Ruth Underhill (1883–1984) was a prominent anthropologist in the mid- to-late twentieth century, and one of the first female anthropologists to reach the stature regularly enjoyed by male colleagues. As a professor at the University of Denver later in life, Underhill published dozens of works on Native American lifeways and greatly contributed to the understanding of indigenous tribes in academia as well as the general public.
Born on August 22, 1883, to Abram Sutton Underhill and his wife, the former Anna Taber Murray, Ruth Underhill grew up the eldest of four children in Ossining, New York, an affluent suburb thirty miles from New York City. Underhill first went to Europe at the age of sixteen with her family and greatly enjoyed seeing and hearing people from other cultures. She attended Vassar College, where she majored in English and graduated in 1905. Little in her background would have foretold her becoming a leading authority on Indians in the Southwest. One characteristic might have provided a key, however: as a child and all through her life, she continued to search for the “ideal society.”
After graduating from Vassar, Underhill taught Latin at a boys' military academy in Ossining. She soon realized that teaching was not her forte and switched to social work, becoming a caseworker in Boston for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Later, while working at a settlement house in Brooklyn, she became disillusioned with social work, feeling that she was not really helping people improve their lives.
Underhill took time off to travel in Europe, where she learned several languages. She would eventually be fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Tohono O’odham, the language of the Tohono O’odham Indians in Southern Arizona. After two years abroad, she returned home and went back into social work in New York City, working largely with Italian immigrants. After World War I, Underhill’s next job was in Italy with the Red Cross, working with orphans.
Following a short and unremarkable marriage, in the early 1930s Underhill began taking courses at Columbia University in philosophy, psychology, economics, and sociology. It was only when she began studying anthropology that her inquiring mind found the right discipline to cultivate her interest in human behavior. At the time, Franz Boas was the head of the Anthropology Department at Columbia. Her assessment of Boas was that he was “a good, strict teacher.” Another member of the department, Ruth Benedict, best known for her famous book Patterns of Culture, welcomed Underhill’s searching questions, and a friendship developed between the two women.
Boas had funds to help researchers out in the field. Underhill stated: “The men got the money first, but a little was left over and so Professor Boas sent for me. He had six hundred dollars and asked if I would care to take the money and study the Tohono O’odhams.” With the Great Depression in full force, Underhill’s experiences in graduate school and her doctoral program were incredibly tough, and she was appreciative of the small fellowship that made it possible for her to go to Arizona. She described this period as the real beginning of her life.
Work with the Tohono O’odham
The Southern Arizona Tohono O’odham tribe was part of a large indigenous group in northern Mexico that had settled north of the border. Fellowships from the Columbia Humanities Council gave Underhill time and money to study first the Tohono O’odham and then the Mohaves. The rest of the year, she was an assistant in anthropology to Gladys Reichard at Barnard College in New York City. In 1934, Underhill published her thesis, and Columbia awarded her a PhD.
The Tohono O’odham knew little or no English, but they did speak some Spanish, and this was the language that Underhill used to communicate with them. They had no written language. Underhill wanted to get to know the Tohono O’odham women, feeling they would be easier to approach than the men. At the University of Arizona–Tucson, she met a Tohono O’odham maintenance man who introduced her to his nephew, who in turn introduced her to his grandmother, Chona. The two women met and made baskets together, and gradually Underhill learned a few words. The breakthrough came when Chona asked Underhill to drive her to the reservation to see her son-in-law.
As she and Chona arrived in the Tohono O’odham village laden with food, all gifts from Underhill, the whole family stood by their adobe house smiling. Chona’s daughter accepted Underhill’s gifts without a word; Underhill would later learn that the Tohono O’odham have no words for “Thank you,” “Sorry,” or “How do you do?” Chona explained to her people that Underhill wanted to learn of their heritage.
While at the Tohono O’odham village, Underhill established a rapport with the old priest who conducted the tribe’s various ceremonies. With his permission, Underhill would sit on the floor of his house, writing down Tohono O’odham songs in the intense heat. She found the Tohono O’odham language beautiful. Since the Tohono O’odham had no written language, she wrote down the words phonetically. Gradually she began to collect the songs and poems of the Tohono O’odham and later translated them into English. The old priest sang the tribe’s songs to her, which told of their enemies, the Apache, who stole their corn and their women at harvest time. The Tohono O’odham, she was told, only fought in defense. Underhill’s journals containing the Tohono O’odham translations are now held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
In her second and third summers with the Tohono O’odham, Underhill lived alone in an old army tent. The Indians led a hard life in an arid country with scorching summer heat, and they had to move camp frequently. In 1936 she wrote Chona’s story, Autobiography of a Papago Woman, where she related the daily life of an Indian woman; it was translated into and transcribed in Tohono O’odham (the Tohono O’odham were once referred to as “Papago,” a derogatory Spanish term that the tribe no longer accepts). Singing for Power was published in 1938, along with The Northern Paiute Indians and First Penthouse Dwellers of America, launching her career as an author.
Work with the Government
After the fellowships ran out, Underhill went to work for the federal government. She worked at the US Department of Agriculture as a soil conservationist, then for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as a consultant in anthropology. Between 1942 and 1948, Underhill served as associate supervisor and later supervisor of Indian education. She studied the Mohave Indians, writing about their customs just as she had about the Tohono O’odham. From there she went on to do research on other Indian groups and eventually visited almost every tribe in the United States, living with some for months at a time. During the 1940s Underhill published a series of books and also wrote a series of pamphlets on Native Americans for the BIA.
Finding that many Native American youths knew little about their past, she tried to bring their traditions to them. After gathering information about their folklore, Underhill wrote books to be used in Native American schools, where she tried to preserve the poetry inherent in their songs. Although she enjoyed her work with the tribes, Underhill became frustrated and disillusioned with the BIA, finding it overly bureaucratic and filled with people who lacked a true understanding of indigenous people. She had ideas to bring changes to Indian education, but the bureau’s male leadership rejected them. When they advised her to consider other offers, Underhill did just that, leaving the BIA for the University of Denver in 1948.
Underhill took a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Denver and continued to be a prolific writer while on the faculty. Underhill retired from active teaching in 1952 and became a professor emeritus to devote more time to her writing and to take a trip around the world. In 1959 Underhill hosted a television program on Indians that was rebroadcasted throughout the United States. She continued to write and lecture. Some of her later works included the fiction works Beaverbird (1959) and Antelope Singer (1961) as well as the nonfiction books Red Man’s Religion (1965) and So Many Kinds of Navajo (1971). Her bibliography would eventually include approximately fifty-eight publications. Underhill died on August 15, 1984, just a week before her 101st birthday.
Adapted from Pat Paton, “Ruth Underhill Remembered: A Backward Glance into the Life of a Noted Anthropologist,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 5, no. 1 (1985).