A Man of the Field

NAA INV 00168100 - Alfred Kiyana, Age 45, Owner of Owl Sacred Pack, Standing with Truman Michelson, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Truman Michelson was a linguist and ethnographer who spent his nearly 40-year career with the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) in the field gathering culture information and linguistic data, primarily working with Algonquian tribes. He made over 100 contributions to the study of Native American languages, and at the time of his death was considered the leading expert in the world on Algonquian languages and culture.

Michelson was born in New Rochelle, New York on August 11, 1879, and attended Harvard University for his Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees, as well as receiving his PhD in 1904. He continued his work at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig from 1904 to 1905, as well as working privately with Franz Boas from 1909 to 1910. Upon his death, Franz Boas said that Michelson's comparative studies of Algonquian dialects "brought a rich harvest of knowledge regarding the history of this important group."

Following his appointment to the BAE in 1910, he spent part of nearly every year in the field, principally in Iowa with the Sauk and Fox tribes, but also in Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wisconsin, working with various other tribes. His linguistic work included field research on Arapaho, Shawnee, Peoria, Kickapoo, and Cheyenne, among other languages. His success can be attributed to collaborations with Native speakers, such as Alfred Kiyana, Horace and Ida Poweshiek, Bill Leaf, and Harry Lincoln, with whom he worked for with over many years. Some of Michelson's most significant work included the first scientific classification of the Algonquian languages published in 1913, and an impressive series of monographs on Fox ethnology, that began in 1921.

In addition to be a meticulous and dedicated researcher, Michelson was known to be a willing mentor to younger linguists and ethnographers, to whom he readily offered advice and knowledge. He served as chair of ethnology at the George Washington University from 1917 to 1932, as well as the president of the Anthropological Society of Washington from 1923 to 1925. By the time of his death in 1938, he had over 140 published works, including contributions to the first volume of the Handbook of North American Indians.

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