Earth Notes: The Accidental Anthropologist

Oct 2, 2013

She said she started her study of Navajo society "by accident." But, that "accident" turned into a lifetime career for anthropologist Gladys Reichard.

Gladys Reichard
Credit Museum of Northern Arizona

in 1893 into a Pennsylvania Quaker family, Reichard went on to attend Swarthmore College and receive a doctorate from Columbia University. There, her mentor was the famous anthropologist Franz Boas. She became a professor at Barnard College, and herself mentored many future female anthropologists.

In 1930, this independent woman left the security of the eastern establishment to go live among the Navajo. She settled in with a well-known medicine man named Miguelito and his wife, Maria, at Ganado, Arizona.

Under Maria's patient instruction, Reichard learned the art of rug weaving. She reciprocated by taking the family in her touring car down sandy reservation roads to Hubbell Trading Post and other places.

From that experience, she wrote Spider Woman: A Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters. It's a work at once scholarly and personally engaging, and the first of many books she published about her ethnographic research.

Reichard fell in love with the Southwest, returning each summer to pursue her studies of Navajo language, religion and culture. She not only learned to weave, but also attended important ceremonies and spoke fluent Navajo.

By the 1940's, Gladys Reichard was spending her sabbaticals and summers at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, where she was also a board member. That is where she died, of a stroke, in July 1955, leaving behind a valuable legacy of work.