Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ethics of Ethnology, continued

During my four hour stint with microfilm today, I was surprised and pleased to find the following correspondence between J.P. Harrington and various governmental agencies:












It seems that Harrington DID respond to Thomas Meadows' request for help in a way that would benefit Thomas much more than sporadic cash assistance. It seems to have taken 6-8 months from start to finish.

Good work, J.P.

Harrington's own financial circumstances waxed and waned. He hated 9-5 jobs that tied him to an office, but took them off and on in order to pay his debts and get a little put aside for future trips and research. His correspondence shows that he was often late with rent, checks bounced, and he was often out of touch from banks and lawyers for months at a time.

On the other hand, his correspondence also shows that he spent plenty of money of photographs, custom-made typewriter fonts and punctuation, and a variety of the latest recording devices plus repairs, among other expenses.

I found letters from some of his Indian consultants thanking him for gifts: a guitar, books, money; when Juan Justo was recuperating from an ulcerated leg brought on by poverty, illness and homelessness (he lived at the Santa Barbara dump), Harrington took him to San Francisco as a treat.

Harrington's constant traveling to out-of-the-way places with little or no mail service, in conjunction with his obsessive tendency to hole up and work on consuming linguistic puzzles, made him a hard man to get ahold of. He seems to have made friends everywhere, both Anglo and Indian, but much of his incoming correspondence is from people complaining that he has not answered their letters or questions. It must have taken a great deal of concentration and determination on his part for him to do something like follow through on Thomas' financial difficulties.

It's not surprising that someone fell through the cracks. And oh, what a fall it was.

Apparently Harrington had a misunderstanding with Indians at the Santa Rosa Rancheria regarding the purchase of some baskets. In February 1924, Mrs. W.J. Nichols, a local member of the local chapter of California Federation of Women's Clubs, wrote to Harrington, saying,

"Dear Sir: It has been such a long time since you were here and the Indians at the Santa Rosa Rancheria are getting rather put out at not hearing from you either about returning their baskets or sending the money. Trusting you will see to this matter in some way immediately."

We don't know when or what Harrington wrote back (one of the most frustrating parts of this correspondence cache is that most of the time we never see his letters to others), but in October 1925, Mrs. Nichols wrote back, "The matter of the baskets for the Kings Co Indians has passed entirely from my hands. I wrote to you several times concerning the matter, when you did not return them, not only on my own part but at the request of old Bob and of George Garcia. Then I tried various ways to locate you, but couldn't. In the meantime, poor old Bob has passed on and sad to relate, Mr. Harrington, with one more added grievance against the white man and his ways. He no longer considered you a friend."

That Mrs. Nichols was no powderpuff! Harrington's credentials and reputation were well-established at this point, but Mrs. Nichols did not seem to be intimidated. In fact, she went on to really rub it in:

"As you have perhaps heard the crops up this way have suffered from two dry years. Our Indians have not had steady work. And consequently have suffered. They all need money. None of them want their baskets back. By your delay in keeping them you have spoiled the chances of sales here. And I think you should pay for them."

Not only did she think Harrington should pay "our Indians," but Mrs. Nichols played her ace in the hole, saying, "When I had waited so long with out hearing from you, I had the oppurtunity of passing the matter on to others with more authority. And I did so."

Whew! Now what goverment official did she sick on poor John? Stay tuned. For now, Mrs. Nichols closes with, "Your tule mats are in storage here. Bob's dancing things have been sold to responsible parties and will be properly cared for."

Oh, that hurts. "responsible parties"!

In December 1925, Mrs. Nichols again responds to a note from Harrington, saying she had used the money he sent to pay all but two of the Indians so far. Apparently Harrington did not take her tongue-lashing well. "I'm sorry," Mrs. Nichols continues, "if you feel defrauded. But I cannot see as it should be any other way. Mr. Harrington, I feel that I cannot let your saying Old Bob was ungrateful and cruel ... you came up here after old Bob and the rest of the Indians. And you gathered those baskets where ever you could get them. You hunted up Garcia to get the baskets there and as I remember gathered up quite a few very delapidated baskets and were very delighted with your find. Also the baskets and bead work from the Atwell family were your especial find. The baskets that you got at the studio did not all belong to Bob, but to Nick Sisco and some of the girls."

What a rant! What a list! This woman should have been a lawyer. Clearly not one to forgive and forget, Mrs. Nichols brings up yet another sore point: "The other Tule canoe was made and then just went to pieces from not being covered up during the winter. Bob grieved about it. It was too bad. The poor old chap made such a brave attempt to keep going and suffered a great deal. It makes me very angry to hear him [word unclear - implication is 'mistreated']."

Finally, on page 3 of this relentless letter, Mrs. Nichols apologizes for her bluntness - sort of. "I am sorry I have had to write this way but I felt I had too ... [the money] has all been gratefully received. The largest amount in one sum went to George Garcia. He has been having a very hard time. He nearly died of pneumonia last winter. Old Molly, his mother, is sick a great deal of the time and he lost his oldest son this summer."

So there. Take that.

I like that Mrs. Nichols provides a voice for these voiceless people whom Harrington seems to have forgotten. I love her fierce protectiveness. Unfortunately, it borders on paternalism and teeters over the edge when she says things like "our Indians." Still, her examples of hard times for those Indians hurts to read, because as much as I'd like to say she's making victims of them, I have no doubts that things for the Santa Rosa Rancheria Indians in 1925 were probably even worse than she knew.

Behind Mrs. Nichols' strident voice, insisting on restitution and justice, are the voices of the Indians she names, and many she does not. They are not going down without a fight. Clearly they are complaining, citing how they have been mistreated, and demanding payment for their talents. As with Thomas Meadows, though, the Indians involved did not know how to read or write. Or, perhaps they did not know where to send their letters. At any rate, Mrs. W. J. Nichols (and note the absence of her actual name; only that of her husband is represented) serves as their bridge.

I appreciate it, Mrs. Nichols, and I wish I knew your name.

In retrospect now, I notice the dates of these two sets of correspondence: Mrs. Nichols in 1925, Thomas Meadows in 1939. Hmmmmmmm. Maybe, J.P. learned something the hard way. Maybe this was a spanking he never forgot.

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