The Wild, Anarchist Homesteader of Big Sur Who Preserved Native Languages

The title of an article in the academic journal Current Anthropology nails it: “Not a Dull Life.” Pair that with the title of the book being reviewed in the article—Rolling in Ditches with Shamans: Jaime de Angulo and the Professionalization of Anthropology—and you get an even better sense of the man in question. A man who occasionally dressed as a woman and who frequently drank to excess. A man who produced reams of creative writing in addition to scholarly papers on subjects such as “La Psychologie religeuse des Achumawi.” A man who was referred to by his pen pal and fanboy Ezra Pound as the “American Ovid.” A man who lost a son in a car accident and attempted suicide. A man who throughout adulthood maintained a devotion to exploring, in his own psyche and in the indigenous communities of the American West, what’s sometimes called “the old ways.”

Professionalization of anthropology? Going pro was not de Angulo’s thing, at least not if it meant embracing a cold, detached, hyper-rational relationship with California, his adopted homeplace. Indeed, de Angulo studied California avidly—folktales and myths, wildlife and wildlands—but he did so up close, huddled around the fire where the light shines brightly and the flames can actually be felt. In other words, he did so as a participant, an adventurer, instead of as a purely intellectual observer.

De Angulo homesteaded his “brush” on Partington Ridge, some 1,600 feet above the ocean, when Big Sur, which remains staggeringly rugged today, was infinitely moreso.

Cowboy, doctor, ethnographer, grammarian, homesteader, poet, teller of tales—all along the Pacific Coast, especially in the middle zone (Big Sur cliffs plunging to white surf, Berkeley bookshops holding centuries of lore), de Angulo is a legend, a cult figure. His status partially derives from the valuable work he did with Indigenous Californians during the 1920s and 1930s, documenting threatened languages and recording oral histories. But let’s not forget that the Golden State adores its weirdos, oddballs, counterculture freaks, subversive bohemians, and questing eccentrics, and that de Angulo, a self-described “freedom-loving anarchist,” checked each and every box.

Nope, not dull

De Angulo was born in Paris in 1887 to wealthy Spanish parents. At 13, he was sent to a Jesuit boarding school and began fantasizing about fleeing to the Wild West, which he did five years later, catching a boat to New York, then a train to Colorado. He bought a horse, saddle, and six-gun, snagged a job near Aspen as a cowhand, drifted north to Wyoming, rambled and roamed. A voyage to South America. A stint of silver mining in Honduras. In 1906, he returned to the United States just in time to witness the epic San Francisco earthquake before traveling east to John Hopkins University. By 1912, he’d earned a medical degree (and married a classmate.) This led to employment as a genetics researcher at Stanford and a subsequent dismissal of modern Western medicine as “a pile of junk.”

Another kind of medicine exists, the kind that involves plant allies and prayers, not hospitals and starched lab coats, and de Angulo encountered it while cattle ranching in extreme northeastern California, a harsh terrain of sagebrush and jackrabbits, home to the Achumawi, or Pit River Indians. When his ranch collapsed in 1915, something unexpected grew up in its place—a curiosity, a fascination, a thread to follow, to pursue, to insistently tug on for the next thirty-five years. De Angulo’s book Indians in Overalls (published posthumously) opens with a scene from the first summer he dedicated to serious study under the tutelage of Achumawi elders:

“Say, Jack, may I stay with you?”
“What you mean, Doc? You can’t live with Indians!”
“Why not?”
“What would the white men say? They wouldn’t allow you. They wouldn’t talk to you. They would think you were a dog like us.”
“To hell with the white men. I don’t like them either.”

Except for trips to Mexico to survey the Zapotecan language group and extended excursions to Taos, New Mexico to dig into the Puebloan worldview (he hung out with D.H. Lawrence and Carl Jung there, among other celebrities), de Angulo was a devoted Californian from this point forward. A Californian with a new collaborator-wife (Nancy Freeland, herself an accomplished anthropologist) and two kids (Alvar and Gui). A Californian with a plot of land in the Santa Lucia mountains of Big Sur, a remote homestead to counterbalance periods spent in a Bay Area cottage.

Domesticated. Ha! Tamed. Pshaw! “We will be away all summer,” de Angulo wrote to Edward Sapir, the pioneering American linguist of the era, in 1925. “Off on a gypsy tour, in a ‘house on wheels’ namely a sort of prairie schooner affair with bed, stove and table, the whole on a Chevrolet truck chassis, which is being built for us right now, and in which we will successively camp and visit the Pomo, the Achumawi, the Miwok…. Does it not make your mouth water?”

Salvage Linguistics

So that’s one story, the story of early wanderings that delivered de Angulo to his vocation. But we can tell a larger story, a sadder story, and we can tell it with a simple, two-part statistic: 1) Prior to the arrival of Europeans, close to a hundred languages were spoken in California. 2) A mere 50 of those languages have currency today. The violence that devastated innumerable speakers and their speech (it commenced with 18th-century Catholic missionaries and ramped up with gold-crazed 49ers) in turn gave rise to “salvage linguistics,” a discipline that has since been reconfigured as “documentary linguistics.” Whatever the designation, the agenda is straightforward: when languages are threatened, en route to extinction, you’d best record them quick, otherwise not just verbs and nouns escape, but perspectives, modes of awareness, species of wisdom.

The 1920s represent a transitional decade in North American anthropology—dearth of PhDs, abundance of projects—and de Angulo snuck into the gap. He was a self-taught amateur, albeit an amateur with a unique aptitude. Alfred Kroeber at UC Berkeley, the authority on Native California, recognized de Angulo’s talent (thanks to Nancy Freeland facilitating the introduction) and tried to bring him into the fold, initially with a summer teaching gig, then with far-flung assignments. It didn’t take many months for Kroeber to lose patience with the “erratic” and “unstable” de Angulo, though. The boozy de Angulo. The penchant-for-cross-dressing de Angulo.

Nevertheless, de Angulo fashioned a semi-career out of his passion for grasping the tongues of his chosen state. Between 1927 and 1937, he received more financial support from the Committee on Research in Native American Languages than any competing linguist, and the eminent Franz Boas (the Committee’s director) claimed that his man in the field likely had possessed superior understanding of California languages. The funders “didn’t give a damn about my private morals so long as my phonetics were right,” de Angulo once commented. However, he did acknowledge his outsider position, a position that was seemingly fated from the start for an iconoclast who bristled at institutional constraints. Hence the famous, self-deprecating line: “Decent anthropologists don’t associate with drunkards who go rolling in ditches with shamans.”

Sexual rolling? Too-inebriated-to-walk rolling? Spiritual rolling? Metaphysical rolling? Rolling through time and space and the mysterious energies of place? Rolling that defies articulation? Regardless of what specifically de Angulo meant, the major theme of his life is clearly conveyed by the quote: his method was intimate, immersive, down and dirty. And not only his research of marginalized languages and cultures, but of himself, as well.

The Old Coyote of Big Sur

The old coyote. This nickname stuck to de Angulo (daughter Gui borrowed it for the title of a book), and it’s apt, connoting a trickster archetype, a feral renegade. That said, de Angulo may have felt equally aligned with the bear, wildcat, and eagle, animals endowed with great powers and worthy of great respect. “The shy masters of the wilderness,” he called them. “Senores of the brush.”

De Angulo homesteaded his “brush” on Partington Ridge, some 1,600 feet above the ocean, when Big Sur, which remains staggeringly rugged today, was infinitely moreso. For instance, his plot, acquired in 1915, was accessed via a lengthy horseback ride and a dizzying trail. (He was known to ride naked, handkerchief tied around the neck.) According to Andrew Schelling’s Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture, the idea was “to make sense of a civilization that had run amok,” a civilization that was “fast discarding what people had done for five thousand years.” De Angulo didn’t erect a proper house until 1930—a shack sufficed—and this minimalism, this forced exposure, allowed for a type of rigorous self-experimentation, a 24/7 investigation into the archaic elements of his own psyche. “This was his pragmatic ‘search for primitive mind’” Schelling writes. “To live the old ways, to use his body, to find what lies outside book learning or speculation.” Anecdotes abound featuring de Angulo ascending the steep slope behind his shack at dusk, inviting the spirits to meet him there at the ridgecrest, that border separating the human realm from the wilderness, the realm of everything else.

Just before his death in 1950, de Angulo developed a hundred “Indian Tales” broadcasts—his reworking of ancient indigenous narratives—for Berkeley’s KPFA radio.

In 1923, de Angulo first saw bulldozers attacking the hillsides to construct a road into Big Sur, and he wrote his wife a letter expressing his fear that “the spirits would depart.” Tragically, the spirits weren’t the only ones. Ten years later, a car crash on the treacherous, headland-hugging highway injured de Angulo and killed Alvar, his young son—a traumatic event that effectively marked the termination of active fieldwork. De Angulo retreated further into the manzanita and oak thickets, into scribbling novellas and poems, into drinking, into sorrow, into a never-completed tome titled What Is Language? He increasingly unraveled.

Insomnia and vivid nightmares. Divorce. A gnarly suicide attempt. A diagnosis of prostate cancer. Even with the end looming, though, there was more for the old coyote to realize, more for him to create and pass on. Just before his death in 1950, de Angulo developed a hundred “Indian Tales” broadcasts—his reworking of ancient indigenous narratives—for Berkeley’s KPFA radio. They can still be heard online, the voice theatrical, animated, lifting into song and dropping to a hum, slowing, pausing, sounding for a moment like that of a Spaniard, then a Frenchman, then a Karuk hunter, then an Achumawi healer, then a growling mammal, then a flickering ghost.

A fitting conclusion: in keeping with tradition, de Angulo’s final story wasn’t written, but presented orally, as has been the way since time immemorial in the woods and meadows, the river valleys and salt marsh inlets, the deserts and mountain ranges, of California.

But hey, let’s finish with a poem, shall we? This selection—drawn from Home Among The Swinging Stars: Collected Poems of Jaime de Angulo (2006, La Alameda Press)—tells us something deep and true about the man in question, a man who was troubled, who was brilliant, who was who was he was, no holding back. Short of tuning into the KPFA recordings, the following is as close to de Angulo’s inimitable voice as you’re going to get.

coyote coyote in the hills
why do you bark?
for the moon over the mountain
for the moon in your heart


For more on de Angulo, check out Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture, by Andrew Schelling.



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