Chance phone call keeps alive scholar’s remarkable Amazonian legacy
In March, UC Berkeley linguist Zachary O’Hagan called Florida Atlantic University anthropologist Gerald Weiss to ask about audio recordings that Weiss had made in the 1960s and ‘70s of Ashaninka people, the largest Indigenous group living in Peru’s Amazon rainforest.
O’Hagan figured they’d discuss their shared passion for the Peruvian Amazon and the need to preserve early records of the region’s languages and cultures.
Little did he know then that Weiss soon would entrust him, sight unseen, with his entire Ashaninka collection of dozens of audiotapes, more than 4,000 photographs, field diaries, copious notes and transcriptions, and nearly 200 artifacts.
Turns out, Weiss’s instincts about making O’Hagan the guardian of his cherished work were right on the mark, as was his timing. Less than a month later, on April 10, Weiss, 88, died, much sooner than expected, from complications of late-stage non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Stunned, O’Hagan had to fly to Weiss’s home in Boca Raton to pack up the collection and send it to UC Berkeley — all while Weiss’s house was being prepared for an estate sale.
“Everything about the situation is unexpected,” says O’Hagan, 32, a postdoctoral scholar in linguistics who manages UC Berkeley’s Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, which houses the California Language Archive.
That said, O’Hagan understands why Weiss picked him to be his torchbearer, at least temporarily.
“There are not many people who specialize in this particular group of Indigenous Peruvian languages and who could have jumped into a situation like this. So, it’s really fortunate that we connected at that particular moment,” he says.
Whirlwind trip to Florida
With special approval from UC Berkeley’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, O’Hagan made the emergency trip to Florida this month. For four days, he was knee-deep in bubble wrap and tape as he filled 17 boxes and separately wrapped several oversized pieces.
His painstaking dedication to the job impressed Weiss’s daughter, Ana, who had been caring for her father and had worried who would take on his extensive Ashaninka collection.
“My dad has always been my hero, and Zach came in and did what had to be done. So now they’re both my heroes,” she says.
The audio recordings, photographs and papers will be cataloged, digitized and permanently archived with UC Berkeley’s Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, one of the world’s largest repositories for Indigenous language materials, with over 365 collections on more than 350 languages.
“We’ve never had a project of quite this nature,” says UC Berkeley linguistics professor Andrew Garrett, director of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages and curator of sound recordings at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Rosa, a member of Peru’s Indigenous Ashaninka community on the Tambo River, sings a song. (Recorded circa 1963 by anthropologist Gerald Weiss, courtesy of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages)
And if all goes according to plan, the artifacts, which include handcrafted baskets, fans, wooden arrows, crowns, feather back dresses, beaded jewelry and intricately carved bone objects, will be donated to the National Museum of Peruvian Culture in Lima.
“I’m confident it’s what my father would have wanted, and it’s definitely what would be best, ethically,” Ana Weiss says.
Embedded in the rainforests
A native of New York, Gerald Weiss earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1969 and joined the faculty of Florida Atlantic University.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, he traveled frequently to Peru to document the language, history and culture of the Ashaninka, also known as the Campa, a more pejorative term, on grants funded by the American Museum of Natural History, among other organizations.
As part of his fieldwork, Weiss recorded dozens of Ashaninka songs and stories that are part of a centuries-old oral tradition.
His research ranged from cosmology and genealogy to documenting Ashaninka names for various plants and animals and matching them with their scientific names, with the help of such institutions as the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ana Weiss recalls traveling with her parents to the remote rainforests of Peru when she was 4 and 5 years old and being enchanted.
“There were so many new sights and new smells and new things to understand,” she recalls. “I played with the children there and helped make masato, a fermented beverage. They became our extended family.”
But in the 1980s, Weiss’s fieldwork in Peru came to a halt as the Maoist-inspired Shining Path guerilla group took control of many Indigenous territories, including those of the Ashaninka.
In 2009, long after the Shining Path’s insurgency had been quelled by then-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s military forces, Weiss visited the Ashaninka for the last time and found the community greatly changed.
“It was bittersweet, but he got to say goodbye to the very respected chief of the tribe, who was dying and who had been a good friend to him,” Ana Weiss recalls.
Parallel tracks in Peru
Around that time, O’Hagan, a native of San Luis Obispo, California, was earning his bachelor’s degree in linguistics at UC Berkeley. In the summer of 2010, he traveled to Peru for a project about the Omagua language, as part of the UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program.
O’Hagan went on to earn his Ph.D. in linguistics in 2020 and, like Weiss once did, conducts his fieldwork in the Amazonian lowlands. He works with speakers of the Caquinte language, which is related to the language of the Ashaninka.
In January 2021, O’Hagan began a postdoctoral scholarship with the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, that is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
He notes that scholars’ documentation of Indigenous languages and cultures remains largely in their homes or other personal property, where it risks getting lost or damaged, and he wants to remedy that.
“I’ve been trying to be more proactive in reaching out to senior or retired scholars who I know are probably in possession of valuable materials like this,” he says. “And that was how I connected with Gerald Weiss in March.”
Passing the torch to a new generation
At that point, Weiss was recuperating from surgery for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and doubted he would live to the end of the year.
“So, we sort of sketched out a very tentative plan,” O’Hagan says. “Luckily, he had the foresight to have me send him a letter summarizing what we had discussed.”
Ana Weiss found the letter and discussed it with her father while he recovered in his hospital bed: “Even at the end, he was engaging in this vibrant intellectual process,” she recalls.
Given his prognosis, she made the tough decision to bring him home, where he died in peace.
In Berkeley’s linguistics department in Dwinelle Hall, boxes of Weiss’s meticulously annotated audiotapes, papers and photographs await cataloging and digitization. They will eventually be made publicly available through the California Language Archive website and shared with Ashaninka communities.
Ana Weiss says she is very thankful that O’Hagan called her father out of the blue, and found a home for his beloved Ashaninka collection.
“My father would be so happy to see a new generation of scholars showing the same care and devotion to the work that he showed,” she says, “and to know his work will persevere through scholars like Zach, and not be lost.”