William C. Sturtevant (1926-2007)
Jason Baird Jackson
field of anthropology lost a leading figure with the passing, on
Friday, March 2nd 2007, of William C. Sturtevant, Curator of North
American Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History of the
Curtis Sturtevant was born July 26, 1926, in Morristown, New Jersey,
the first of three children of Alfred Henry Sturtevant and Phoebe
Curtis Reed. His father was a pioneer in genetics, and in 1928 moved
with his family to Pasadena, California, where he accepted a
professorship in biology at the California Institute of Technology. His
father's older brother, Edgar Howard Sturtevant, was a leading
professor of linguistics at Yale University, where he specialized in
Hittite and Indo-European languages.
earned his bachelor's degree from the University of California,
Berkeley, where he studied between 1944 and 1949. His progress was
interrupted by a year, 1945-1946, in the U.S. Naval Reserve, during
which he was stationed on Guam. This represented only a delay in
studies that were focused and progressing well. His degree in
anthropology was awarded with Highest Honors. Reflecting on his
training at Berkeley, he has cited courses by John Rowe, Mary Haas,
R.F. Heizer, David Mandelbaum, and Robert Lowie as particularly
Sturtevant's commitment to Native American studies within anthropology
has been steadfast, having been initiated during third-grade lessons on
Indian life and history. While an undergraduate, he participated in an
archaeological field school at Chaco Canyon and a UNAM summer school in
Mexico City. These experiences contributed to his later interest in
Spanish ethnohistorical sources.
After graduating, Sturtevant immediately took up graduate studies in anthropology at Yale University, earning his doctorate in 1955.
There he was especially influenced by anthropological linguist Floyd
Lounsbury. Lounsbury's example, together with his training under Haas
at Berkeley and Bernard Bloch at Yale, solidified Sturtevant's
commitment to linguistic approaches within anthropology. Such methods
and theories were already at the core of Americanist anthropological
scholarship as consolidated by Franz Boas, but Sturtevant became an
exemplar of this tradition during a period when it was transforming on
some fronts and being de-emphasized on others. Sharing Sturtevant's
commitment to linguistically sophisticated ethnography was his friend
and fellow-student Harold Conklin. His first published article was a
thorough study of Seneca musical instruments written jointly with
Beyond its ethnographic significance, this paper was an early example
of rigorous ethnosemantic method, an approach to which both scholars
later contributed theoretical works (Sturtevant 1964). Sturtevant's interest in the West Indies derived from work at Yale with Irving Rouse (Sturtevant 1960b).
1950, Sturtevant began a life-long research relationship with the
Seminole people of Florida. During his doctoral research, he worked
most closely with Josie Billie, an important Seminole "medicine maker"
(Sturtevant 1960). This early research generated a steady stream of
essays in ethnography, oral history and ethnohistory that established
him as a leading figure in the anthropology of the Eastern United
States. Most important among these contributions is his dissertation,
an ethnoscientific ethnography of Seminole medicine, ritual and botany (1955).
It stands among the most comprehensive and sophisticated studies of
ethnobotany produced in the twentieth century and it remains crucial to
the study of Woodland Indian cultures. Sturtevant's Seminole work was
complemented by a continuation of research among the Iroquois that was
also begun while a student at Yale. These experiences, supplemented by
briefer periods of fieldwork throughout the Eastern Woodlands and broad
study of the ethnohistorical sources about it, have provided background
to his comparative studies of the region. They also informed his
advocacy, in congressional testimony and other forums, for federally
unrecognized Indian groups in the region (Sturtevant 1983).
after graduation, Sturtevant left an instructorship at Yale and a
curatorship at its Peabody Museum, for a position as Ethnologist and
later General Anthropologist in the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of
American Ethnology. He held this position from 1956 until 1965, when
the Bureau was merged with the Department of Anthropology in the U.S.
National Museum (later the National Museum of Natural History), where
Sturtevant became Curator of North American Ethnology. He remained an
active participant in the work of Smithsonian anthropology right up
until the time of his death.
prominent among his Smithsonian projects was the Handbook of North
American Indians, of which he served as general editor. Published by
the Smithsonian, the handbook is a major multi-volume reference work
summarizing anthropological, linguistic and historical knowledge about
native peoples north of Mexico. Bearing the imprint of its editor, the
thoroughness of the handbook has made it the essential resource for
those interested in Native American societies.
throughout his career in museum contexts, Sturtevant was active in the
fields of museum anthropology and the study of material culture. He has
advocated for the importance of museums to general anthropology (1973), developed methods for anthropological museology (1977), and conducted research on museum collections (1967). In 1979-1981, he served as president of the Council for Museum Anthropology, publisher of Museum Anthropology and its companion weblog.
was also an important participant in the development of ethnohistory as
an interdisciplinary field of study. He served as President of the
American Society for Ethnohistory in 1965-1966 and his essays helped to
solidify and frame this developing field (1968, 1971).
The confluence of such interests and his training also produced a
commitment to the history anthropology, an additional field with which
he was engaged. In this area, he made significant contributions to the
study of early encounters between Europeans and the peoples of the New
addition to his presidency of the American Anthropological Association
(1980-1981) and of those organizations already discussed, Sturtevant
served as President of the Anthropological Society of Washington
(1992-1993) and the American Ethnological Society (1977). He received
numerous research grants and fellowships. Brown University awarded him
the degree of L.H.D. in 1996. The Smithsonian's National
Anthropological Archives will house his professional papers.
1952, Sturtevant married Theda Maw with whom he raised three children,
Kinthi D.M., Reed P.M. and Alfred B.M. (dec.). They divorced in 1986.
In 1990, he married Sally McLendon, also a leading anthropological
linguist and Americanist.
Sources Cited and Selected Significant Works
Conklin, Harold C. and William C. Sturtevant
"Seneca Indian Singing Tools at Coldspring Longhouse: Musical
Instruments of the Modern Iroquois." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.
Sturtevant, William C.
1955 The Mikasuki Seminole: Medical Beliefs and Practices. Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University.
1960a "A Seminole Medicine Maker." In In the Company of Man: Twenty Portraits by Anthropologists. Joseph B. Casagrande, ed. Pp. 505-532. New York: Harper.
The Significance of Ethnological Similarities between
Southeastern North America and the Antilles. Yale University
Publications in Anthropology 64. New Haven: Yale University Press.
1964 "Studies in Ethnoscience." In
Transcultural Studies in Cognition. American Anthropologist Special
Publication 66(3) Part 2. A. Kimball Romney and Roy Goodwin D'Andrade,
eds. Pp. 99-131. Washington: American Anthropological Association.
1967 "Seminole Men's Clothing." In
Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts. Proceedings of the 1966 Annual
Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. June Helm, ed. Pp.
160-174. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
1968 "Anthropology, History and Ethnohistory." Ethnohistory. 13:1-51.
1971 "Creek into Seminole." In
North American Indians in Historical Perspective. Eleanor Burke Leacock
and Nancy Oestreich Lurie, eds. Pp. 92-128. New York: Random House.
1973 "Museums as Anthropological Data Banks." In
Anthropology Beyond the University. Southern Anthropological Society
Proceedings 7. Alden Redfield, ed. Pp. 40-55. Athens: University of
1977 A Guide to Field Collecting of Ethnographic Specimens. 2nd Edition. Smithsonian Information
Leaflet 503. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
1978-2004 Handbook of North American Indians. 13 Volumes. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
1983 "Tribe and State in the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries." In
The Development of Political Organization in Native North America.
Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society, 1979. Elisabeth
Tooker, ed. Pp. 3-16. Washington: American Ethnological Society.
1984 "A Structural Sketch of Iroquois Ritual." Pp. 133-152. In
Extending the Rafters: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Iroquoian
Studies. Michael K. Foster, Jack Campisi, and Marianne Mithun, eds. Pp.
133-152. Albany: State University of New York Press.
1998 "Tupinambá Chiefdoms?" In Chiefdoms and Chieftaincy in the Americas. Elsa M. Redmond, ed. Pp. 138-149. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
The preceding is adapted from: Jason Baird Jackson (2002) “William C. Sturtevant” In Celebrating a Century: The Presidents of the American Anthropological Association.
Regna Darnell and Fredrick W. Gleach, editors. Pp. 257-260. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press. © 2002 American Anthropological
Association. It was published in this form on March 4, 2007
on the Museum Anthropology weblog and then, on March 10, 2007 in the
weblog formatted edition of Museum Anthropology Review.
Jason Baird Jackson is the editor of Museum Anthropology. He contributed to the “Southeast” volume of the Handbook of North American Indians,
which was published under William C. Sturtevant’s General Editorship.
He is an Associate Professor of Folklore at Indiana University.