Trunk Show

In California, by the last third of the nineteenth century, Native civilizations had essentially collapsed after the prolonged physical and cultural assault of European religion, disease and colonization. The coup de grace was administered by the inundation of the State by gold seekers around 1850.

But by 1870, Californian Indian culture was ripe for one last revival. A catalyst arrived in the form of the prophecies of a Nevada Paiute named Jack Wilson or Wakova, and the revival achieved its frenzied apotheosis in the Ghost Dance - the practice of which promised not only the return of the dead, but the end of the world and the elimination of all white people.

Despite the widespread embrace of the cult, particularly in northern California, where tribes were less Christianized, none of these goals was achieved: instead, the confused, hybridized values inherent in the Ghost Dance distanced native peoples from their ancestral cultures and in many cases forever removed them from their traditional tribal practices. The belated realization of a common cause amongst discrete tribelets and the development of a pan-Indian identity merely hastened the destruction of their unique cultures.

The practice of the Ghost Dance became a red-flag in the face of Anglo-Americans confident of their hegemony and they redoubled their attempts to extinguish the cultural, economic and, in many cases, the physical lives of Native peoples. The Ghost Dance was revived in Nevada in 1890, but while this recrudescence flourished across the Great Plains to the north and east, Native California cultures had by then disintegrated beyond the point of resurrection. The movement was finally destroyed at the Wounded Knee massacre perpetrated by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry later that same year.

Other Indian cults arose in this brief twenty year interregnum, 1870-1890, and most were marked by an apocalyptic, end-times ethos that promised the elimination of white people. The Earth Lodge Cult stressed the end of the world, while the Bole –Maru abandoned the doctrine of imminent world-catastrophe and stressed the concepts of an after-life and a supreme being (The 1870 Ghost Dance, Cora Du Bois, Univ. Calif., 1951).

In light of this fin de siècle Indian renunciation of the core animism of shaman-centered spiritual traditions, it is no surprise, perhaps, that those who now identify as Native American swell the ranks of the evangelical Christian movement and, as adherents of casino capitalism (often quite literally), reliably vote Republican.

These cults represented both a reaction to what was perceived as a failed animistic magic and the adoption of a last ditch faith in authoritarian prophets or dreamers who promised an end to the long decline of their societies. In the early decades of the twentieth century, as Harry Lawton notes in his introduction to Carobeth Laird’s memoir of her life with John Peabody Harrington (Encounter with an Angry God, 1975), a generation of newly minted, University trained anthropologists (many the students of Franz Boas) were infected with a similar sense of time running out. He writes,

"They fanned out across the North American continent to record everything which could be learned about the dying cultures of the American Indian…they sought out those old people who remembered how life had been before the coming of the white man”.

Foremost amongst these researchers creating a new body of knowledge was the linguist-ethnographer John Peabody Harrington. In 1915, then 31, he met the nineteen year old Laird. She recounts their life together – he collecting information from his ‘informants’, she driving their model T to remote Southern Californian and Arizonan locations and living in isolated and primitive conditions, which he ignored and she came to despise. Harrington obsessively gathered information on moribund languages and half-forgotten ethnobotanical information from aged Indians and these gleanings apparently sustained him in mind, body and spirit. His habitual diet was a mix of boiled grains which he called ‘mush’. He disdained society and only reluctantly visited Washington, D.C. where his employer, the Bureau of American Ethnology occasionally required his presence. For him, field work was everything and he often worked eighteen hour days.

He drove his young wife has hard as he did himself and after six years together she left him for one of his informants, a Chemehuevi of mixed ethnic background who retained connections to his Native culture through his mother. Together this couple scratched a living on twenty acres in eastern San Diego County where she eventually succumbed to Christian Science and he to old age, dying in 1940. Some thirty years later, having revived her truncated career as an anthropologist, she wrote the memoir which had Tom Wolfe acclaim her as ‘an exciting new literary talent bursting forth at the age of 80’. Harrington recovered from Carobeth’s departure, acquired a new assistant and continued his fanatical collection of data until his death in Santa Barbara, from Parkinson’s in 1961.

While Urban Wildland has focused primarily on the spatial contexts of perceived Native spirituality under the category of Etheric Landscape, the relationships among people, place, and power are largely effected through language and it is the mechanics of this process that fascinated Harrington - it was his sometime mentor Franz Boas, who as a pioneer investigator of Native American languages, had established the importance of linguistic analysis and pointed out that language was a fundamental aspect of culture. How ideas are transmitted through the structural shape of language became, in the twentieth century, a decisive tool of social analysis. Harrington worked at the atomic level of this epochal intellectual project.

California supported several diverse culture areas and at least 100 distinct languages. The devastation was so rapid that the synthesis of Native and Spanish structure characteristic of Latin American Indian languages did not take place. As Catherine Callaghan notes in J. P. Harrington - California's Great Linguist, Journal of Californian Archeology, 1975, ‘there was a whole generation of older Indians in the early part of the twentieth century who remembered their language when it was largely in its pre-contact form’.

No piece even tangentially about Harrington would be complete without mention of his notorious habit of stashing material away in boxes, trunks and warehouses that was subsequently lost and then, as the stories usually go, miraculously recovered. Here is one local snippet of loss and re-discovery: in 1981, a trunk was uncovered in the garage of a house in Simi belonging to a Harrington relative. It had been stored there for the previous 40 years, and is believed to be the steamer trunk that young John took with him to Germany in 1905 where he pursued graduate studies at the University of Leipzig, then considered to be one of the finest schools in the world. When opened it was found to contain a mass of papers filling the trunk to a depth of a foot consisting of both ethnographic data and personal mementos, dating from as early as 1894 to the late 1930's (Benson and Edberg, The Road to Goleta, Journal of Great Basin Anthropology, 1982). 

Of particular local interest were the approximately six thousand slip notes (J.P.H.’s version of a note cards) in Ventureño Chumash. Harrington gleaned information from at least two informants, Simplicio Pico and Maria Antonia Tumamait (an ancestor, presumably of Ojai’s Julie Tumamait) concerning vocabulary and grammar, data on place names, ethnobotany, historical events, shrines, sweat houses, and myths - which has since become the source of work by Travis Hudson and the ethnobotanist Jan Timbrook, among others.

Harrington spent a great deal of time working with Ventureño informants in the El Rio area (now Oxnard) and he was sanguine about their chances of survival, on one of the slip notes he scribbled, " Mestizos siempre hay. No se acaban." But while confident that these people would endure, he was under no illusions about the purity of their Chumash ancestry – hence his use of the word mestizo.

Whatever we now know of the Chumash culture is largely a result of Harrington’s monomaniacal data collection. At some very fundamental level he understood that this was his role in the world. He eschewed personal gain and academic reputation (he published only a few short papers) and, most of all, a settled domestic life in the attempt to record fast vanishing Native cultures and languages: his secrecy, paranoia and the intensity of his work ethic were all symptoms of his ‘rage against the dying of the light’, the clouding of the crystalline visions of an animistic world that once had informed a myriad cultures in California.