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Monday, February 13, 2012

Discovering Treasures in the National Anthropological Archives

Ms 2560a – (front cover) Field Notes on Arapahoan
languages and culture (1899 – 1901)
I keep making amazing discoveries in the NAA collection! Hidden treasures! Well, admittedly my main discovery tool is SIRIS (and now the Collections Search Center), so one could argue that I’m only discovering things that someone else created, collected, cataloged, and entered into the database - available online to the world and accessed by hundreds of thousands of people annually. Maybe it’s not on a par with discovering a new moon of Jupiter, but for me such discoveries remain incredibly exciting, a potent reaffirmation of the importance of preserving these materials and making them accessible in ways that allow other people to make their own exciting discoveries.
Working on our Save America’s Treasures project to preserve early manuscripts, especially those relating to endangered languages, and to digitize as much material as possible for web access has led me into new areas of the collection. I’m not a linguist and don’t usually get excited by manuscripts about "vowel length" – but as an anthropologist I know how much people treasure their native languages and how precious documentation of past speech and speakers can be. Check out these "discoveries."
Ms 338c - Chukchee Vocabularies 1852-1855,
in process of conservation 
Chukchee Vocabularies 1852-1855 Extract from SIRIS entry: Chuckchi ("Yerigen") and Asiatic Eskimo ("Chak-lock") Vocabularies. Rodgers North Pacific Expedition, 1852-55; includes 366 Chukchi and 150 Eskimo words, with phonetic notes on vowel length and pitch. Languages include Chuckchi (Tchuktchi) and Yerigen (Chukchi) vocabulary, Korak (Koriaks), Siberian stock; Glasenap Harbor, Straits of Seniavine, west side of Behring Straits. Chaklock vocabulary (Asiatic Eskimo, Eskimauan stock).

Here’s what Dr. Igor Krupnik, Curator of Arctic Ethnology, had to say about it: "The dictionaries you have asked about are very famous linguistic records from 1852. These are truly precious documents and the ones we referred to back in 1979 while working on the historical distribution of indigenous languages and dialects at the Bering Strait. They actually recorded two languages, one Chukchi and another Siberian Yupik (Eskimo) being spoken just two miles apart, but exactly as we reconstructed it for the mid-1800s based on other historical and oral records. I did my field work in that same area and I have passed the site where they collected these dictionaries on several occasions during the late 1970s and early 1980s." At that time, Igor and his Russian colleagues were glad to have access to photocopies of photocopies from the NAA collections. The material is now scheduled for conservation and digitization, after which it will be placed online.

Ms 2560b – Field Notes on Arapahoan
languages and culture (1899 – 1901)

Field Notes on Arapahoan languages and culture (1899 – 1901) 
Extract from SIRIS entry: 29 notebooks.
Well, there is really nothing more in this record, except noting the creator as A.L. Kroeber – but we’re working on that now that I’ve discovered this gem.

Kroeber field notes – that’s huge! Alfred L. Kroeber , a student of Franz Boas, was one of the first PhDs in the field of anthropology, and went on to shape the discipline in enduring ways. These notebooks from his earliest fieldwork include a wealth of rich detail, enlivening his generalized publications on culture and language with the names of individuals, prices paid for objects purchased, and shadowy suggestions of the enormous linguistic diversity already slipping away. When Kroeber was doing his fieldwork among the Southern Arapaho in 1899 he not only collected extensive linguistic data on Arapaho proper and its close relative Gros Ventre (or Atsina), he also located speakers of the languages of two groups that had “long since coalesced with the Arapaho,”  Besawunena and the Nawathinehena.  Working with Tall Bear and Kaniib, he recorded unique information on the vocabularies of these two languages, including many words and much phonetic detail that never made it into his 1916 publication “Arapaho Dialects.”

Kroeber used cheap paper (typical grad student!) and these notebooks are now in serious need of conservation attention before they can be digitized.

Ms 7235 - Vocabularies and notes based
on material from Brazilian slaves
Vocabularies and notes based on material from Brazilian slaves
Extract from SIRIS entry: This manuscript probably represents what Horatio Hale originally intended to publish on southern Africa in his Philology and Ethnology that is one of the volumes of the report of the United States Exploring Expedition (Wilkes Expedition). It includes several vocabularies, comparative vocabularies, and notes on the location and appearance (especially the cicatrization and other body decoration) of African tribes.

The U.S. Ex Ex (led by Lt. Charles Wilkes) was a scientific expedition that circumnavigated the globe 1838-42 making observations and collecting specimens that formed the historical nucleus of Smithsonian collections. Expedition members collected many things that suggest the level of global exchange already taking place, but nothing that speaks so poignantly to the darkest side of that exchange – the trade in human lives that brought Africans to Brazil. While in Rio de Janeiro, Hale interviewed "natives of Africa" and obtained notes on more than a dozen languages. He also made drawings of facial scarification marks (cicatrixes) and indicated the particular places associated with each type of mark. Real people, real places. The manuscript is now digitized – look for it online soon.

--Candace Greene, Special Projects, National Anthropological Archives

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