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An Anthropologist’s Arrival

A Memoir

Ruth M. Underhill, Edited by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen E. Nash

Publication Year: 2014

Ruth M. Underhill (1883–1984) was one of the twentieth century’s legendary anthropologists, forged in the same crucible as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. After decades of trying to escape her Victorian roots, Underhill took on a new adventure at the age of forty-six, when she entered Columbia University as a doctoral student of anthropology. Celebrated now as one of America’s pioneering anthropologists, Underhill reveals her life’s journey in frank, tender, unvarnished revelations that form the basis of An Anthropologist’s Arrival. This memoir, edited by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen E. Nash, is based on unpublished archives, including an unfinished autobiography and interviews conducted prior to her death, held by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
    In brutally honest words, Underhill describes her uneven passage through life, beginning with a searing portrait of the Victorian restraints on women and her struggle to break free from her Quaker family’s privileged but tightly laced control. Tenderly and with humor she describes her transformation from a struggling “sweet girl” to wife and then divorcée. Professionally she became a welfare worker, a novelist, a frustrated bureaucrat at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a professor at the University of Denver, and finally an anthropologist of distinction.
    Her witty memoir reveals the creativity and tenacity that pushed the bounds of ethnography, particularly through her focus on the lives of women, for whom she served as a role model, entering a working retirement that lasted until she was nearly 101 years old.
    No quotation serves to express Ruth Underhill’s adventurous view better than a line from her own poetry: “Life is not paid for. Life is lived. Now come.”

Published by: University of Arizona Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-4

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pp. 5-24

Perhaps one of the most striking images from Hollywood about the adventure of anthropology is the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the biblical Ark of the Covenant, finally discovered, is once again secreted away as it is taken to a cavernous warehouse...

Part One: Becoming Ruth Underhill

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A Zigzag Life

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pp. 27-28

We were eating roasted caterpillar, the succulent, furry kind. The fur, of course, had been singed off the instant the wriggling bodies skewered on a stick had been held over the embers of the outdoor fire. What remained looked like portions of pretzels...

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Do Good to Others

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pp. 29-33

“Be a sweet girl,” is what they told me. “If you are sweet, if you love your family and do good to others, then, at the proper time, He will come, with all the virtues that a husband should have—and, of course, good looks and good manners too. Don’t be impatient...

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Mother Was an Angel, Part 1

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pp. 34-45

Mother was an angel. I had learned that fact, I believe, about the time I was taught how to use a spoon and that you blow your nose on a handkerchief. Then I was told at regular intervals by the seamstress who came twice a year to make our clothes and also by...

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They Were Murrays

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pp. 46-51

It was Easter Sunday, and Margaret and I were walking to Sunday school. I was twelve now. Mother always put Margaret’s hand in mine as we left the door and said, “Now take care of your little sister. You are the oldest.” Robert did not have to go to Sunday school...

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Abram S. Underhill

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pp. 52-60

My father, Ab ram Sutton Underhill, was a farm boy. The Underhill farm near Chappaqua was a long forty miles from New York City. It was not even on the Hudson River, the great highway of American civilization where sailing boats were common and people...

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Mother Was an Angel, Part 2

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pp. 61-68

Mother always seemed so far away, living with God, Shakespeare, and the Sunday School Home Department, that I never aspired to wondering how she felt. I do remember one episode when I was about ten, sitting beside her doing some of the endless sewing that was part...

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Youth Passing

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pp. 69-73

We often went to Europe in the summer for two or three weeks. People have been amazed at the apparent wealth of my family. They’ve asked, “Were you rich?” No, not at all rich. A very modest situation actually. We didn’t think we had to travel grandly. Father didn’t think so...

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Quakers and Darwin

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pp. 74-77

Father began to think that some of the things the Quakers believed in were just not what a person who was onto things would believe. Little by little he changed his beliefs very much indeed. Though he could never take Darwin. Because Darwin said man...

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Picnics and Dances

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pp. 78-85

Sixteen! At that age a girl is at her loveliest. Mother used to bend on me one of her angel looks and say, “Standing with reluctant feet, where the brook and river meet.”* I was reluctant all right. My feet had not grown any smaller or...

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Vassar and Europe

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pp. 86-92

It seemed to have been always decided, as far as I can see, that I would go to college. The family had apparently known for a long time that I was never going to get a man. My sisters had told me that, and I just accepted the fact that if men didn’t want to be...

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The Society

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pp. 93-98

When I returned home, however, I was thrown right back into my old predicament. I had no future. That was when I decided I must have a real job. I couldn’t fuss around anymore. I’d better not stay at home and be an old maid. I looked over the possibilities. That was when the advertisement...

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The Big Love

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pp. 99-107

This time, it really was love, and it nearly killed me. Yes, literally— love and tuberculosis. It began so gaily, like six o’clock of a summer morning. In Boston I had a basement flat on an alley, and above me there was a young...

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World War I

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pp. 108-116

War was declared, and I can remember feeling elated. So did all young Americans. There had been several generations of peace, and we sang old Civil War songs as a joke. Now, the martial music and the saluting gave us a feeling like the trumpet calls of Revelation...

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A Marriage Begins and Ends

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pp. 117-128

He was a Mexican, delicately pretty as a pussycat. On leaving my hotel room in Mexico City, he asked, “Must I go?” I said, “No, stay.” He was like no man I had ever known or ever wanted, just something in a foreign land, out of a fairy tale. He did know how to make love, as

Part Two: Becoming an Anthropologist

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Columbia, Part 1

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pp. 131-143

I tramped up dingy stairs and along dingy halls. Columbia University’s were far from the neatness of Vassar’s, and the people tramping with me, mostly males, looked flustered and untidy. England’s University of Cambridge, when I visited it later on, looked...

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Papa Franz

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pp. 144-147

This little man with his funny-looking cheek entered the room, bobbed his head of gray hair, and said, “Good morning.” Then he started right away to talk in a thick German accent; his mouth was pulled out of shape by the cut on his face. Gossip said it was from a...

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Coming of Age in Arizona

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pp. 148-150

For me, the summer of 1931 was the coming of age in a new life. How long it was since I had looked into the future with joy and confidence! The surprise of it was almost heartbreaking, and more so since I had expected nothing. I knew that assignments for work were to be given out, but I...

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pp. 151-158

I know Henrietta’s story from the witnesses I met at the trial of her killer. I will not say “murderer.” That boy was neither a wild Apache nor a civilized American. He did not know into what an impasse life had led him, so he cut his way out. I never knew him, so...

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Chona and the O’odham

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pp. 159-172

What Boas had for me was $500 and the Tohono O’odham Indians. “They are down in southern Arizona, where few whites have come since the days of the Spaniards,” Ruth Benedict told me, with her beautiful dark eyes fixed as usual on a point that seemed to lie beyond...

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Columbia, Part 2

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pp. 173-179

There were few additions to our graduate department my second year. Perhaps the shadow of Henrietta’s death was hanging over us, but it had to be forgotten as we plunged into the sea of new information and new ideas about Homo sapiens. By this time the “steadies,”...

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The Fruit of the Saguaro

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pp. 180-191

With the O’odham, I stayed two weeks in the house of Crooked Lightning. In these days of social reform I have heard people rail against the horrors of a house without plumbing. “It is,” they say, “an insult to human dignity. And as for a dirt floor! We should abolish...

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Indian Affairs

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pp. 192-203

I officially graduated from Columbia University.* I had spent two years altogether with the Tohono O’odham, and I would have spent my life with them if I could have gotten the money. But in those days students didn’t get huge grants before they’d done any work...

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Around the World

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pp. 204-210

I had an offer from the University of Denver. I recall Arnie Withers made me the offer.* But I had never had any contact with him previously. I believe Marie Wormington engineered it, as she was based in Denver and she was such a builder. I accepted the offer. I...

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We’re Going to Live This Year

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pp. 211-216

I’m ninety-eight years old. Well, I suppose I’m ready to be snuffed out.* I would rather not be, of course. I would love to know what’s going to happen in the next century. I wish I could. On the other hand, maybe I would rather just be gone and not have to live...

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pp. 217-218

The editing of Ruth M. Underhill’s memoir would not have been possible without the generous assistance of many people. We first thank Aly Jabrocki for her diligent efforts to organize the eight-five linear feet of Underhill archival materials at the Denver Museum of...

Figure Credits

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pp. 219-220


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pp. 221-226

About the Editors

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pp. 227

E-ISBN-13: 9780816598984
E-ISBN-10: 0816598983
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816530601
Print-ISBN-10: 0816530602

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 34 photos
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Tohono O'odham Indians -- Social life and customs.
  • Women anthropologists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Underhill, Ruth, 1883-1984.
  • Pueblo Indians -- Social life and customs.
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