictionaries or lexicons, and your theses, and whatever else you've done out there, were it not for this crazy man.  Crazy like a fox."

                        --Leanne Hinton


Callaghan, Catherine, ms.   Encounter with J.P.Harrington.  to appear in Anthropological Linguistics.

Golla, Victor, 1984.  The Sapir-Kroeber Correspondence.  Survey of California and Other Indian Languages (Dept. of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley).

Harrington, J. P.  Chinigchinich.  A revised and annotated version of Alfred Robinson's translation of Father Geronimo Boscana's historical account of the belief, usages, customs and extravagencies of the Indians of this mission of San Juan Capistrano, called the Acagchemem tribe.  Santa Ana, CA: Fine Arts Press, 1933.  (Reprinted by the Malki Museum Press, 1978.)

Laird, Carobeth, 1975. Encounter with an angry god.  Malki Museum Press.

Marr, Jack, ms.  Letters from J. P. Harrington.

Walsh, Jane MacLaren, 1976.  John Peabody Harrington: the man and his California Indian fieldnotes.  Ballena Press -- Malki Museum Press.

This sample of Harrington's Salinan notes illustrates some of the characteristics of his style:  large writing, meaning that many pages have only one or two words; the use of multiple languages, often appearing to be verbatim quotes from multilingual speakers, detailed transcription and commentary on the phonetics of words, and lots of extra tantalizing bits of cultural, biographical and historical information.

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