20 November 2005

Smithsonian Scholars at Work, 1918

I can remember sitting in Harrington's office typing, but I cannot remember what I typed. Surely we must have made a pretense of at least putting the Chumash material in order, since most of his vouchers had been made out for paying Chumash informants. At home we worked exclusively and almost frantically on the Tanoan material. Harrington bought a roll of butcher's paper, which he meticulously divided into sheets that would lie nicely on our combination kitchen and dining table. On the sheets he diagrammed all the ramifications of the Taos pronoun: the various pronominal postfixes in combination with free standing forms, also with verbs and nouns. I never quite saw the sense of these oversized diagrams, for they contained nothing that could not be shown on sheets of ordinary writing paper. But Harrington enjoyed making them--it was about the nearest he ever came to having fun. Ultimately, he had a stack approximately six inches high. Before I left Washington I pulled the stuff together and wrote a paper on "The Taos Pronoun." With amazing generosity, Harrington presented it for publication under my own name, and Dr. J. Walter Fewkes, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, accepted it. I believe I was even paid something. The number "twenty-five" comes to mind, but whether I received twenty-five dollars or produced twenty-five pages of stilted and incomparable dullness, I couldn't say. There must still be copies filed away in musty archives....

Harrington had another Indian colleague in the Bureau, a Huron (if I remember correctly), a sluggish type who had not gone into the field for years and had no desire to do so. He published, however. I seem to remember the texts of myths with dull translations which shifted into Latin whenever they promised to become interesting. His name is a blank to me.

Still another colleague whose name I do not recall was a short, red-faced, balding man who held the theory that life in America tended over the course of several generations to make the descendants of all immigrants dolicocephalic, no matter how round-headed their ancestors had been. As I was learning, this man and many others who devoted themselves to the pursuit of science tended to evolve fantasies into theories and then to find or twist facts to support them. The first question put to me by this anthropologist was how long had my people been in America? When I replied, "Five generations," nothing would do but that he must get his calipers and measure my head immediately. To his disappointment, I was brachycephalic. In fact, he found me excessively, inordinately brachycephalic, more round-headed than any one of my ancestry had any right to be. I remembered that my father's head looked rather long, my mother's decidedly round, and I refrained from telling him that I had been a stubborn baby who refused to sleep in any position except on my back....

On a bitterly cold night we went to visit a group of Kiowas who were in Washington on official business for their tribe. Harrington said it was our opportunity to contact authentic Plains Indians. He was so enthusiastic that I shared his excitement. The Kiowas were housed in a hotel that had seen better days. It was now a combination of fleabag and firetrap, catering to Indians with little money to spend. We walked along the narrow, smelly, dimly lit hallway with its threadbare red carpeting, and knocked upon a certain door. Although our visit had been prearranged, the response was so slow in coming that it seemed as though we were not to be admitted. At last the door was opened. We entered a hot, musty room where three or four Indians sat draped in blankets. Harrington took out his basic questionnaire and proceeded to ask for certain words in the Kiowa language. Responses to these questions and to all attempts at conversation were so deliberate as to make it appear that the speakers lived in another time-world where a day was as a thousand years, or at the very least two seconds were as five minutes. Even the words were spaced out, with gaps between words and also between syllables. The answers, if one had the patience to listen for them, were coherent and intelligent, but always interminably drawn out. An hour of interviewing produced almost nothing. After we left, Harrington said the Indians had been under the influence of some drug, probably, he thought, peyote.
SOURCE: Encounter with an Angry God, by Carobeth Laird (U. New Mexico Press, 1993), pp. 80-86

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