Museum Blog

Ruth Underhill Field Journals

Posted 7/5/2011 12:07 AM by Library | Comments

The Ruth Underhill Collection here at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, is currently being processed by Archives Technician Aly Jabrocki, with the help of a generous Save America's Treasures grant. Aly is working with the Anthropology and Archives Departments to process, preserve, catalog and digitize the collection. Currently we have over 50 linear feet of materials relating to Underhill, which is more than any other institution in the country.


At 47 years of age, Ruth Underhill embarked on a second career in anthropology, starting graduate school at Columbia University in 1930. Professor Franz Boas asked her to study the Tohono O'odham in southern Arizona for a few summers and gave her a small stipend of $500 and an old Model T. Due to her age and the fact she was a woman, Underhill was allowed to live and study the nation much more closely than previous anthropologists. In a 1977 interview with the Denver Post, Dr. Underhill said,


"The Papagos [Tohono O'odham] compose long, beautiful poems and songs on such subjects as how corn grows and how rain falls.  They thought I was a witch because I could write those things down [using a phonetic alphabet] and read them back to them. Often, those songs, as the old people sang them, contained archaic words no longer used…then I would have to have one of them tell me what the old words meant, and finally I would translate the whole thing to English."


These field journals were donated to the museum as part of her personal papers and contain some of the earliest known transcriptions of their language. There is no doubt that these field notebooks are some of her most important contributions to the study of anthropology and nations of the Southwestern United States.


Underhill lived in Denver from 1949 until her death in 1984. She served as a consultant for many of the Museum's Native American dioramas in the 1970s and donated her papers to the Museum upon her death. Her collection also includes correspondence, publications, motion pictures, sound recordings and photographs.


 For more information on Ruth Underhill, please check out her Wikipedia page. You may also check out her many books from the Bailey Library.


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