Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
“December’s Child” A Book of Chumas
h Oral Narratives. Edited, with an Analysis, by Thomas C. Blackburn. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1975. Bibliography, Illustrations, Glossary. 359 Pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by George Phillips, author of Chiefs and Challengers: Indian Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California (1975).
With the recent publication of Carobeth Laird’s Encounter with an Angry God, recollections of her life with J.P. Harrington, renewed interest has been generated concerning the life and work of the brilliant, eccentric anthropologist. By happy coincidence, Thomas Blackburn has now published Harrington’s collection of Chumash oral narratives, thus giving the public access to some of Harrington’s work and, more importantly, insights into the culture of a remarkable California Indian people.
Harrington began his research on these Indians in 1912, working with elderly Chumash still fluent in the language. Off and on until 1928 he collected their oral traditions and apparently intended to publish them as part of a book on California Indian folklore. Most of his Chumash informants died in the 1920s, and like so many of his projects this one was never realized.
Collecting and organizing the manuscripts was not an easy task for Blackburn, since Harrington’s field notes were not catalogued and are divided between the Smithsonian Institution and the University of California at Berkeley. Moreover, because Harrington, throughout his long career, investigated the Chumash in short spurts of time, his system of notation and organization lacked consistency and was often confusing, making Blackburn’s task even more difficult.
Nevertheless, Blackburn has done a superb job in presenting the narratives and has included information on the background of his study, a descriptive summary of the collection, and has analysed the structure and content of the narratives. His analysis is designed to illuminate previously obscure facets of the now extinct Chumash, and fortunately for the general reader his approach is a conservative one. He has refrained from utilizing the fashionable “obfuscating verbiage of structuralists approaches to oral narratives.” And since the book is arranged in two parts—Analysis and Narratives—, one can read the myths, legends and ancedotes in isolation from the scholarly appraisal. The work, there fore, should appeal to both academics and laymen interested in Indian culture. The narratives include accounts of the making of man, of the sky and sea people, of shamans who turn themselves into bears and of the ubiquitous coyote, to mention only a few. While many of the stories depict man as greedy and cruel and life as hard and unhappy, this pessimism is informative in itself. It probably reflects the attitudes of Harrington’s informants, the last of a people whose culture was smashed beyond repair by Spanish, Mexican and American colonization.