On Tracking Down Gerhardt Laves

Michael Walsh

February 2001

Presented at the Laves Workshop, Friday 8 December 2000

In late 1975 I joined the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies [AIAS] in Canberra as the Linguistic Research Officer. The way I came to characterise my job was a little facetious but not far from the mark: I had to know everything about all Indigenous languages of Australia and then be able to impart information in a suitable fashion to anyone who wanted to know. The questioner could come from a wide range of backgrounds: fellow specialists in Australian languages; specialists in linguistics with no knowledge of Australian languages; specialists in Aboriginal Studies with no knowledge of Australian languages or linguistics; and a lot of people with no knowledge of Aboriginal Studies and varying degrees of cross-cultural sophistication. One of the latter group asked me to translate into "Aboriginal": happy Easter greetings from Barbara.

I made a determined attempt to get some idea of everyone who had ever worked on Australian languages. I pored over various surveys of Australian languages and groups: Capell, Curr, Oates, Oates & Oates, Schmidt, Tindale. As AIAS had been sponsoring research on Australian languages since the early 1960s I pored over its files. Some files were quite recent: a PhD candidate named Walsh had received grants for 1972-74. Others went back to the earliest days of AIAS and were much more extensive running to many file folders: Alpher, Capell, Dixon, Hale, Hercus, O’Grady, Schebeck, Wurm — to mention a few.

It soon became clear that some researchers worked on language as just one part of their interests so that if I was to be thorough I needed to spread my net wider than the "straight" linguists. One of those was LaMont West Jr. West collected spoken language material along with sign language and music during the 1960s. He had been supported by grants from AIAS and the files included reports of his research activities but at some point as he was heading back to his native United States we seemed to have lost track of him. I believe there was some kind of correspondence from Panama and then - nothing. We knew that he had extensive research materials but little of this could be found and at that time we had no way of contacting him. Fortunately Nancy Williams, an Australianist who had been based at the University of Washington in Seattle, was able to provide a contact address for LaMont West Jr. It fell to another US-based Australianist, Bruce Rigsby, to act as AIAS’ ‘agent’. Rigsby travelled to Seattle, met with West and produced a report for AIAS. The report included photos of trunks of irreplaceable materials collected by West. Eventually the materials were repatriated and made available to researchers and other interested people. The ‘discovery’ and repatriation of West’s materials was all quite recent from my perspective in the mid 1970s and was to have an impact on my approach to tracking down the research materials of a little known researcher, Gerhardt Laves.

My quest for information on Australianist researchers was not restricted to AIAS files. I skimmed many manuscript collections as well as books and articles which dealt with the Australian bush but were not directed to an academic audience. One such source was Ernestine Hill:

"There was also a philologist from Philadelphia University, Gerard Laves, collecting blacks' languages on a gramophone, but the gramophone got badly water-logged, and the records curled up, and he lost heart, too." (p.199 of Ernestine Hill. 1940. The great Australian loneliness. 2nd edition. Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens Limited. I am grateful to David Nash for resurrecting this reference which I had wrongly remembered as coming from another book by Hill: The Territory.)
So far as I knew Hill was based in Darwin so this would mean that he had reached the Northern Territory. Up til then I had seen a reference to him working in the Ninety Mile Beach area in Western Australia. There was a fragment of correspondence involving Laves and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who had been the Foundation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney and had worked in the Ninety Mile Beach area. I had also tracked down a reference to him working in northern New South Wales. There was some text material in a language from that area. I encountered a reference to a brief article by Laves published in the journal El Palacio. I might well also have come across references to Laves in the journal Oceania but from a distance of 25 years or so I simply cannot be sure. Whatever the case the pickings were meagre but quite intriguing. Here was a researcher working on languages in remote Western Australia, northern New South Wales and perhaps in the Northern Territory at a time (late 1920s-early 1930s) when there were precious few researchers looking at any aspect of Aboriginal life. Given the disastrous decline in active speakers of Aboriginal languages this researcher might have materials that would be of benefit not only to the world of research but also to the descendants of active speakers of languages that had declined in the nearly fifty year interval.

What had become of Laves? Clearly he had disappeared off the academic radar screen by the early 1930s. It occurred to me that he might be deceased. He surely would have been older than my own father who had been born in 1909 and had recently died. Even if he was still alive he may have long ago lost interest in his Australian materials and even have lost track of those materials. There are plenty of horror stories about irreplaceable materials going astray for all sorts of reasons. Another possibility was that there simply wasn’t much to start with. The brief Ernestine Hill mention indicated that he had ‘lost heart’. This would be an understandable reaction. To undertake research in remote parts of Australia in the late 1920s and early 1930s would be sufficiently daunting to explain this. I already knew that Hill’s academic ascription of Laves was spurious: not only because there is no ‘Philadelphia University’ but because, somehow, I had come to realise that Laves seemed to have a connection with the University of Chicago.

I decided to investigate Laves’ possible connection with the University of Chicago. To that end I wrote a letter to George W. Stocking Jr. at the Department of Anthropology. I think Stocking may have been Chair of the Department at the time. Whether he was or not he was a good person to have encountered because he has a particular interest in the history of anthropology. A reply came back from Stocking indicating that Laves was alive and living in Chicago. Stocking did not say anything about his Australian materials but indicated that Laves had not continued with an academic career. He provided a residential address.

It seemed to me this should be approached with caution. In the case of LaMont West Jr. there had been all sorts of rumours about West’s state of mind and the extent to which he would welcome inquiries into his time in Australia. I felt it could be useful to have someone in or near Chicago make the initial approach. It would be best if that someone was either known to Laves or at least shared what had been his interest at one time: anthropology. I wrote again to Stocking seeking some kind of local intercession on behalf of AIAS. Stocking’s reply was rather testy and pointed out that he had provided the information I needed and it was up to me to get on with it if that’s what I wanted to do.

I decided to seek out someone who could be a local agent for the approach to Laves. At the time a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago was in Australia carrying out fieldwork and background research for his dissertation on Aboriginal people in the Maningrida area of the Northern Territory. When not in the field he used AIAS as his base. In this way I came to know Marc Francillon. I explained the situation to Francillon and asked him to approach Laves when he was next in Chicago.

Months later a report came back from Francillon. He had met with Laves and encountered a treasure trove of material. Laves had looked after his materials well for nearly fifty years and was willing to make them available. When talking with him on his return to Australia Francillon remarked that he had talked with Laves about his time in Australia. After such a long time his memory was not always clear but there was much that he remembered.

My own role in the Laves quest was very minor from this time on. I was keen to see the papers for myself one day — particularly those that deal with matters in the Northern Territory. But it fell to others to pursue it — including the Library Director.

It took some time for the Laves papers to be repatriated. AIAS provided a grant for Francillon to describe the materials and arrange for them to be sent back. Time dragged on and one can only imagine that Francillon had other things to be getting on with in Chicago — like writing up his dissertation. Eventually the materials came back and have proved to be a tremendous asset to Aboriginal Studies.

Return to Laves page

URL: http://www.anu.edu.au/linguistics/nash/aust/laves/MJW.html

© 2001