Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

Robert Blust
I guess you could call my story one of 'nature overcoming nurture'. I was born into a working class family, of parents who had come of age during the Great Depression, and they had no expectations that my older brother, my younger sister or I should ever acquire any formal education beyond high school. My older brother, who is quite bright, never did. I was a funny sort, slow to learn how to read and do basic math. Nonetheless, I was extremely interested in numbers and their properties from the age of four, and when my father took me fishing at the age of 7 I soon wanted to learn the name of 'every fish in the world'. At nine years and nine months I was sent to my elementary school library to write a report on a bridge (I've forgotten which one), and in opening the encyclopedia that I used I found an article about American Indians that contained the 1944 census figures by tribe. I spontaneously started to memorize it, and today I still remember some of those figures: Navajo 53,840, Apache 8,539 (less certain about this one). To make a long story short, within a week I knew the names of about 100 American Indian languages, and had learned the main outlines of the old Powell classification. I then wanted to read a book on every tribe, and within weeks I was poring through the F.W. Hodge 'Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico' in our main library in downtown Long Beach, California, copying out large portions of it to take home. There was a wonderful old bookstore in Long Beach called 'Bertrand Smith's Acres of Books' and in those magical acres I soon discovered a section of Smithsonian publications, including both volumes of Hodge. I begged my parents for $7.50, which was quite a sum for working class parents in 1950, to buy volume 1 (I could never scrape up the $10.00 for volume 2). That volume sits on a shelf in my office today amid many other books-including ten volumes of the new 'Handbook'.

I began to read voraciously. During my 5th grade year I read 135 books, all on American Indians. I kept records of how many pages a day I read (87), and how many words per minute (440). As a restless 10-year old I couldn't keep my growing knowledge of native American peoples to myself, and I began to write short stories with native American themes. The struggling reader of a couple of years earlier had emerged from his chrysalis, and was taking flight. Some of my teachers didn't like what they saw. One of them was convinced that I would grow up to be 'narrow-minded'. Others thought that I should concentrate more on my classroom assignments, and less on independent reading. And there were more serious problems: after reading parts of Helen Hunt Jackson's 'A century of dishonor' I refused to do the flag salute, which was required of all of us each morning. My first fifth grade teacher sensed that I was having an influence on some of the other kids, and demanded that I do the flag salute. When I refused he called the vice principal, who entered the classroom, identified me, twisted my ear and dragged me outside. She told me I was 'a bad boy', and I replied that I was not, and had refused to salute the flag because I did not believe that the history of our nation reflected liberty and justice for all 'because of what we had done to the Indians.' Her face lit up in surprise, and then she tried to corral me with a tall tale about her being a direct descendant of Pocahontas. From that point on I was separated from the other kids and allowed to spend an hour or so reading in the front office of the school during sensitive times (such as the flag salute).

As part of a permanent solution I was transferred to a second fifth-grade teacher, a Miss Daugherty. Miss Daugherty clearly had been alerted to my special status (as a troublemaker), so she paid close attention to me, and she soon noticed that I was writing lots of short stories on my own. This was a new experience, as virtually none of my teachers previously had shown any interest in me. She got me to stand in front of class and read some of my stories to my classmates, and that gave me a boost. A classmate named Lowell, who could draw and paint fairly well, began to illustrate my stories, and one day Miss Daugherty suggested to me that she intended to look into the possibility of having some of these stories mimeographed and distributed throughout the Long Beach public school district. I was elated. In my young and inexperienced mind I was almost famous! A couple of weeks passed, and then one day she came to me with a troubled look on her face. She had news to tell me. The plan had to be scrapped, as the school principal didn't believe I had written the stories myself. I remember vividly giving her my pitiful, helpless reply, 'But I did'. The principal never spoke to me, and that ended the matter. That also ended my interest in school. From that point on I just read and wrote to the maximum extent possible in my after-school hours, and hated every minute I spent in school.

In my sixth-grade year I started a longer story, and it ended up 319 pages - a novel called 'The quest for the carved buffalo'. Between the ages of 11 and 15 I wrote seven novels and two novelettes with American Indian themes, but just got by in my formal classwork. An eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Dentan, recognized my writing and encouraged me, so that my interest in school began to return. In the ninth grade I entered a map on the languages of the world in the Southern California Science Fair in Los Angeles. Most other kids were sponsored by a teacher, but I had done this entirely on my own, and had to ask someone to be a pro forma sponsor. In high school I stopped writing novels and turned to poetry. But my alienation from formal education (fueled in part by my parents' indifference) caused the gap between what I was accomplishing and what I showed in my classroom performance to widen even further. I became intrigued by number theory, and entered a 25-page document in the Southern California Science Fair called 'A miracle of symmetry: aspects of arithmetical phenomena'. It was mathematically naive, but contained a lot of interesting observations about properties of numbers. Again, no sponsor, just me acting on my own. At the age of 17 I won one of five first prizes in the National High School Scholastic Writing competition (115,000 entries for poetry, short stories and essays, from all over the US and Canada). The award was announced on a local radio station, and I was interviewed for a story in a local newspaper. The same morning that I heard the radio announcement I got a 'D' in my senior English class. Another English teacher asked me to come to her class to read one of the poems that had won the prize, but the matter was never mentioned even once by my own teacher.

About this time some of my friends began to ask about my plans for college. I felt embarrassed and guilty: had I forgotten to do something I was expected to do? Then I learned that their parents had been sitting down with them to plan out their college careers. My parents, on the other hand, had simply acted as though such things were an unnecessary expense, and did not need to be mentioned. When I worked up the courage to ask my mother about it, she talked about 'money' and 'how expensive' it was (and my bad grades), and suggested that maybe I could attend Long Beach City College. A friend from another high school, who I had met through my writing and who had a full scholarship to study history with Jacques Barzun in Columbia, thought it was outrageous that my college life should be lived in a place that he called 'a high school with ash trays' (ironically, Steven Spielberg later made this place about as famous as it is ever likely to get).

I ended up spending five semesters in a junior college (Mt. San Antonio JC) in Walnut, California, where I majored in English and met a number of other bright people who hadn't done well in high school (usually because of family problems). I then went on to a year at UC Riverside, where I changed to pre-med (under influence from a friend), but took a lot of English and anthropology courses. At this point I moved to the Bay Area in the hopes of returning to creative writing on my own, but spent most of my spare time reading in nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropology. America was just stepping into the quagmire of the Vietnam war, and I was about to be drafted. I was given a choice: get drafted for two years and go wherever Uncle Sam sent me, or join for three and choose either my permanent duty station or my military occupational speciality (MOS). I joined, and said I wanted to go to Germany. They couldn't do it, so I got to choose my MOS. I asked for cryptography. They put me in Signal School, and told me the MOS would be in that general area. I ended up as a telephone switchboard operator, and got sent to Hawaii in September, 1963.

I was a lowly private stationed at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa, Hawaii. The switchboard stuff (which really didn't interest me much) was for special occasions. At ordinary times, like others in my position, I had eight hours a day to check a three-quarter ton truck to make sure there was water in the radiator and air in the tires. When this ceased to be a challenge I seized the first opportunity to enter a newly-opened language school, where I was able to study Indonesian and visit the Republic of Indonesia near the end of the Sukarno period. From this point I knew that I wanted to do something with my newfound language skill, but I wasn't sure what. Then one evening a fellow language schooler told me that a University of Hawai'i professor was giving a lecture on base about linguistics. This sounded interesting, and I dropped by somewhere in the middle. There at the front of the room was a large, imposing and energetic speaker. It was Howard McKaughan, aged 43. He told us how important linguistics was, how difficult it could be, and how much still needed to be done. After the talk I worked up the courage to approach him, and ask how I might study linguistics myself. He suggested that if I took a local discharge I should come and see him after my tour of duty was over. I nearly missed that chance, as my unit was mobilized for Vietnam less than a month before my discharge date. Since I had under 90 days of duty left I stayed behind, but many of my friends went. Some never returned, and some are memorialized by name on a certain wall in our nation's capitol. When I was free at last I enrolled at the University of Hawaii, and made an appointment to see Prof. McKaughan. He advised me on my study program, and one part of that conversation was especially salient: "Don't try to do everything," he said. Ever since then I have tried very hard not to do everything, although perhaps with only mixed success.

Knowing Indonesian and living in Hawaii I became interested in the obviously greater than chance similarities between these languages, and then others in the Austronesian family. That got me intrigued by the whole question of how the Pacific was settled in pre-European times. I did a BA in anthropology, and an MA in linguistics, followed by a year spent half in working, and half in Brazil. I then returned to finish my PhD in linguistics under George W. Grace. This required eight months of fieldwork in Sarawak, where I collected comparative data for 41 language communities. The dissertation was accepted in 1974, and I took off for a two-year postdoc at ANU in Canberra, followed by seven years and nine months at the University of Leiden in Holland (Indonesian connection) before being hired back by Hawai'i in 1984. I guess the rest is history.