An Anthropologist's Arrival: A Memoir
by Ruth M. Underhill, edited by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen E. Nash
It was late. She felt the pinch on her career of having begun so late. Ruth Murray Underhill had already led a full life before she entered graduate school in anthropology at the age of forty-six. She had been a world traveler, a social worker, a nurse in the Great War, a writer, and even, unsuccessfully, a wife. Only after all of that did she find her real work. Despite a very long life, she never caught up to the reputations of peers like Margaret Meade and Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict, and at 98 she was still pondering why. "Those larval years are a grief to me now when I realize I am only a youngster in anthropology in spite of my years."
The editors of her memoir see it this way, "If Underhill had taken a more traditional path...she would not have developed into the self-confident poet and sympathetic friend that later gave her a strong foundation for her anthropological work." And her work was impressive. Studying with the best in what was still a relatively new field at Columbia University, Underhill found her passion. Because no one else wanted to be in the Arizona desert during the summertime, she accepted an area of study yet to be explored and took up fieldwork with the Papago people, now called the Tohono O'odham.
Underhill lived outside through summer after summer, mostly ignoring her small tent in favor of a groundcloth and a sleeping bag, glad for a car that could get her around the baking desert. She took the time to develop relationships, sitting patiently and quietly as the people did, earning trust and confidence, and gradually growing a body of knowledge. In particular, she grew a friendship with a woman named Chona. Underhill's most famous book, The Autobiography of a Papago Woman, was built around Chona's life. Published in 1936, it is still read for its insight and foundational information. She would go on to write many more fascinating books.
Ph.D. in hand, Ruth Underhill studied other native groups and worked for over a decade with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, trying to educate the bureaucrats to the people whose lives were in their hands. Eventually, she took up teaching at Denver University, and had a long career there. In her nineties, still reviewing her life choices and career path, she drafted a memoir. As forthright about her personal life as she is about her professional journey, the details of her experiences reveal Underhill to be courageous, tough, sensitive, and funny. The draft is part of a large archive of materials that she left to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen E. Nash, both scientist-authors on the Museum's staff, have done a wonderful job of editing Underhill's initial manuscript. While they respected her voice, they seamlessly supplemented information where there were gaps, using an extensive series of her audio interviews. The hope is to renew a conversation about Underhill and to make her place in the history of anthropology firmly clear.
This book is a good start. Ruth Underhill was a remarkable woman, an important advocate and educator for native culture who freed herself from the Victorian Quaker social corset. Her life is a compelling story, and the editors have ensured that it's also a good read.
Ruth M. Underhill (1834-1984) wrote the unfinished memoir on which this book is based. She was a major ethnographer of Southwestern American Indian tribes, and retired as professor emeritus of Denver University. Her draft material was skillfully edited and supplemented by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen E. Nash, including material from audio interviews with Underhill.
Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh is curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and recipient of the 2009 National Council on Public History Book Award (see more here).
Stephen E. Nash is curator of archaeology and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (see more here). These colleagues have independently authored and edited many other books of interest.
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