Thursday, November 12, 2009


Let’s try some local case studies before we go to the SW law cases which have not come to trial yet. I have a hunch that by tracing out some very different artifact collectors, we can uncover issues. Too many people reach a point of view by excluding any evidence that conflicts with it.

I want to start with the story of Professor Uhlenbeck, as recovered and published by Mary Eggermont-Molnar. (Darrell Kipp calls her my “Canadian cousin” because we are both quasi-academics who work with Blackfeet materials.) Mary E-M has a “congregation” of Dutch historians. She has been particularly valuable in promoting and actually DOING the translation of materials in European languages that are about Native Americans. These materials are very early because the Europe-based missionaries and empire-builders were the first contacts. Mary’s earlier book was “Montana: 1911,” (University of Calgary Press and University of Nebraska Press), the translation of Mrs. Uhlenbeck’s journal that summer. The second one, which has just recently been published is “C.C. Uhlenbeck (1866-1951): A Linguist Revisited.” (Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies, XXIX, ii/XXX,i (Fall 2008/Spring 2009)) Much of the latter is not in English. Mary is a contributor, rather than editor.

The Uhlenbecks, a rather elderly pair of Europeans, so focused on their work and innocent in their understanding of the Blackfeet, illustrate well some of the problems in passing judgment on collectors. Willie (Mrs.) Uhlenbeck, writing in the 1911 summer, remarked that in their walks they often came across weathered ridge-burials and felt they should not take anything even though the bodies in coffins were often exposed by the shattering of the coffins. (Fifty years later, in 1961, I would still come across traces of boards and bones.) The protection of the graves came mostly from the conviction of the tribal people that disturbers would be cursed. Indeed, many of those deaths were from smallpox, a durable germ. By the time of the Uhlenbeck’s the belongings might include elaborate and valuable objects: a chair made of buffalo horns, guns, or jewelry. Unbelieving youngsters and greedy outsiders did not hesitate to loot.

In the end, Willie confessed, they did take a bracelet that had been scattered apart from the main burial. They felt guilty and did not show their Indian friends. The Uhlenbecks saw but did not take skulls that were entirely fleshless, cleaned by insects, sun and wind into gleaming white bone. Such mementos mori are almost irresistible to frontiersmen’s dark humor, which was quite Shakespearean as well as often drunken. Many skulls ended up in bars, staring at the patrons. Plenty of more sophisticated folk had a skull on their mantel or desk.

What the Uhlenbecks were collecting was not material objects but the language -- though taking the language did not remove the language. In fact, Uhlenbeck’s work is one of the forces that has preserved the language to be studied in modern times. No Native American person of the time had the training to analyze and record these materials and most whites on the scene would have been happy to see the language vanish along with the people. It was the very issue of “vanishing” that attracted Professor Uhlenbeck to the work of preservation.

His methods, however, were interesting then to the local people and still interesting now, though we might long for video recordings of the proceedings. Living in a little tent provided by John Tatsey, furnished by their travel trunks and a few crates, plus an ingenious but cranky contraption of a camp bed that accommodated both of the couple, the professor paid informants to come and tell him stories in the Blackfeet language, providing translations as they went. All day he transcribed these onto paper. In the evening, after a meal provided by the Tatsey’s, curious Blackfeet came to listen while Uhlenbeck read the stories back to them as a check on accuracy and asked their opinions. They were amazed at this parlor trick since they had thought only English was susceptible to reading and writing! There was always much joking and merriment.

The Professor didn’t make money nor did he live in luxury. (His best luxury was his wife, who constantly worked to make him comfortable by brewing tea and heating stones in their little stove to wrap in rags to keep their feet warm at night.) But he did gain in prestige and the knowledge that his work had value, though it was sharply criticized by some in the field. Certainly this has got to be among the earliest written records of even provisional accuracy concerning the language. And yet, the descendants of Tatsey, perhaps empowered by watching what this man did, discredit written versions of Napi tales, insisting that their own versions, several generations down the line, are more authentic and real. For them, this is true. They also want money for the stories.

At one point there was a China-style Red Cultural Revolution in Browning that rejected all white contributions to knowledge about Blackfeet. Many valuable records and documents ended up at the dump, where a few people tried to save some of them. It was a vanishing done by themselves. This purge seemed to be necessary to clear out resentment that was blocking progress. At that time it was also considered “backward” if not simply “dangerous” to preserve the Blackfeet language, because it would cause a person to be punished in white society. Due mostly to the efforts of the Piegan Institute, this has reversed. (Tatseys helped with this.) In fact, the “impossible” (which many said teaching non-speakers would prove to be) turned out to be wrong. Now speaking Blackfeet is considered a major coup and obviously valuable cultural preservation. Uhlenbeck’s work is important again. These radical swings in popular sentiment do not help to stabilize legal status, much less preserve the materials in question.

Another issue invisible to local Blackfeet as well as whites is the scientific study of how the human mind forms language. One source of theories is the comparison of grammar in different languages to see what forms are universal and which are local. Many know about Whorf’s theories that the Hopi speak in gerunds (words ending in “ing”) which is a product of their understanding of the world as transient processes interacting. This striking notion has provoked philosophical theories and personal transformation. The realization that different languages are the product of different world-views is considered a major element of a good humanities education.

But another more suspicion-provoking use of material like Uhlenbeck’s studies is the deep-history tracing of relationships and development over time of population movement across the continent in a kind of DNA of “talk.” Until the conclusions are spat out at the end of the study, the process seems like another of those inscrutable “ours-to-know-because-you’re too dumb” things that people in ivory towers do. Hopefully a little diplomacy might prevent such problems. Willie Uhlenbeck, with her crate of hard candies, knew what Julie Andrews knew: “a spoonful of sugar makes the theories go down!”

The questions here are mostly related to gradients in the difference of education.


prairie mary said...

Mary E-M would like me to also add this info.

Prairie Mary

Inge Genee en Jan Paul Hinrichs (eds.). C.C. Uhlenbeck (1866-1951): A linguist revisited. Special issue of Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies/Revue canadienne d'études néerlandaises XXIX,ii / XXX, i (Fall/Automne 2008/Spring/Printemps 2009). 214 pp. (ISSN 0225-0500).

prairie mary said...

Mary Eggermont-Molnaar offers these corrections to my post:

She belongs to a community of linguists rather than historians.
Her second book was about the Flemish missionaries:
She lives in Canada but has Dutch citizenship.
She is writing a history of the written Blackfeet language.

Prairie Mary