Daniel McCarthy, a Tribute by Travis Armstrong

If Daniel McCarthy had been born a piece of rock art, he would have towered above the other panels looking down at the canyon below. The drawings carved into the boulder would have been mysterious and enigmatic, debated by professional and avocational archaeologists alike, never quite sure of their meaning. But below the etchings deep inside the rock would rest a generous heart revealed time and again by teaching others to be in awe of the ancient past around them.

Daniel left us this month after a quiet and private battle with cancer. Although tired and weak from his fight, Daniel was a commanding and stoic figure even in his final days. From his recliner under a blanket would come a shake of his head, half smirk or subtle eyeroll that those accustomed to him in the field knew usually meant one had to do better, for yourself and for the resources you had been entrusted with documenting and stewarding.

A newspaper clipping (photo)from 40 years ago featuring Daniel McCarthy
A newspaper clipping from 40 years ago featuring Daniel McCarthy

Daniel went away to Vietnam and returned to find professional purpose and solace in the mountains and deserts of Southern California. He usually would not speak much or at all in the field about the war. But those times would reveal themselves in unexpected ways, such as a story about going back there to search for the remains of lost servicemen. Or in more subtle ways, such as when he would bend down to draw a diagram in the sandy wash or provide maps of that day’s plan of attack that had a degree of military precision.

For many years he and Bill Sapp ran a field school through the San Bernardino National Forest and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. They trained a generation of archaeologists and tribal cultural resource specialists working in Southern California and beyond.

Stories abound of Daniel disappearing in the field with a bewildered crew of students wondering where he was. He would call down to them from the top of a big hill or canyon cliff. How’d he get up there? “Come up here,” he’d yell down. Inevitably the budding archaeologists would take the shortest path up the steep hillside with tumbles along the way. Asked years later why he did this, his response was, “I wanted to see if they would actually use the topo maps we gave them to find the way up.”

Learning by doing was one of Daniel’s trademarks. There was a good chance a question to him would be answered back with a question to prompt you to think about the landscape around you.

He taught classes and led field trips for regional organizations ranging from the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree to the Malki Museum on the Morongo Reservation. He served as a president of the museum and was on the editorial board of its academic press.

Daniel had managed the cultural resources department for the San Manuel tribe after working at the U.S. Forest Service. He was not a tribal member but earned the trust and respect of tribal communities in Southern California through his work on their behalf and by prioritizing the training of tribal members in archaeological practice.

Daniel is known for this pioneering archaeology and discoveries in the mountains and deserts. It is not a stretch to say that any researcher picking up a site record from the 1970s or 1980s in certain areas would find one first written by him.

He was a role model in marrying academic archaeology and professional cultural resource management archaeology in his work. One of his last volunteer projects was recording sites in the Rodman Mountains, a place where he found comfort and inspiration after coming back from Vietnam.

Yet, lesser known, Daniel also emphasized research on seasonality and cultural landscapes. He co-authored a book on medicinal plants used by tribal people in Southern California. He and his sister Cadie for years served traditional foods on their menu for the annual gala of the tribal-run Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. He’d gather and juice prickly pear fruit every year for drinks at the gala’s dinner.

He’d lead the gathering of agave plants every spring with tribal and non-tribal people to continue the traditional harvest, and then roast the agaves on the reservation for a museum fundraiser. But if you’d look at some of the plants around you during the harvest in the Santa Rosa Mountains, you might catch the glimpse of little numbers marked on some of them. He had been keeping track of their growth patterns for years because wild agaves had been understudied he said.

Going out with Daniel in the field, he might say, “Oh there’s a pinyon pine that I don’t have mapped.” Another project. How many more did he have?

With Daniel’s passing many people have lost a friend, mentor and teacher. But the loss of the lifetime of knowledge he possessed also is incalculable. It is up to those he touched to carry on that legacy of learning and passing it on.

Travis Armstrong, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Reservation Band of Ojibwe, is a CAL FIRE archaeologist and former Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Daniel McCarthy hired him as his field assistant for a Serrano rock art recording project near Joshua Tree.