Ruth Murray Underhill

1883 - 1984

Ruth Underhill in the field

"After some writing and publishing, and a brief marriage, my conclusion was: I need to know more about people." (Underhill 1979:ix)

bookshelf-free.gif (2449 bytes)

Selected Works by Ruth Underhill

1936  Autobiography of a Papago Women.  Stanford   University Press.

1938  Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

1941  The Northern Paiute Indians of California and Nevada.    William W. Beatty, ed.  Washington: Education Division, U.S. Office of Indian Affairs.

1953:  Red Man's America: A History of Indians in the United States.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1958  First Came the Family.  New York: William Morrow.

1965  Red Man's Religion: Beliefs and Practices of the Indians North of Mexico.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  Links of Interest

Bureau of Indian Affairs

Biography of Ruth Underhill

Griffen, Joyce                                                                                      Woman Anthropologists: Selected Biographies.  Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, and Ruth Weinberg eds.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 

Underhill, Ruth                                                                                   Papago Woman.  Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.

Biography of Ruth Underhill website.


Between 1931 and 1933, Maria Chona of the Southern Arizona Tohono O'Odham tribe, and Ruth Underhill of Columbia University, recorded Chona's autobiography.  This study produced Autobiography of a Papago Woman (1936), the first published life history of a Southwestern Indian woman.

Underhill enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, after her marriage ended in divorce.  Her involvement with the discipline of anthropology was immediate and total:  I was completely given up to it, and now when I see people who take it as one of six courses or so...I'm surprised that anyone could regard it as such an unimportant thing because to me it was the important thing in life (Griffen 1989: 357).

At Columbia University, she studied with Franz Boas, and Ruth Benedict.  Boas offered her a small amount of money for research with the Papago in the Tohono O'Odham tribe, a then little studied tribe (Underhill 1979:x).  In all, Underhill went to the Papago reservation four times while in graduate school. 

maria chona.jpg (13030 bytes)

Maria Chona making a basket

Autobiography of a Papago Woman illustrates the role that feminist ideology played in the transformation of the discipline of anthropology during the  first part of the twentieth century.  It also affords a rare glimpse of the relationship between an Eastern Anglo-American woman and a Southwestern O'Odham woman.                                                                                               Maria Chona and Ruth Underhill saw continuities in their own experiences- both left their husbands, both defied the traditional gender roles of their own culture, both were seekers of knowledge at a time when women were discouraged from doing so.  In the end, their cooperation produced a text which stresses their differing concepts of the universalities of female experience. 

On June 28, 1984, the president of the American Anthropological Association honored Underhill for popularizing anthropology in responsible manner, for her early work in applied anthropology and the study of women's roles, and for her scholarship and teaching (Griffen 1989:359).
side_logo.gif (3050 bytes)