The History of Anthropology Newsletter is partnering with the American Philosophical Society’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR) to publish here here for the first time a 1940 syllabary for the Ho-Chunk language—a transcription of sound combinations and words for writing the Ho-Chunk language[1] This valuable document, held in manuscript at the APS, was created through the collaboration of Sam Blowsnake and linguistic anthropologist Amelia Susman. Blowsnake wrote the story of his life using this syllabary for his autobiography, Crashing Thunder, published in 1920 with the assistance of Winnebago anthropologist and dissenting Boasian Paul Radin.[2]

The life and works of Amelia Susman, Franz Boas’s last Ph.D. student— currently 103 years old— will be less familiar to most. She was born in 1915 in New York City into a German Jewish family, sharing the Brooklyn home of a great aunt who was a seamstress. At the age of 14, Susman graduated as valedictorian from John Marshall High School. Since she was just under five feet tall, she was ineligible to work at Macy’s, the usual graduation option for women until marriage. Instead, she enrolled in Brooklyn College in 1931, gaining an AB degree in Psychology with pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch. Seeking a graduate degree, she was warned by classmate Irving Goldman that only the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University under Franz Boas willingly accepted women into its graduate program.  Most other disciplines were strictly men only.  Susman was accepted at Columbia in 1935.

Her original dissertation project focused on acculturation in the multitribal Round Valley Indian Reservation of Northern California, as part of a group project that led to the publication of Acculturation in Seven American Indian Tribes under the direction of Ralph Linton in 1940.[3] Her research was to be an eighth chapter, but Linton had Ruth Benedict ask Amelia to withdraw her chapter due to concerns about the legal repercussions of a single paragraph (it was eventually published in 1976).[4] The withdrawal of the chapter meant that Susman had to complete a second, publishable dissertation. Because he had always loyally been her professor of record, Franz Boas  directed Amelia’s second PhD project—a study of Winnebago Ho-Chunk grammar— from his retirement. This topic was chosen because Amelia had worked on Catawba texts for Boas’s comparative Siouan project, and because Boas was disappointed with a 1937 dissertation by William Lipkind— published as Winnebago Grammar in 1945.

Susman was informally advised by Paul Radin, the recognized anthropological authority on the Ho-Chunk. She met with Radin when he occasionally visited from Ottawa, once to intercept books that he had “borrowed” from Boas’s library and that Sapir had mailed back. Radin put Susman in contact with her primary Ho-Chunk speaker-interlocutor Sam Blowsnake, alias “Crashing Thunder,” then performing in Green Bay. She also worked closely with George Herzog who taught her linguistics. The Blowsnakes were leaders in the Ho-Chunk community, moving between the Nebraska reservation and ancestral lands in Wisconsin.  Preparing to work with Blowsnake in frigid Wisconsin, Susman purchased down clothing but quickly returned her winter outfits when she learned that he was then dancing and singing with his wife Evening Star and daughter Whirling Eagle on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City. Following the Blowsnakes to Atlantic City, and feeling that they were being exploited, Susman moved the family to an apartment in Brooklyn among Mohawk steel workers after agreeing to Blowsnake’s standard fee of 35¢ an hour for linguistic work.

Sam Blowsnake “Big Ho-Chunk”, aka “Crashing Thunder,” beside Amelia’s family home in Flatbush Brooklyn

During their work on the Ho-Chunk grammar, Blowsnake wrote routinely in the Ho-Chunk syllabary, devised by a Ho-Chunk man who watched Meskwaki write down their own Fox language, producing many of the texts subsequently published by Radin.[5] Susman recalls watching Sam mouth out the words before he decided how to spell them; he provided linguistic examples for her study as well as song texts for an aluminum disk of him singing these songs.[6] The unpublished paper that resulted, “The Winnebago Syllabary,” has circulated in manuscript as an important source of insight into the Ho-Chunk syllabary, and native syllabaries in general, but has not been published until now.

In 1941, after Susman had completed the work on the second dissertation, Boas obtained funding from the American Council of Learned Societies to send her to British Columbia to work with William Beynon on Tsimshian linguistics. At the beginning of World War II, Susman joined the Women’s Army Corps. Her first army paycheck paid for the offset printing and distribution of her second dissertation, The Aspectual System of Winnebago, which finally qualified Susman to obtain her PhD. She was assigned with other linguists to the Language Section, Information and Education Division, of the War Department, better known as “165 Broadway.” She later served as a social worker in a trauma hospital on Long Island.

Amelia in her WAC uniform in 1943, the year her Army paycheck paid for the publication of her second dissertation, finally awarding her a PhD from Columbia.

In 1942, she returned to Seattle, where, hoping for an academic career, she renewed her study of Tsimshian linguistics. When no academic position materialized, Amelia took a degree in social work, then worked for decades in a famous early program of genetic research. After living on an inner city houseboat, she now resides north of Seattle.

Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Syllabary

Though Susman’s study has remained unpublished, it has been a touchstone for studying the workings of the Ho-Chunk syllabary. For instance, the syllabary text “Child Teaching,” which first appeared as the sample text provided by Sam Blowsnake at the end of Amelia’s dissertation, has been repeated as a key example by both Willard Walker (1974) and Kathleen Danker (2016) for understanding the role of syllabaries in studying and reviving native languages.[7] The importance of syllabaries is widely recognized through the ongoing interest in the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoia and George Guess, now the basis of a digital font called Digohweli.[8] As interest grows in issues of native literacy, making Celia’s manuscript available digitally will allow it to be used by a new generation of scholars.


[1] Ho-chunk is now the preferred term among tribal and degreed members in Wisconsin and Nebraska, while Winnebago is what their Algonkian neighbors call them.  Amelia and Sam Blowsnake wrote of the Winnebago Syllabary; it is more properly herein called Ho-Chunk Syllabary.

[2] Blowsnake, Sam. Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian. University of Michigan Press, 1999; Brumble III, H. David. “Sam Blowsnake’s Confessions: Crashing Thunder and the History of American Indian Autobiography.” Canadian Review of American Studies 16, no. 3 (1985): 271-282.

[3] Ralph Linton (ed), Acculturation in Seven American Indian Tribes (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1940)

[4] Susman, Amelia. 1976. The Round Valley Indians of California. An Unpublished Chapter in Acculturation in Seven (or eight) American Indian Tribes. Berkeley: University of California Archaeological Research Faculty Contributions No. 31.

[5] Sam Blowsnake, The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian: Life, Ways, Acculturation and the Peyote Cult, trans. Paul Radin. New York: Dover Publications, 1963. Unfortunately the name of the man who devised the writing system has been lost. This syllabary is more than just the writing down of sounds as it is for Great Lakes Algonkian Syllabary; it also includes grammatical information.  It was quickly learned and used to write letters back and forth, because Ho-Chunks are split between Wisconsin and Nebraska and beyond.  English eventually took over, but the language is still used by a few.

[6] Jay Miller, ed., Acculturating Amelia, 2018.

[7] Kathleen Danker, “Ba-Be-Bi-Bo-Ra: Refinement of the Ho-Chunk Syllabary in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Advances in the Study of Siouan Languages and Linguistics, ed. Catherine Rudin and Bryan James Gordon. Berlin: Language Science Press, 2016, 83–103. Willard Walker, “The Winnebago Syllabary and the Generative Model,” Anthropological Linguistics 16, no. 8 (1974): 393–414.

[8] Ellen Cushman, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

Jay Miller: contributions /