As participants in the Breath of Life Workshop, Donna Starr and her daughter, Birdie, were clearly delighted to discover how much information had been preserved. "Are we having fun yet? Yes! Yes!" said Donna. "It's been an exciting week."
Members of the Muckleshoot Tribe, the Starrs are "students and teachers of the Whulshoutseed language," one of many branches of the Sahaptian language family spoken by Pacific Northwest tribes. Their motivation is simple but profound. "To be Muckleshoot," says Donna, " you need to know the Muckleshoot language."
If that's true, then the disappearance of the Muckleshoot language as well as many other Native American languages is a case of cultural identity theft. The culprit? A turn-of-the-century government strategy designed to erase the Indian way of life by targeting an entire generation of children. "[Our language] was wrongly taken away from us through the boarding school system where our grandparents ... were punished for speaking their native language," says Donna Starr.
That sad chapter in history is all the more reason why the Breath of Life represented such a powerfuland perhaps overdueopportunity, says Taff. "This is a very sensitive, emotional [issue] because these communities have been so devastated by the treatment of their cultures, and the loss of language is at the core of that devastation," she says.
None of that escaped Melville Jacobs. In fact, had the cultures and languages he studied not been threatened with extinction, his work would not be nearly so important. "Every one of his notebooks is an exact transcription of what [the languages] sounded like," says Lundell. "If he hadn't written it down, we would have nothing."
Bill Seaburg never met Melville Jacobs, but as the author of an extensive guide to his collection, he came to know and respect him through the richness of his research. "I was overwhelmed by the enormity of his field work," says Seaburg, who later co-authored (with Pamela T. Amoss) a book about Jacobs and his work entitled Badger and Coyote Were Neighbors.
"Funded by a 1981 federal grant, Seaburg's yearlong stint cataloging the Jacobs collection was "the most exciting job I've ever had," he says. "You never knew what you would encounter the next day." That was not, however, Seaburg's first encounter with the work of Melville Jacobs. Years earlier, while still a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, he came to Seattle to view the Jacobs Collection as part of a research project and wound up working closely with his widow, Elizabeth Jacobs.
More than once, Elizabeth Jacobs accompanied her husband into the field, transcribing stories and documenting tribal culture. Seaburg helped her work on a manuscript based on her experience with the Nehalem Tillamook. "Bess was a tremendous person," says Seaburg. "We got along famously." Although Elizabeth Jacobs died in 1983 before finishing the manuscript, Seaburg later resumed work on it. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography will be published this year, he says.
With such a mountain of data to minenot to mention classes to teachJacobs was able to publish only a fraction of his research. His plan was to publish much more after he retired, but he never got the chance. Jacobs died from lung cancer one year short of retirement at age 69.
Had Jacobs died in a sudden accident, who knows what would have become of his materials. However, between his diagnosis and his death, Jacobs took time to ponder the future of his collection. It wasn't the first time he'd agonized over its safekeeping. Following Pearl Harbor, Jacobs had sent all of his materials to Eastern Washington in case the West Coast was attacked, says Lundell.
Wanting to ensure other scholars could use his materials to pick up where he left off, Jacobs ultimately donated the collection to the University archiveswith one unique provision. Anyone wanting access would have to write a detailed request, specifying exactly what they were looking for and why, to a board of former students and colleagues appointed by Jacobs.
Obviously, Jacobs was concerned about theft or damage. However, he also was worried that the contents of some of the notebooks might prove hurtful as tribal members often shared with him personal gossip about other tribal membersand other anthropologistsexplains Lundell.
For the UW, the rules governing the Jacobs Collection represent a rare and exacting arrangementso exacting that it even caused Lundell to hesitate before letting a writer covering the Breath of Life take a quick glance at a notebook. Such tight control makes last fall's workshop all the more noteworthy. While the board generally approves virtually every request for access to the Jacobs Collection, it usually does so on an individual basis, explains Lundell. For Breath of Life, Taff was able to wrangle an exception.
"This is the first time the Melville Jacobs Collection has been [made available] to a group of people," says Taff. "For the most part, only individuals have gotten access to materials and there are all kinds of conditions. For instance, usually, only one person can look at one notebook at a time."
In 2006 researchers may find access to the Jacobs Collection easier as the public will no longer need permission from its guardians to view it. When Jacobs donated his materials to the UW, he stipulated that the restrictions he placed on them be lifted after 35 yearspresumably long enough to protect the privacy of those mentioned in his notebooks until they died.
Whether the Breath of Life becomes a regular event remains uncertain. However, by uniting people who had previously worked in isolation, Taff believes last fall's workshop may galvanize tribal communities seeking broader access to the resources available at institutions such as the UW. "These are people who want to work together to take another step," she says.
Brad Broberg is a free-lance journalist and former newspaper reporter/editor living in Federal Way.Party Politics