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Franz Boas, Letter to Z. Nuttall, New York, 11 April 1901

New York, April 11, 1901.

Mrs. Zelia Nuttall, The Albany, Washington, D.C.

My dear Mrs. Nuttall,--

I have been wanting to write to you for a long time in order to explain my failure to appear the other day; but your telegram came so late, and our children were so ill than evening, that I did not venture to go out.

I am going to be in Washington next week, and I shall take the liberty of calling on you, probably on Monday, and I shall be delighted to see the illustrations which you promised to show me while you were here in New York.

I wish to interest you in one subject to which I have been devoting a great deal of time and energy during the last few years. You know that in California we have an enormous mass of Indian tribes and languages about which we know practically nothing. There are a few missionary grammars and quite a number of short vocabularies, which, however, do not amount to very much. You are aware that all these tribes are on the verge of extinction, and that it is only a question of a very few years when their languages, and with them their traditions and the records of their customs, will have disappeared. For this reason I have been exceedingly anxious to train men and to raise money to carry on work among these tribes. I have been somewhat successful in this respect, and during the past three years I have been able to interest


some friends of science in New York in this subject, and I have three trained philologists working on the subject; but if we are to save any considerable amount of the information which is now vanishing day by day, it is necessary that the available funds should be much greater than they are at the present time. I am now in a position to spend approximately $3000 a year in California, but the work cannot be done effectively with that amount of money. I need at least $3000 a year more to cover both the expense of collecting information and of publishing the same. I believe you will agree with me in your view of the urgency of this matter.

I did not venture to push this matter strongly until three years ago, for the reason that the number of trained students is so exceedingly limited. To place work of this kind in the hands of the inexperienced man would be disastrous. A student who is to make collections of this kind must have a thorough knowledge of American phonetics and of the structures of American languages all over the continent in order to reach good results.

I have succeeded in training during the last five years a number of young men who are capable of doing work of this description. I believe you are aware that I have been lecturing and giving research instruction in Columbia University on this subject. Up to the present time I have trained five men who are capable of doing good work in California and I should like to see all of them working every year in that region. During the past few years I have collected in this manner considerable linguistic material among the Maidu, Shasta, Pitt River, Wintun, and to a less extent among the Yuma and Mariposa. Our most thorough work has been among the Maidu, from which tribe we have grammatical sketches


covering its three principal dialects, and a very considerable number of texts in the original Indian language. These are mainly the myths of the people. Along with this we have, of course, obtained a large body of ethnological information.

I should like very much to send out during the coming summer two men into California to carry on work of this kind. One man I should like to go to the region at the foot of Mount Shasta to collect a language which is spoken at the present time by eight individuals only. The other one I should like to go to Southern California to take up the study of the interesting Shoshonean dialects in the mountains near Los Angeles.

It occurred to me that you may be in a position to present this important subject to Mrs. Hearst, who is doing so much for the interests of science in California, and that she might perhaps become interested in its execution. In connection with this matter I wish to say that no greater service could be rendered to this study than by stationing one of the men to whom I referred at the University of California, to make his headquarters there, and to carry on his work from that centre. This would not only give him the chance to be on the spot, and to work most effectively wherever required, but his influence would undoubtedly also help to interest others in this work and facilitate and hasten its execution.

You will understand that the whole work, in its general scope and plan, requires a considerable degree of experience in linguistic and ethnological research, and for this reason I desire very much that the general plan should be kept in one hand, not only in order to facilitate


executive work, but also in order to combine all the new points that develop in the course of the study, and to bring them directly to bear ova the problem at issue.

I hope that I shall lave an opportunity to speak to you in regard to this matter next week; and if you think fit, I shall be indebted to you if you will bring the matter to the attention of Mrs. Hearst, and if I could have an opportunity to explain somewhat more fully the object for which we are working.

Yours very sincerely,

Franz Boas.

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