David Heath French (May 21, 1918 – 1994) was an Americananthropologist and linguist from Bend, Oregon. During his lifetime he was considered the foremost academic authority on the Chinookan people of the middle Columbia River, especially the Wasco-Wishram Chinooks of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. His research focused on ethnobotany and language.
French attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for three years (1935-1939), studying under Morris Opler. When Opler moved to Pomona College and the Claremont Graduate School, French transferred to Pomona to continue studying with him and completed his B.A. there in 1939. (He was later made an honorary alumnus of Reed.) He earned an M.A. at Claremont as well, in 1940. Around this time he did archaeological work in Oregon under Luther S. Cressman.
French’s Ph.D. work at Columbia University involved studying under Ralph Linton and Ruth Benedict (he was Benedict’s research assistant). He was heavily influenced by the milieu surrounding Franz Boas, who died while French was at Columbia. Later in life French always considered himself a “Boasian,” an approach characterized by meticulous and thorough anthropological research in the “recovery ethnography” mode, as well as a preference for conducting linguistic and ethnographic research in tandem. He did dissertation fieldwork at Isleta Pueblo in the Southwest (1941-1942). His dissertation on factionalism at Isleta Pueblo was defended in 1943, but he did not receive his Ph.D. until 1949.
In 1943 French married Kathrine Story (1922-2006), whom he had met at Pomona and who was also pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia.
From 1943 to 1946, the Frenches served as relocation advisers and community analysts with the War Relocation Authority, monitoring conditions at relocation centers for Japanese-Americans, as part of a program to mitigate abuses.
French taught at Reed from 1947 until his retirement in 1988 and he presided over the establishment of Anthropology as a separate department there. Given that French’s father, Delbert R. French, was a member of Reed’s first graduating class (1915) (French co-founded the informal children-of-alumni group, Offspring of Reed Graduates of yesteryear, or ORGY) and that French remained involved with the Reed community (living across the street from campus) until his death, he may indeed have had a longer association with Reed College than anyone else before or since.
In 1949, David and Kathrine French began a decades-long research involvement with the Warm Springs people. Their many contributions to Warm Springs ethnography included an exhaustive ethnobotanical inventory, numerous published articles on topics such as oral narrative and the relationship between language and culture, and a still unpublished dictionary of Wasco-Wishram (Kiksht). In the mid 1960s French facilitated the inaugural fieldwork, on Chinookan, of a young Michael Silverstein, who was later to become a leading linguist and semiotician.