- Collection ID:
1899-2016, bulk 1954-2016
Collection is in
- Physical Description:
1 Videocassettes (Betamax)
Robert Moody Laughlin was an American ethnologist specializing in the study of Mayan language, history, customs, and folklore. He spent the majority of his career working for the Smithsonian Institution, first with the Bureau of American Ethnology, then with the Department of Anthropology. He was a curator emeritus with the department from his retirement in 2006 until his death in 2020. The Robert Moody Laughlin papers (1899-2016, bulk 1954-2016) document his research and professional activities and primarily deal with language and folktales he recorded and studied, as well as the culture and history of the Tzotzil and other Mayan groups in the Chiapas region. His involvement in language education and training, advocacy for the Tzotzil and language and cultural revitalization, and administrative matters at the Smithsonian are also represented. The collection consists of materials created for books and other publications, field notes, research materials, correspondence, administrative files, sound recordings, video recordings, photographs, and electronic records.
Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
The Robert Moody Laughlin papers (1899-2016, bulk 1954-2016) document his research and professional activities and primarily deal with language and folktales he recorded and studied, as well as the culture and history of the Tzotzil and other Mayan groups in the Chiapas region. His involvement in language education and training, advocacy for the Tzotzil and language and cultural revitalization, and administrative matters at the Smithsonian are also represented. The collection consists of materials created for books and other publications, field notes, research materials, correspondence, administrative files, sound recordings, video recordings, photographs, and electronic records.
The collection is arranged in 14 series: Series 1. Tzotzil Dictionaries, 1963-1988, undated; Series 2. Of Wonders Wild and New, 1963-1976; Series 3. Of Cabbages and Kings, 1960-1977; Series 4. Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax, 1963-1980; Series 5. Other Writings by Laughlin, 1956-2006; Series 6. Writings by Others, 1954-2002; Series 7. Biographical Files, 1906-2003; Series 8. Correspondence, 1899-1900, 1948-2002; Series 9. Research and Field Notes, 1954-1993; Series 10. Sna Jtz'ibajom, 1983-2016; Series 11. Administrative Files, 1961-2014; Series 12. Sound Recordings, circa 1960-2004; Series 13. Video Recordings, 1985-2002, undated; Series 14. Photographic Material, 1985-circa 2007, undated; Series 15. Electronic Files, 1985-circa 2004.
Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Robert Moody Laughlin (also known as Lol Bik'it Nab in Tzotzil) was an ethnologist in the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology specializing in modern and colonial Tzotzil lexicography as well as Tzotzil oral history, worldview, dreams, prayers, ethnobotany, and history. As a pioneer in advocacy anthropology, Laughlin spent the majority of his career working to support the Chiapas Mayas through his publications, research, and other professional efforts. Among his most notable contributions to local and global understandings of the Chiapas Mayas and the Tzotzil language were his publication of The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan (1975) and his work in founding Sna Jtz'ibajom, a writers collective based in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Laughlin was born in 1934 in Princeton, New Jersey, and graduated from Princeton University with a Bachelors degree in English in 1956. He first visited the Chiapas area of Mexico in 1957 as a graduate student at the Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico City. He then transferred to Harvard University and began studying under cultural anthropologist Evon Vogt who had recently started the Harvard Chiapas Project. Laughlin completed his field work in Zinacantan, where he learned to speak Tzotzil. After receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard in 1963, he collected myths and folk tales in Zinacantan as an ethnologist for the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. During regular trips to the field in Chiapas, Mexico, he also worked to compile a dictionary of Tzotzil words. After fourteen years of work, The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan was published in 1975.
After his dictionary was published, Laughlin returned to the study of folk tales and culture in Tzotzil and other Mayan cultural groups in Central America. He published several books on stories, dreams, marriage and other customs, ethnobotany, and history of the Tzotzil peoples. Laughlin's efforts at revitalizing the Tzotzil language and promoting the area's culture sparked significant Tzotzil interest in their own language and history, but illiteracy was still a major barrier to cultural revitalization. In 1983, Laughlin helped found Sna Jtz'ibajom (House of the Writer), a writers cooperative that took writings about Tzotzil history, folklore, and customs and translated them into Tzotzil. Sna Jtz'ibajom also created Teatro Lo'il Maxil (Monkey Business Theater), a group that wrote and performed plays related to Mayan folklore and education about social issues such as family planning and alcoholism.
Laughlin received the Premio Chiapas in Science in 2002 and the PEN Gregory Kolovakos Award for the translation of Spanish (including Native American) literature in 2004. He retired in 2006 and is currently a curator emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution.
Laughlin died on May 28, 2020, of Covid-19 complications.
Genzlinger, Neil. "Robert Laughlin, Preserver of a Mayan Language, Dies at 85."
New York Times
, June 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/science/robert-laughlin-preserver-of-a-mayan-language-dies-at-85.html
Born on May 29 in Princeton, New Jersey
Received Bachelor's Degree in English from Princeton University
First trip to Chiapas area of Mexico in 1957 as a graduate student at the Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico City
Traveled to Chiapas as a member of the Harvard Chiapas Project
Received Masters Degree in Anthropology from Harvard University
Hired as an ethnologist by the Bureau of American Ethnology (Smithsonian Institution).
Ethnologist, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution
Received a Ph. D. in Anthropology from Harvard University
Associate Curator, Smithsonian Office of Anthropology
Associate Curator, Smithsonian Department of Anthropology
Curator, Smithsonian Department of Anthropology
Aided in the foundation of Sna Jtz'ibajom (House of the Writer) in Chiapas.
Retired from the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology.
Died on May 28 of Covid-19 complications.
Adam Fielding, Tyler Stump, Katie Duvall, and Pam Wintle
Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the the Arcadia Fund.
The series delineated in this collection are based on the original order and groupings of materials in Robert Laughlin's office in the National Museum of Natural History. Some materials were originally stored with no clear arrangement and have been inserted into relevant series. Original folder titles were retained where appropriate. All other folder titles were created by the processing archivist.
Some materials were removed from the collection during processing including newspapers from the Zapatista Uprising Subseries (6.4), reprints of published articles, and photocopies of books and archival materials from the John Carter Brown Library, Princeton Special Collections, and National Anthropological Archives.
Adam Fielding processed some of the sound recordings and papers in 2015. Tyler Stump completed processing on the bulk of the papers in series 1-11 in 2016. In 2017, Katie Duvall processed series 12, 14, and 15 and Pam Wintle processed series 13.
Processed and encoded by Adam Fielding, Tyler Stump, Katie Duvall, and Pam Wintle, 2015-2017.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
These papers were donated and transferred to the National Anthropological Archives by Robert M. Laughlin in 1985, 2011, and 2016 under accessions 1974-15, 2011-06, and 2016-16.
Material in Series 13. Video Recordings has been transferred to the National Anthropological Film Collection (NAFC), but is described in the this finding aid.
The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.
Of Wonders Wild and New: Dreams From Zinacantan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
Of Cabbages and Kings: Tales From Zinacantan.Washington: Smithsonian Instutition Press, 1977.
Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax: Sundries From Zinacantan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980.
The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantan: With Grammatical Analysis and Historical Commentary. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
- With Carol Karasik.
The People of the Bat: Mayan Tales and Dreams From Zinacantan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Use
Conditions Governing Access
The Robert Moody Laughlin papers are open for research.
Electronic media is currently restricted due to preservation concerns.
Please contact the archives for information on availability of access copies of audiovisual recordings. Original audiovisual material in the National Anthropological Film Collection may not be played.
Access to the Robert Moody Laughlin papers requires an appointment.
Robert Moody Laughlin papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
National Anthropological Archives
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