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Ralph C. Michelsen papers
MS 173  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Processing History
  • Biographical Note
  • Collection Scope and Contents
  • Collection Arrangement
  • Separated Materials
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Ralph C. Michelsen papers
    Date (inclusive): circa 1881-2004, undated
    Collection Number: MS 173
    Creator: Michelsen, Ralph C.
    Extent: 3.34 linear feet (8 boxes)
    Repository: Rivera Library. Special Collections Department.
    Riverside, CA 92517-5900
    Abstract: This collection contains notes, photographs, articles, manuscripts, maps, published papers, clippings, correspondence, sound recordings, and other material from cultural anthropologist Ralph C. Michelsen. Materials in the collection mostly pertain to Michelsen's anthropological research on numerous indigenous tribes in North and Central America, including the PaiPai and Kiliwa of Baja California, various Luiseño groups in southern California, the Mohave and Cocopah, the Seri of Mexico, and other groups in Mexico and Guatemala including Cora and Maya.
    Languages: The collection is in English, Spanish, and the Kiliwa language.


    This collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to the University of California, Riverside Libraries, Special Collections & University Archives. Distribution or reproduction of materials protected by copyright beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. To the extent other restrictions apply, permission for distribution or reproduction from the applicable rights holder is also required. Responsibility for obtaining permissions, and for any use rests exclusively with the user.

    Preferred Citation

    [identification of item], [date if possible]. Ralph C. Michelsen papers (MS 173). Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

    Acquisition Information

    Gift of Susan Lobo, 2007.

    Processing History

    Initial processing of the collection was completed by Susan Lobo and Nicole Menard in 2006. Additional processing was completed by Serena Rodholm, Student Processing Assistant, in 2018.
    Additional processing of the Ralph C. Michelsen papers was completed by undergraduate students from the University of California, Riverside as part of the Special Collections & University Archives Backlog Processing Project started in 2015. This project was funded by the UCR Library and administered by Jessica Geiser, Collections Management Librarian.

    Biographical Note

    Ralph Copeland Michelsen was born August 14, 1913, in Portland, Oregon, and died June 6, 1996, in Ashland, Oregon, of kidney failure. Having overcome significant childhood adversity, he educated himself and lived an extraordinarily varied, adventurous, and ultimately rewarding life. He regarded intellect, honesty, and integrity as preeminent values and these were the standards which he set for himself and others.
    Although Ralph did not graduate from high school, he spent many hours of his youth in the public library reading widely and intensely. He once could name all the spars and lines of a full rigged 18th century sailing ship, and it was in the library that he began his lifelong interest in other cultures. He credited his failure to become a juvenile delinquent to his time spent in the library, and to his mother, and the librarian.
    After "starving out" of both Fullerton Junior College and UCLA during the depression, Ralph began working in the construction industry and eventually became a general contractor. In his early adult years he became fluent in Spanish and was later hired to run a tungsten mine in northern Baja California during the Korean War. Eventually, his love of camping took him into rural Mexico and various Indian villages, where he began to make friends and learn about what he was seeing-an anthropologist in the making.
    Ralph married Mildred Ecternacht shortly after he left UCLA and they had five children: Claire, Carolyn, Cleo, Cathy, and Ralph James. There is one grandchild from this family, Carolyn's son Logan Bane. Ralph and his second wife, Mary-Kay Titus Michelsen, have one daughter, Joan-Marie.
    Having ridden the second model Harley Davidson motorcycle as a youth living near the oil fields of Long Beach, California, Ralph continued his pursuit of adventure in adulthood by learning to fly his own airplane. In his later years, he spent many happy hours sailing and maintaining a wooden sail boat. From his forties until his death he and his wife owned a series of campers in which they traveled extensively throughout the Southwest, Mexico and Canada.
    Camping with Mary-Kay in northern Mexico during the early 60's Ralph became interested in the Pai Pai Indians of Santa Catarina, Baja California. A friendship developed there with Roger Owen, an anthropologist who was completing his field work with the Pai Pai for a PhD from UCLA. Owen soon began to urge Ralph to write about his observations. During these trips, Ralph, a life long photographer, was also recording photographically many of the activities he observed.
    An encounter on the road in Baja California with a Kumeyaay Indian led Ralph to watch, then study, the hand game Peon. His frequent attendance at games and increasing friendship with one family of players led him not only to play once in a while, but to write a successful dissertation describing and analyzing the game. His dissertation supports the fact that Peon is a game of skill and strategy, not chance, as had been previously believed.
    When Ralph was admitted to the School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine, he had already published numerous articles in cultural anthropology. He received his PhD degree in 1981 at the age of 68 and continued to teach at UCI until he was forced to retire because of his age. These were the happiest years of his long and interesting life.
    After retirement he and his family moved to Oregon where he spent many hours building a G Gage rail road in his yard and admiring the cows in the front pasture. He was content and accepted his final illness without fear or apprehension.
    [Written by Mary Kay Michelsen, 2006]

    Collection Scope and Contents

    This collection contains notes, photographs, articles, manuscripts, maps, published papers, clippings, correspondence, sound recordings, and other material from Ralph C. Michelsen, mostly pertaining to the PaiPai and Kiliwa of Baja California, various Luiseño groups in southern California, the Mohave and Cocopah, the Seri of Mexico, and other groups in Mexico and Guatemala including Cora and Maya.
    Michelsen compiled the material while doing research that led to a Ph.D. in anthropology (1981) from UC Irvine, where he then taught. The bulk of the collection is comprised of notes and photographs that record a range of native groups' cultural practices in meticulous and appreciative detail.

    Collection Arrangement

    The collection is arranged into six series as follows:
    • Series 1. Baja California, 1887-1979
    • Series 2. Southern California, 1889-1979
    • Series 3. Seri, 1965-2004
    • Series 4. Mexico, Guatemala, and Indigenous Groups, 1959-1973
    • Series 5. General, 1926-1981
    • Series 6. Personal, 1974-1996

    Separated Materials

    Books donated with the collection have been separated for cataloging in Special Collections, searchable by title online as "Ralph C. Michelsen papers."

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    Higuera, Petra
    Ochurte, Rufino
    Baja California (Mexico : State)
    Cocopa Indians
    Cora Indians
    Indians of Central America
    Indians of Mexico
    Indians of North America
    Indians of North America -- Games
    Kiliwa Indians
    Kiliwa language
    Luiseño Indians
    Mohave Indians
    Paipai Indians
    Seri Indians

    Genres and Forms of Materials

    Audiovisual materials
    Field notes