Jaime de Angulo (1887-1950), the eccentric amateur anthropologist, helped to move the field of anthropology away from armchair theorizing with decades of intense linguistic fieldwork among, most notably, the Achumawi or Pit River Indians of Northern California. De Angulo collected and studied a wide range of severely endangered languages from the American West and Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s, a period of time during which formally trained, and funded, anthropologists were scarce. Through the study of American Indian languages and the collection of folklore, de Angulo attempted to elicit the worldview of those he studied and preserve their cultural identity.
Born to Spanish parents in Paris, France, de Angulo became disillusioned by his strict Jesuit upbringing and struck out to make his fortune in the United States at the age of 18. De Angulo worked a grueling life as a cowboy in the Western United States and underwent a series of misadventures in South America before pursuing formal education in medicine. While at Johns Hopkins University, de Angulo took an interest in anthropology after reading works by Lewis Henry Morgan and Franz Boas. Later, while de Angulo was living with his first wife, Cary Fink, in Carmel, California, he met his earliest anthropological mentor, Alfred Kroeber. In 1920, de Angulo accepted Kroeber’s offer to teach two summer classes at Berkeley on Levi Bruhl’s notion of the primitive mind and the use of psychoanalytic theory in studies of primitive culture.
De Angulo was impacted greatly by Edward Sapir’s introductory text, Language, and began a lifelong correspondence with him concerning his own linguistic research. With support from wealthy friends, his first, and his second wife, Nancy Freeland, de Angulo investigated various linguistic research projects among the Achumawi, whom he first met during a ranching venture in Alturas, California, and Taos Indians without university support. In 1922, with recommendation from Kroeber, Sapir, and Boas, de Angulo began working for the Department of Anthropology of Mexico, under Manuel Gamio, investigating the languages of the Zapotecan region. Organized in 1927, the Committee on Research in Native American Languages, headed by Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield, granted de Angulo paid research projects to record those American Indian languages they thought to be nearest to extinction. De Angulo received more funding from the committee than any other researcher and was appointed to the advisory board in 1929. During his years of fieldwork, de Angulo studied 30 Native American languages and attempted to devise writing systems for the Pomo and Taos Indians in order that each may transcribe their own language.
De Angulo is best known for his ethnography of the Achumawi, Indians in Overalls, in which he detailed their present way of life and his introduction to the structure of their language. De Angulo used his Spanish heritage and cowboy experience to his advantage during his fieldwork; his informers equated his Spanish background with his being Mexican and were impressed by his rugged nature. He enthusiastically participated in their rituals, gambling bouts, singing, and heavy drinking, to the shock of many professional anthropologists at the time. De Angulo’s work reveals a genuine appreciation for the language and culture of the Achumawi.
De Angulo’s Indian Tales, a unique collection of folklore texts of the Northern California Indians seamlessly bound within de Angulo’s fictional narrative, was first broadcast over the radio in 1949 as a series of “Old Time Stories” read by de Angulo himself. While much of de Angulo’s salvage linguistic research and his exploration of language titled What Is Language? remain unpublished to this day, readers of Indians in Overalls and Indian Tales can appreciate de Angulo’s bold fieldwork strategies and profound reverence for the American Indian way of life.
- de Angulo, G. (1995). The old coyote of Big Sur. Berkeley, CA: Stonegarden Press.
- de Angulo, J. (1953). Indian tales. New York: Hill & Wang.
- de Angulo, J. (1990). Indians in overalls. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
- Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (2004). Rolling in ditches with shamans: Jaime de Angulo and the professionalization of American anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.