After seeing the mention of John Harrington’s name in my book, a friend suggested I read “Encounter with an Angry God”, an autobiographical account by Carobeth Laird, John Harrington’s ex-wife. I followed my friends suggestion and checked the book out of the library. What a fascinating and illuminating read!
Harrington (1884 - 1961) was an exceptional linguist and ethnologist. According to the foreword of the book, Harrington was a prolific gatherer of information on Native American languages and cultures. The foreword reports that his notes on the Chumash alone filled 60 boxes.
Harrington began working for the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1915, and spent the next nearly 40 years in a race against time to collect data from aging Indian informants. He shipped tons of meticulous field notes to the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington D. C., where they flooded the Bureau archives. After his death in 1961, caches of his notes and manuscripts turned up in various warehouses and depositories around the country. After all his materials were finally gathered together they filled two warehouses in Washington, D.C.
Much of his research was never organized or published. The importance of his work came to light as American researchers began studying his data after his death. In the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the archive was committed to microfilm by the Smithsonian. Today, researchers at the University of California, Davis, backed by a National Science Foundation grant, are transcribing Harrington's notes─1 million pages of scribbled writing, much of it in code, Spanish or phonetic script─into electronic documents. The project is expected to take many years.
While Harrington’s contributions are monumental, the book by Laird reveals a perplexing and highly eccentric character. Carobeth met Harrington while taking a linguistics class from him at San Diego Normal School during the summer of 1915. Carobeth’s position soon changed from that of being a public student to her being privately tutored by Harrington; then to becoming his friend, assistant and eventually his wife. After their marriage in 1916, Carobeth took on the demanding role of becoming his full-time assistant, and later became capable at gathering ethnological and linguistic data on her own.
Laird divorced Harrington in 1922 and married a Chemehuevi Indian informant named George Laird. They had a long and loving relationship for nearly fifty years. During her marriage to George she left the anthropology world and focused on family life. It was not until after her husband died that her interest in anthropology resurfaced. While in her mid-seventies she published Encounters with an Angry God (1975), a book titled, The Chemehuevis (1976) and and in 1984, The Mirror and Pattern on Chemehuevi mythology. The story of her life with Harrington is well worth reading. In the “A Brief History of Ojai” section of my book, A Photo Guide to the Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture, I write that “much of what is known about the Chumash in this area is attributed to interviews with about 12 Chumash elders, including Fernando Librado and Candelaria Valenzuela, who collaborated in the early 1900s with anthropologists George Henley, John Harrington and others in sharing their knowledge of Chumash language, culture and crafts.” This information was given to me by Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash Elder living in Ojai.
Photo: John P. Harrington with Chief Wiishi of Mission Indians, California