Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Back from the dead

AP, DAVIS, CALIFORNIA , By Juliana Barbassa

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

The first time Jose Freeman heard his tribe's lost language through the crackle of a 70-year-old recording, he cried.

"My ancestors were speaking to me," Freeman said of the sounds captured when American Indians still inhabited California's Salinas Valley. "It was like coming home."

The last native speaker of Salinan died almost 50 years ago, but today many indigenous people are finding their extinct or endangered tongues, one word or song at a time, thanks to a linguist who died in 1961 and academics at the University of California, Davis, who are working to transcribe his life's obsession.

Linguist John Peabody Harrington spent four decades gathering more than 1 million pages of phonetic notations on languages spoken by tribes from Alaska to South America. When the technology became available, he supplemented his written records with audio recordings -- first using wax cylinders, then aluminum discs. In many cases his notes provide the only record of long-gone languages.

Martha Macri, who teaches California Indian Studies at UC Davis and is one of the principal researchers on the J.P. Harrington Database Project, is working with American Indian volunteers to transcribe Harrington's notations. Researchers hope the words will bridge the decades of silence separating the people Harrington interviewed from their descendants.

Freeman hopes his four-month-old great-granddaughter will grow up with the sense of heritage that comes with speaking her ancestors' language.

"When we lose our language, we're getting cut off from our roots," he said. "The world view that our ancestors carried is quite different from the Euro-American world view. And their language can carry that world view back to us."

Although it will be years before all the material can be made available, some American Indians connected to the Harrington Project have already begun putting it to use. Members of Freeman's tribe gather on their ancestral land every month to practice what they have learned -- a few words, some grammar, old songs.

"The ultimate outcome is to get it back to the communities it came from," Macri said.

By all accounts, Harrington was a devoted, if somewhat eccentric, scholar. Sometimes he spent 20 or 30 minutes on one word, saying it over and over until the person he was interviewing agreed he had gotten the pronunciation correct, said Jack Marr, who met Harrington as a 12-year-old and worked as his assistant into his 20s.

"They trusted him," Marr said of the Indians they worked with.

"A lot of people, if they tried to walk in and say `I want to record you,' they'd get thrown out. But not Harrington. I think people recognized that we were doing this for posterity."

Harrington's sense of urgency animates the letters he sent to Marr nearly every day.

"Rain or no rain, rush," Harrington said in one letter. "Dying languages depend on you."

However, that same drive has confounded efforts to pass the words down to new generations.

For instance, Harrington was so focused on gathering information that he spent little time polishing his work for publication, according to Marr. He hated wasting precious time being cooped up in an office.

And he was so deeply mistrustful of other researchers that he stashed much of his research as he traveled, deliberately keeping it out of reach of his colleagues. He kept even his employers at the Bureau of American Ethnology -- now the National Anthropological Archives -- in the dark about where he was and what he was doing, routing his mail through Marr's mother to cover his tracks.

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