REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2008

Listening to Indians

Robert Ornduff ’53 became the dean of California botanists and served for decades as curator of the UC–Berkeley Herbarium; Gary Snyder ’51 would shortly become the hero of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, and would later earn a Pulitzer Prize in poetry and an honorary doctorate from Reed, among other distinctions; Harry Paget ’52 was already an experimental film-maker as an undergraduate (and would go on to produce, among other things, the ultimate Reed recruiting film, Different Drummer); Edward B. Harper ’51 and Michael Mahar ’53 became prominent social anthropologists of religion and village life (respectively) in India; Bruce Voeller ’56 became an eminent biochemist and an early gay rights activist, and in the 1980s would coin the term “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” (AIDS); Gail Kelly ’55, would herself inspire (and terrify) generations of Reed undergraduates as a member of Reed’s anthropology department; Dell Hymes ’50 has been a paradigm-setting linguistic anthropologist, serving as the president of the American Anthropological Association, the Linguistic Society of America, and the American Folklore Society (see “Ways We Speak,” page 28). And this is only a partial list. A more diverse, and diversely accomplished, cast of characters could scarcely be assembled. And yet they were, in a sense, “assembled” by the Frenches and Reed.

Histories of this or that academic discipline sometimes work by tabulating scholars’ citations of one another’s work in published sources; more nuanced accounts sometimes trace the circulation of ideas and methods through what the sociologist Robert Merton called “invisible colleges.” Here we may be dealing with something more evanescent even than an “invisible college.” But thanks to the voluminous archive of correspondence, writings, ethnographic field notes, photographs, and related material carefully preserved by David and Kay French over 60 years—and recently deposited with the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as Special Collections at Reed’s Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library (as part of the Frenches’ legacy to the college)—the story can be told for the first time.


Soon after their first trips to the Warm Springs Reservation in 1949, the Frenches glimpsed the opportunity for fieldwork. Having established good relationships with key people in the Indian community, they enticed several Reed students to come to the reservation, and by 1950 had set about seeking support from the college and outside sources for their anthropological work. On June 26, 1950, David French wrote to Morris Edward Opler, who had been his anthropology mentor at Reed (and whom he followed in 1939 to Pomona College in California, where Opler introduced him to Kay Story, his future spouse). Opler was now at Cornell, and well positioned with respect to the Ford Foundation and other new funding sources for social science research. The tone of French’s letter is casual, even intimate:

Dear Morrie,
It’s about time for a general recapitulation of news from Oregon…Mostly I have been teaching school, which at Reed somehow manages to be about all one does. I believe you got some writing done; practically none of the present faculty do any research or writing, even in the summer time.

I believe you got some writing done. Here is a recurrent aria in French’s correspondence from 1947 into the 1980s: the difficulty of finding time to write and conduct research when faced with a Reed-sized teaching burden.

Continuing in the same newsy vein, French describes his students, first mentioning Harry Paget, whose thesis film Return to the River chronicles—in footage that is now unforgettable and irreplaceable—the seasonal rhythms of Indian fishing on the Columbia River in the years just before the last large hydroelectric dams were built. He then moves on to Dell Hymes, a “smart fellow” whom he hopes might go on to study with Opler. Finally, French gets around to the pitch: he plans to submit Opler’s name as a reference for some grants to relieve his teaching load (some of which Kay will take on) and support the Warm Springs research. Hymes, meanwhile, had decamped to Indiana University at Bloomington by this time; he had landed a $400 summer fieldwork grant to add to his G.I. Bill pay; and he was laying the groundwork for Gary Snyder to join him in grad school the following year. Snyder had spent the summer of 1951 at Warm Springs, after writing a joint anthropology/literature thesis on a myth of the Haida people (from the northern coast of British Columbia) under the direction of David French and Lloyd Reynolds; Hymes was already circulating a copy of Snyder’s B.A. thesis among the faculty at Indiana.

By mid-June, Hymes was back in Oregon to begin linguistic work on Wasco (also known as Kiksht), one of three distinct languages spoken at Warm Springs (the others being Numu/Paiute and Ichishkiin/Sahaptin). And the Frenches had introduced him to two Wasco speakers who would become his most important interlocutors over several decades of seminal anthropological and linguistic research: Philip Kahclamat—who had spent the 1932–33 school year at Yale serving as an informant in a course taught by the renowned linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884–1939)—and Hiram Smith, a member of a large and prosperous Wasco family at Warm Springs (the Smiths could count a Chinese railroad worker and an itinerant Jewish peddler among their ancestors). Kahclamat, who was killed in an altercation in 1958, was a mercurial presence, in remembrance of whom Hymes would write a poem 25 years later; Smith, on the other hand, became a steady presence in Hymes’ life—as a linguistic informant, friend, and perhaps surrogate father—until his own death in 1989.

reed magazine logoWinter 2008