Native American Languages Advocate Walks On
Dr. Tom Parsons, whose lauded life and career was dedicated to Native American language codification and revitalization, died May 10 at the age of 88 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Parsons, born March 24, 1924 in Niles, Michigan, was the former director of the Center for Indian Community Development at Humboldt State University (HSU) in Arcata, California where he conducted his linguistic research from 1967 until his retirement in 1986.
“He was high energy,” said Parson’s adopted son Tim Parsons. “He loved life, so he was always trying to get the most out of it.”
Tim said his father flew 31 missions over France during World War II as a left waist gunner and Bombardier. “He didn’t talk about the war until after he retired from Humboldt.”
Tim said that in 1944, his father purchased a German 20-millimeter shell from a shop in London and painted his name on the round so that he would have “a bullet with his name on it.” He said Tom took the bullet with him on every mission. “He was just 19 years old, but he survived.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Parsons was hired in 1967 as the first director of HSU’s Center for Community Development. Several years later, the center was renamed the Center for Indian Community Development (CICD) as a result of Parson’s extensive research and published works regarding Native languages.
Zo Devine, CICD associate director, said although she was hired after Parsons retired, his vision remains the bedrock of the center and she is “inspired by him everyday.”
“Tom was amazing,” she said. “We’re still working on projects that he started even 40 years later.”
Devine said because of Parsons’ diligence and dedication, their department continues to publish and teach academic prose concerning the Native American community.
Visit the Georgia Public Broadcasting website to see Tom Parsons talk about his experience in boot training as part of the Georgia World War II Oral History Project.
“Under his guidance, California adopted a teacher credential for Native languages in public schools,” she said. “For many years, through CICD and Tom, Indian people were employed as teachers locally.”
Throughout his career, Parsons worked closely with the elders of the Hupa, Karuk, Tolowa Dee-ni’ and Yurok nations of northern California. He documented and transcribed their native languages into a phonetic alphabet so they could be sustained and taught to future generations.
“He was fascinated with language,” said Tim. “(The tribes) haven’t lost their language. He preserved their language. That kind of makes him immortal. I think that would be his legacy.”
Darrell Parsons, Tom’s nephew and education programs consultant for the California Department of Education, referred to his uncle as a continuing inspiration and a “seminal influence.”
“Just in terms of bettering society, he lived and breathed trying to help others,” Darrell said. He keeps a framed picture of his uncle on the wall in his office. “He’s still an inspiration to me everyday. And I only hope I can do right by him.”
John Woolley, who was hired as Parsons’ assistant director in 1972, said Parsons’ passion to record American Indian languages and advocate for their revitalization was an “evolutionary process.”
“Tom became in part enamored because they were so interesting as people that had such a story to tell and lived handshakes away from those who really did injustices to them from the historical perspective,” he said.
Woolley said the tribes Parsons worked with gave him the name, “Coyote.”
“You could never keep him down,” Woolley admired. “He was cantankerous. He was handsome and he was all about creating change, and all that kind of imagery is what I believe people will sense when they think of the name Tom Parsons. … I sure miss him.”
Loren Bommelyn, a former pupil of Parsons and member of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ nation, said Parsons was tenacious and a commendable “trickster.”
“He was a trickster in the positive sense of the word,” Bommelyn said. “He could make things happen. He could get things rolling. He wouldn’t give up for a moment if he truly believed in what he was doing.”
Bommelyn added that Parsons supported the reemergence of indigenous ceremonies and worked with Native peoples to realize ceremonial rejuvenation.
“When the culture was reemerging it was a fragile time, and it was an individual like Tom who came and asked ‘Can I support you?’ It was really a very tumultuous time … uplifting times, and he was right in there with it.”
Tim said services for his father will be held in Atlanta July 19. Friends, family and admirers are welcome to attend.
Tom Parsons’ ashes will then be placed to rest in a column barium next to his wife, Sara Mitchell Parsons, at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, Georgia. Sara died 10 months before Tom.
“He was such an upstanding person,” Darrell eulogized. “And outstanding, too.”