Ethical Considerations

Sally Anderson, 2004

[author's note, 2016: I could have put this into a more narrative form, rather than random jottings, but that was kind of deliberately the point; that I don't have any sort of "final word" or "authority"; just these ideas jostling and driving me.]


In the course of creating a website such as this a number of ethical considerations come up. This is just a series of rambling notes relating to some of them that I've either encountered or made up in my own head.


Part of the nature of being an outsider researching and documenting another language and the related culture is that one is in many ways treating the language and culture as objects, just as if they were "dead" artifacts in a museum.

This can even extend at times to the people, especially the long-departed people who dedicated so much time and mental energy working with the similarly long-departed people who were documenting the language and culture, usually with the aim that that knowledge would not pass beyond reach of either community members or scholars. It's hard to deal with this as an issue, because the lines are so fine. Is Bill Ray, for example, an "object" to me? I hope not! I think of him as a great person who did a number of great things for the Cahto people, which I suppose puts him in the same category of "object" as W.E.B. Dubois, Cesar Chavez, or Pres. Nelson Mandela, i.e. someone that I greatly admire but have never met and know only by report. I have met a number of his descendents in Laytonville, and I like them a lot. I have also seen glimpses of his personality through the stories that he told, comments that he made that got recorded by researchers, and things that people in Laytonville have told me. On the other hand, as a linguist I treat him more as a source of data than anything else on a day-to-day basis. It's a difficult issue with perhaps no resolution other than to be conscious of the fact that it is an issue... (Yes, that is an incredibly meaningless, pithy thing to say.)

Cultural Taboos

This is almost an impossible issue to deal with! There are certain words, phrases, items, events in almost any culture which are inappropriate for general conversation. In mainstream American society these are now primarily centered around body parts and processes, religious curses, and national security. In certain social groups (e.g. Masons, Skull and Bones) there are other sorts of taboos. But in general the dominant society has largely done away with such rules. At the time when the Cahto language was being documented there were a number of taboos that were either still observed, or at least were remembered. Certain things that were likely to have been taboo to some people are included in the dictionary. If you are Cahto and have a problem with a word or phrase included on this site please contact me (

There are major trade-offs when it comes to providing maximal information, being culturally sensitive, and being condescending.

Archaeological Sites

There is unfortunately a serious issue of pot-hunting, the rape of archaeological sites for sellable objects. This is truly sickening! One of the goals of this site is to show people the extent of the territory owned by and stolen from the Cahto people and their neighbors. Another goal is to "repatriate" place names that have been forgotten. To further these goals it is necessary and desirable to include descriptions, maps, and photographs showing the general locations of named geographical sites including villages and camping sites. It is my belief that none of these maps or descriptions included on this website provide would-be pot-hunters with any more information than they could ascertain from a standard topographical map of Cahto territory and a minimal knowledge of traditional settlement patterns. Each village site basically encompasses the entire habitable (i.e. flat or gently sloped and not too densely forested) area centered on a particular landmark (usually a flat at the confluence of two creeks or a spring). It also seems to be the case that in this area, as in most of California, every reasonably habitable place was inhabited at some point. Within any given habitable area and village site finding particular Cahto archaeological remains is probably roughly like finding a needle in a haystack. In most cases the areas that were habitable to the Cahto and earlier inhabitants were also considered habitable by the invading Euro-Americans and have since been built on, plowed, burned down, re-built on, abandoned, etc. It appears that if it was a good enough place for a village it was usually good enough for at least a ranch house, and possibly even a small town. Finally, a pot-hunter would be pretty stupid to devote his energy to this area. Most of the beautiful and potentially valuable things the Cahto made were of perishable materials: basketry; buckskin and feather regalia; and carved wood, bone, and antler items. The stone tools were rather utilitarian, and there was no pottery. There are stone arrowheads, but those do not tend to be strongly associated with village sites anyway.

The one type of Cahto archaeological site that I know of that could be found from a fairly general location, but that could not otherwise be guessed by looking at a topographical map is the petroglyphs. These sites I will not mark even approximately on the publicly available maps and webpages, and will only discuss in the broadest of terms. One of the sets of petroglyphs seems to be widely known in the entire Laytonville community, and has been documented by archaeologists. The other two sets do not seem to be well known, and only one of them seems to have been documented in any way (a brief mention by Bill Ray and Pliny E. Goddard, and a photograph by Goddard). Thankfully, the petroglyphs are accessible only from roads with small numbers of people who care about the petroglyphs, know every car that belongs back there, and presumably some of whom write down the license plates of strange vehicles.

Hey, would-be pot-hunters and other despoilers! Before you go prowling around in northern Mendocino County think about the fact that there are plenty of land-owners who have compelling reasons for not wanting strangers looking around their land! The law may be the least of your problems if you get caught!

Hmmm, constant stealing since 1492, and no end in sight!

The "white man teaching Indians how to speak Indian" issue

This is one that I'm really sensitive to as a linguist and outsider. By far the wierdest thing for me in this whole project is creating the sound files. It really feels strange for me to serve as a pronunciation model! The people I've talked about this with in Laytonville do not seem to share this concern and take the more pragmatic view that they need pronunciation examples and I'm in the position to create them. Hopefully we will soon have the community involvement to get recordings of some of the people who still know lots of words, as well as recordings from younger learners as they master the sounds, but for the near term most of the sound examples will still be of me pronouncing words..

Photos of objects from other cultures

Unfortunately (and fortunately from another standpoint), very few items from Cahto culture appear to have made their way into a museum, not even the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum in Berkeley. As a result, in order to show the kinds of objects the Cahto have names for it has been necessary to sometimes show the more-or-less equivalent items from other California cultures. In the case of some items there is very little variation from one nation to another throughout California, for example fire sticks. In other cases there are usually certain particular parameters that distinguish the work of one people or region from another, for example the Cahto had conical burden baskets with pointed bottoms (like this Hull's Valley Wailaki burden basket), while some other nations had bell-shaped ones with rounded bottoms (like this Hopland Pomo burden basket). In many cases these details of the Cahto items are known, largely as a result of Gil Ray and Martina Bell's work with Frank Essene.

If you are a Cahto person and believe that a particular image does not serve as a good stand-in for the original Cahto object, or if you are from the nation of origin of an item and object to the use of its photo in this way, please email me (

Cultural and linguistic uniformity

One of the basic things that should always be kept in mind about cultures and their associated languages is that societies are made up of families and individuals, each of whom have their own histories. Except for the most basic and necessary things (e.g. eating, sleeping), it is no less absurd to say "All Cahto people do/did such-and-such," than it is to say "All English people do such-and-such." There may be a number of things that tend to distinguish Cahto culture and English culture from others, but there will be a number of people within the society who do not participate in some aspects, and there will be a number of people who demonstrate aspects of other cultures or of their own idiosyncrasies. In some societies there may be some sort of top-down enforcement of cultural uniformity, but this was very definitely not the way in this part of California. One of the things that comes out quite clearly from the early documentation of the Cahto is that there was a fairly high degree of variability in the precise details that we group as culture and language.

email to author: Sally Anderson