Advocate and Pioneer: Ruth Murray Underhill (1883-1984)

By: Katie Mumby


Ruth Murry Underhill, at the age of 47, walked up and down the halls of Columbia University. She was looking for something else in her life. To her, these halls “were far from the neatness of Vassar’s, and the people tramping with me, mostly males, looked flustered and untidy.” But she drank this all in and it felt exhilarating. “It was something I had a right to. Here, at last, I would not have to be a sweet girl or a gay sex partner.” Later in life, Ruth would say that she began this journey because in all the experiences she had before this moment she “saw so many people in trouble, so much unhappiness, I began to wonder what was wrong with the human race.” She thought, “I ought to know more about it.” When writing her autobiography, she didn’t remember how many departments she visited in an attempt to find a place where she belonged, but she thinks she spent time in sociology, philosophy, and economics. She had become disillusioned with her previous career in social work, saying, “I find that social work isn’t doing what I thought it did. I wonder if what you teach would really help me to understand these people. I want to understand the human race. How did it get into the state it is in?” No one in these disciplines had answers that satisfied her, until she met Ruth Benedict. Benedict was a professor of anthropology, and she assured Ruth that she had found the right place.[1]

Ruth’s impact was largely felt in communities where she worked but is under-acknowledged in scholarly circles. Ruth’s story deserves acknowledgment in the context of all that was changing in the country at large, but specifically within the communities where she made the most impact. Historian Catherine Jane Lavender positions her as a feminist, as highlighted in Ruth’s early writing of a Broadway play and a novel titled The White Moth, about a “man under the jurisdiction of a woman, and bitterly resentful of his subservient position.” The novel explores how the change in power dynamics changed the woman’s feelings for the man and vice versa. Ruth’s feminism is also apparent in her writing of the first biography of a native woman, Papago Woman. However, these are a small portion of Ruth’s contribution to academia, and truly only the beginning of her journey through life and advocacy. Ruth’s biggest contribution was to the Indigenous tribes of America and her efforts to give them a voice, initially through her writing but in the end encouraging them to find it themselves.[2]

Ruth began her time at Columbia when America’s attitudes toward its Indigenous tribes were undergoing vast and complex shifts. Progressivism was making swift changes in education, research, and the attitudes of professionals and intellectuals but also everyday people. These changes concerned professional standards, the attitudes of historians and anthropologists toward Native Americans, and the education systems of the tribes and the rest of the country. These changes were drastic, some taking years and some occurring very quickly. While some of these changes lasted and some faded away, Ruth both experienced and influenced them all. These changes came together in a perfect storm that culminated during the Roosevelt administration, during which the US government made an attempt to undo and right some of the wrongs done to the Native peoples. Ruth believed in this work and promoted the ideologies imparted to her at Columbia by integrating her experience in social work, her professional status as an anthropologist, and her skill in writing.


Ruth Murray Underhill was born in Ossining-on-Hudson, New York, on August 22, 1883, to Abraham Sutton Underhill and Anna Taber Murray Underhill. Ruth was the oldest of four children, with two younger sisters and a younger brother. She grew up in a family that held intellectualism in high esteem. Her father was an attorney, her uncle Augustus Taber Murray was a professor of Greek at Stanford, and her father’s sister taught Latin in her school. Her sister Elizabeth Sutton Underhill grew up to become a suffragist, a law school graduate, and one of the first female bank directors. Ruth’s younger brother Robert Underhill was a philosopher and a professor at Harvard. Ruth was a quiet but odd child. She said that when she was younger “Grown-ups were always whispering;” but when she learned to read, she stopped paying much attention to them in favor of her new passion. She preferred to read books that were not “nice” and would instead “prowl among the big books.” Since Ruth was born at a time when Victorian values prevailed, she was often categorized as odd in her younger years. Victorian values heavily centered around the idea of separate spheres of influence for men and women. I woman’s place is in the home, which would exclude her from the spaces where higher learning occurred, and the books to which Ruth was drawn.[3]

Ruth went to Vassar College after high school. In 1901, when Ruth entered college, only about four percent of the entire American population attended college. Of the four percent of the population in college at the time, approximately 35 percent of them were women. Despite the tiny size of this group, Ruth writes in her autobiography, “It seems to have always been decided, as far as I can see, that I would attend college.” This exclusive group represented a highly educated elite from the era between the Civil War and World War I. However, the majority of those educated in college at the time were wealthy, white men and would not necessarily utilize the education they received in college. While at Vassar, Ruth involved herself with philanthropic organizations. She was a member of Missionary Finance, a member of the Theta chapter of Philaletheis, a member of the athletic association, and a member of the College Settlement Association.[4]

The College Settlement Association was organized in 1890, and it was a chance for women of colleges across America to get together and often, “The talk fell on the new economics, the new awakening of practical philanthropy…”. The Association aimed to “unite all college women in the trend of a great modern movement, touching them with a common sympathy and inspiring them with a common ideal.” Ruth graduated in 1905 with a degree in English, though she described her degree as being in languages in general. By the time she graduated from Vassar, she could speak German, Italian, French, Latin and Greek. Directly after graduating from Vassar, Ruth traveled throughout Europe, taking classes at the London School of Economics and the University of Munich. This European tour lasted for about two years, much of which was spent in Italy, where she lived with a poor Italian family to keep costs down.[5]

Upon returning home and searching for employment, Ruth pursued a career in social work. This seemed like a natural transition, given her association with the College Settlement Association at Vassar and her interest in philanthropy. However, Ruth was quoted on several occasions complaining that the only options for her after college were teaching or marriage. Luckily, she was able to envision other options, and initially went to work with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Boston. Ruth worked in Boston and was successful in her role with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. However, she had a love affair that went wrong and, with a broken heart, fled to New York City to work for the Charity Organization Society (COS). Founded in 1882, COS aimed to be the legitimate representative of New York charities, intending to spread the doctrine of “scientific charity.” Working as a social worker in New York and Boston, she primarily assisted Italian immigrants. Most of the immigration to the United States at the turn of the 20th Century was from Italy and Southern Europe, and by 1910 immigrants constituted approximately 14.5 percent of the American population. Most of the immigration during this period differed from prior immigration patterns to the United States, as the immigrants involved were largely illiterate and unskilled laborers. They moved to American cities en masse and crowded into neighborhoods with insufficient space, straining the existing health and welfare services. While earlier immigrants had come to America for “the land of an expanding frontier,” immigrants arriving in the Progressive years “found a country deeply involved in a struggle with the problems of urbanization, industrialism, and organized monopoly capitalism.” These factors increased the need for social workers, as well as reform and charity more generally. Most of those who answered this call, including Ruth, were women.[6]

When World War I broke out in 1914, Ruth volunteered for the American Red Cross (ARC) and served in Italy, working in orphanages for children whose parents had been killed in the fighting. The ARC arrived in Italy almost a year before US troops, and they immediately began relief efforts to address homelessness and civilian hunger in allied countries. ARC’s goal was to help to establish diplomatic ties and to prove America’s commitment to the war effort, especially given the United States’ delayed involvement. ARC was not dedicated to the war effort alone, but worked “with an eye toward permanent reform and reconstruction.” ARC began antituberculosis campaigns, founded nursing schools, and developed child-welfare projects. Given Ruth’s time in Italy and the need that she saw there, this work was a perfect fit for her, especially given her experience in social work. The Great War over, Ruth returned home from Italy and continued her work in New York as a social worker. During this period of her life, Ruth spent her spare time authoring fictional works, including a Broadway play, short stories that were published in magazines in New York, and her novel, The White Moth. Ruth did marry around this time but got divorced in 1929.[7]


When Ruth arrived at Columbia and met Ruth Benedict, Benedict was a professor of anthropology, and she was about the same age as Ruth. The Ruths had a lot in common: for example, Benedict was also a divorcee. Even though she was younger than Ruth, she became a mentor to Ruth in her time at Columbia, along with Franz Boas, the “Father of Anthropology” who was still the head of the Anthropology department at Columbia. Boas was renowned for his work on race and culture. His approach emphasized cultural and social particularism, which valued detailed understanding over abstract theory. Columbia’s anthropology department, under Boas’ direction, was at the forefront of theoretical developments in the discipline, making it an ideal place for Underhill to study. By the time Ruth encountered Boas, his perspectives had progressed significantly from his initial stance as an evolutionist and environmental determinist. Boas, influenced by his extensive work in the American Southwest, emphasized cultural biases that shaped ideas about race. He challenged the prevailing notions of “scientific racists” and eugenicists. In 1930, he published “Anthropology and Modern Life,” an influential work contesting scientific racism, and focused on methodological issues, advocating firsthand observational, long-term fieldwork using an idiographic approach. Boas played a central role in the rise of cultural relativism in anthropology, promoting the use of cross-cultural ethnology and specific ethnographies to critique American society broadly. Before Boas, anthropologists believed that cultural disparities originated from the failure of “primitive” societies to progress linearly along the path of cultural evolution. Advocates of the theory of cultural evolution contended that these societies had halted in their development, existing in a state of savagery or barbarism, while asserting that white European culture had progressed to a civilized state. Taking advantage of this perspective, eugenicists asserted that individuals in less advanced states had displayed evolutionary unfitness and, following Darwinian principles, should be hindered from reproducing. Scientific racists expanded upon these notions, suggesting that racial differences resulted from varying “levels of development rather than environmental and biological factors.” Although not all advocates of cultural evolution embraced scientific racism, a substantial majority of scientific racists aligned themselves with the cultural evolutionist framework.[8]

Many of Boas’ students, including Ruth, were prominent advocates of cultural relativism in anthropology. In fact, Boas taught some of the most famous American anthropologists, including Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, Alfred Kroeber, and Margaret Mead. Boas recognized the injustices faced by women in academia and aimed to create a more inclusive academic environment by acknowledging the talents and qualifications of people beyond traditional discriminatory boundaries. Ruth spoke and read German flawlessly, and so she was able to gain Boas’ attention. He soon came to appreciate her intelligence and would invite her for beers at the faculty club on Friday afternoons. Ruth’s closeness to Boas and Benedict during her time at Columbia allowed her the opportunity to conduct research for her doctoral thesis with the Tohono O’odham tribe (which went by the name Papago in Ruth’s time). Boas’ and his students’ perspectives on cultural relativism did much to shift the attitudes of both his students and the country regarding the treatment of Native Americans.[9]

Ruth’s fieldwork with the Tohono O’odham people was an incredible opportunity for her. There had been limited previous fieldwork conducted with the tribe. Anthropologists resisted fieldwork with the Tohono O’odham due to the tribe’s hostility to outsiders. Ruth managed to befriend a Tohono O’odham woman named Maria Chona and this friendship allowed her access to the Tohono O’odham people. Ruth’s book Papago Woman, about Chona’s life, was the first about a Native woman. Much of the research and fieldwork for this book was done during Ruth’s time with the Tohono O’odham in 1931-1933, while gathering information for her doctoral thesis. When writing of this work later in life, Ruth said, “…I took down verbatim from her lips… I never tampered with them since, nor with the words of ceremonials taken at the same period.” Ruth’s use of Chona’s own words highlighted her commitment to preserving Native voices and ensuring that all Americans understood the rich narratives of indigenous peoples. In doing so, she advocated for the value of oral history long before it gained widespread acclaim among historians. However, to allow a wider audience access to Tohono O’odham culture and traditions, Ruth did reorder Chona’s story. Ruth did this for the ease of the average reader, as the Tohono O’odham narrative style grouped themes rather than linearly telling the story. Ruth attempted to maintain the poetic essence of Chona’s tale while adapting the narrative to a more European, chronological style. Ruth employed rhetorical techniques to capture the essence of Tohono O’odham philosophy and survival skills, portraying the Tohono O’odham as a group that quietly adapted to circumstances and worked hard. She carefully preserved Chona’s words and thoughts in a way that would resonate with Tohono O’odham readers. Later in life, Ruth would be honored for her portrayal of Chona by members of the Navajo Nation (which incorporates the Tohono O’odham tribe) for the profound impact the recognition of their heritage in Chona’s life story had on them.[10]

Ruth later said of her mentors that, “Benedict and Boas opened a door through which light shone on me.” Benedict and Boas had vastly different approaches when it came to anthropology. Boas believed in researching societies as a cohesive group in terms of their political and social structures. He held the belief that the anthropological value was highest in studying the ways in which a society was organized and how that society defined its family units. Benedict believed in focusing more on individuals and how they expressed their cultural values. Her work focused more on how families instructed their children, rather than how that family or group was organized. Boas’ approach was more of a bird eye view of culture than Benedict’s micro approach which focused more on an individual’s experience. Ruth’s style finds a balance between the Boas’ way and Benedict’s way. Ruth completed her dissertation in 1935 but did not receive her doctorate until 1937. During that period, a doctorate was not awarded until the dissertation was published, and Ruth encountered challenges in finding a publisher willing to do so. While waiting for her dissertation to be published, Ruth began working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).[11]

Prior to Ruth’s employment with the BIA, the education provided to Native children had undergone many different phases over the years. Outsiders had been responsible for the education of Native children since approximately 1819, when the government established the Civilization Fund. This endowment aimed to provide funding for Christian missionary schools on reservations, with the objective of educating Native Americans in the ways of “White” civilization and culture. By 1884, there were missionary schools on 73 reservations that provided education for approximately 239,000 students. In 1865, a Congressional Committee recommended the creation of boarding schools off the reservations, as the children were “not being civilized quickly enough to avoid extermination as a race.” In 1870, the federal government started diverting funds from on-reservation missionary schools to off-reservation boarding schools. Congress had discontinued the provision of federal subsidies to missionary schools by 1873. Many of the people involved in the schooling of Native children at this time passionately believed that they were doing a “philanthropic service,” as they believed in the superiority of white culture and believed that the only way to save the Native Americans was to erase their culture completely. Henry Price, the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1881, wrote that “Savage and civilized life cannot live and prosper on the same ground. One of them must die.” Secretary of the Interior Lamar expressed similar sentiments in 1886 when he wrote that Native Americans were confronted with the choice between quickly assimilating into American civilization or going extinct. Due to the conviction Native cultures should be completely eliminated, these schools prohibited the use of Native languages. Attire, hairstyles, religion, art, or any form of personal expression reflecting Native traditions were not allowed, particularly for students enrolled in off-reservation boarding schools.[12]

In 1901, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs called for a change from off-reservation boarding schools to on-reservation boarding schools. He believed that off-reservation boarding schools were “inappropriate places in which to educate children.” He thought they were too expensive, and that they did not allow the tribes to be self-supporting. The next Commissioner of Indian Affairs began constructing day schools on the reservations. However, the philosophy of these schools remained focused on “civilizing” the child, “with a heavy focus on requiring labor as a means of civilizing.” The rationale for relocating onto reservations was to “carry civilization to the Indian” instead of “bringing the Indian to civilization.” By 1915, Native American children in boarding schools were required to work for the schools to continue operating. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs summed up Native boarding schools when he said, “In our Indian schools a large amount of productive work is necessary. They could not possibly be maintained on the amounts appropriated by Congress for their support were it not for the fact that students are required to do the washing, ironing, baking, cooking, sewing, to care for the dairy, farm, garden, grounds, buildings, etc.-an amount of labor that has in aggregate a very appreciable monetary value.” The schools had essentially become labor factories. Their leaders believed that requiring this work of Native children was necessary to turn those children into willing adult workers.[13]

During this same time period (the end of the 19th and the early 20th century), the United States had increasingly moved toward professionalization across most if not all disciplines, including in education. Prior to the nineteenth century, experiential learning was widespread across almost all scholarly disciplines. Professions like education, law, and medicine, relied on apprenticeships, and these apprentices would go into practice without formal education. However, in 1882 John Franklin Jameson and Clarence Brown received the first Doctor of History degrees from Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities. Previously, if an American wanted to receive a doctorate-level degree, they would have to go to Germany. Yale and Johns Hopkins then adopted the German style of archival research, as used in graduate seminars there, and more American universities began awarding Ph.D.s based on German research standards. Owing to the transition toward formal education rather than apprenticeships, “professions began to seek more stringent ways to train and credential” individuals seeking work in specialized fields. These specialized fields then required increased barriers to entry in order to differentiate their professionals from tradesmen and laborers. These barriers included advanced degrees, licensing exams, and adherence to standardized methodologies more generally. This increased adherence to standardized methodologies affected attitudes toward the education of all American children. Additionally, the rise of the Progressive Education movement, as well as increased “agitation by liberal Whites for reform in the notoriously corrupt Office of Indian Affairs,” resulted in rapid change in the Native education system.[14]

John Collier, who became Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, played a significant role in the changes made to the Native education system. In 1922, Collier initiated what is often referred to as “the first mass movement on behalf of Native Americans.” He aimed to preserve both the land held by Native American tribes and their religious practices. Collier garnered such extensive support that, in 1923, he assumed the role of executive secretary in a newly formed organization called the American Indian Defense Association. Collier was vicious in his attacks against the federal government and their treatment of Native peoples. His extensive support network compelled Herbert Work, appointed as the Secretary of the Interior in 1923, to establish an advisory committee named the Committee of One Hundred in an effort to shield himself from Collier’s criticism. The formation of this committee did not pacify Collier, and he accused the committee of making poor recommendations. So much so that in 1926, the mounting public pressure forced Work to ask a private research firm (the Brookings Institute) to survey all areas of life on the reservations, including schools. The resulting report was a harsh critique of the work of the Office of Indian Affairs, and indicated several areas in which they “found altogether too much evidence of real suffering and discontent to subscribe to the belief that the Indians are reasonably satisfied with their condition.” The Meriam Report, so called after the head of the research team hired by the Brookings Institution, Lewis Meriam. The report recognized that although the BIA had shifted away from boarding schools, and more children were enrolled in public schools than in government-maintained schools exclusively for Natives, “the boarding school, whether on the reservation or off, remained the dominant characteristic of the school system maintained by the government.”[15]

W. Carson Ryan, Jr. authored the education section of the report. At the time that Ryan authored the report, he was an active member of the Progressive Education Association (PEA). The PEA was a group of educators, aimed at instructing middle- and upper-middle-class students based on the principles of emerging psychology. They emphasized child-centered classrooms that highlighted individual creativity. The common thread among them was their commitment to innovation and an alignment with the ideas of John Dewey. Dewey’s theories brought about a new way of thinking about education, seeing schools as drivers of social change. This perspective emphasized the belief that every individual has special creative abilities. The argument suggested that a school encouraging children to freely develop these abilities provided the best guarantee for a society truly dedicated to valuing humanity and achieving excellence. Thus, the PEA recommended “freedom, child interest, pupil initiative, creative self-expression, and personality development.” Ryan, in the Meriam Report, proposed the use of these principles in Native schools both on and off the reservation. He believed that these principles would allow the teachers to instruct the children more efficiently, as they would be able to gather their “instructional material from the life around the students.” This proposal was considered “more sensible” than teacher-led instruction because it would not only provide readily available content for the teachers but also foster increased interest and engagement by the children. In fact, Ryan posited that the standardized curriculum goals that the schools were currently using were impossible for the teachers to meet because of the conditions at those schools. Ryan argued for dissolving all off-reservation boarding schools and only allowing boarding schools to remain on reservations where the populations were scarce, and families would have to travel too great a distance to make daily schooling practical. However, he recommended that the BIA create and establish as many day schools as possible. Due to its impact, the Meriam Report is still considered a turning point in Indian education. The report proposed a view of Native American life that both incorporated the long-held beliefs of the federal government toward “civilizing” Native Americans and allowed for the new and “unprecedented possibility of maintaining a distinctively Indian life.”[16]

In 1929, Herbert Hoover assumed office with the intention of implementing the suggestions outlined in the Meriam Report. He appointed Charles James Rhoads as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and W. Carson Ryan was appointed as the director of the Indian Education Service. In 1932, when Rhoads left office, he claimed in his final report that during his tenure he had closed six boarding schools and had sent the students to local schools, so they could live at home. Ryan barred existing boarding schools from enrolling young children, and those that remained open adjusted their curriculum to become “genuine vocational training” schools. However, they considered the increased attendance of Native American children in public schools near the reservation as their most significant achievement. This number increased from 38,000 in 1930 to 48,000 by 1932. They had also hired more than 800 new elementary school teachers.[17]

After Franklin Roosevelt was elected, he designated Harold L. Ickes as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. In 1933, Ickes, in turn, appointed Collier as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier began almost immediately to garner support for the Indian Reorganization Act. This act would serve as the foundation for “the Indian New Deal.” The bill, signed into law in June 1934, ended the allotment system and allowed the Native American tribes to form self-governing bodies. The act also provided additional funds for vocational training. Surprisingly, many tribes did not endorse the bill, prompting Collier to take steps to facilitate Native Americans’ comprehension of and benefit from the Indian Reorganization Act. In an effort to assist tribes in understanding and complying with the act’s requirements, Collier hired anthropologists to collaborate with them to prepare constitutions and develop land use projects. In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hired Ruth to work on a soil conservation survey team. However, Collier quickly removed her as the head of this survey team. Her transfer occurred early due to her criticism of the newly drafted tribal constitutions, particularly the one for the Tohono O’odham. Underhill argued that it did not accurately represent the Tohono O’odham sociopolitical structure or the realities of life in the desert. The Tohono O’odham followed Ruth’s suggestions and did not ratify the constitution. Collier not only removed her from that project, he also prevented her from working on projects that directly impacted the Tohono O’odham people and ensured other federal agencies did the same. Collier also ensured that Underhill was not given any administrative or executive roles. Despite the tension with Collier, the Sherman Indian Institute in Riverside, California invited her to teach ethnology courses there that summer. Prevented by Collier from actively shaping culturally appropriate policies, Underhill continued to work with the agency, creating educational and ethnographic manuals to train employees and Public BIA Health Service personnel. She conducted in-service workshops for the teachers and staff.[18]

In 1936, Collier appointed Willard W. Beatty to the position of Director of Indian Education. Beatty had been the Director of the PEA prior to his employment at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Ryan, who was stepping down as Director of Education, went on to replace Beatty as the Director of PEA. A February 1936 issue of Time noted that this appointment showed a “new attempt to develop some sort of education to which Indians would respond. When the U.S. Government first turned from shooting Indians to educating them, it hoped to accomplish their gradual assimilation into white communities. “In 1879, General Richard Henry Pratt (who once proposed apportioning the Indians, like so many marbles, nine to each county in the U. S.) founded Carlisle School in Pennsylvania…” The Carlisle School inspired

many another boarding school far from the Indian Reservations. But the Indian did not take to the white man’s ways. The graduates of the boarding schools generally returned to their reservations and their blankets. Since the prime tenet of Progressive Education is to let pupils study what they want to study, Willard Beatty seemed well fitted for the job. In reservation schools, Director Beatty will encourage the study of Indian arts, customs and languages, in addition to ‘pale face learning’. The typically Progressive ‘project system’ of education will be applied chiefly to the molding of pottery and weaving of blankets, tourist trades in which Indians are protected by a Federal law that only goods actually manufactured by Indians can be labeled ‘Indian.’

Beatty, in his role as Director of Education, continued Ryan’s work and the work begun after the Meriam Report was issued.[19]

In 1938, Ruth joined the education division under Willard Beatty in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Underhill was optimistic about this role, as she aimed to influence educational policy by incorporating Indigenous perspectives. She believed that modern education for Native Americans should align with their cultural values and thinking patterns. Inspired by Tohono O’odham poetry, she promoted the use of Native educational materials instead of European ones, even though the availability of such resources was limited.[20]

Throughout her government tenure, Underhill authored nine books for the Indian Life and Customs and Indian Handicraft series. Some of these books, after being reprinted for a broader audience, became mandatory reading materials in classes from the 1950s to the 1980s, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These books, often illustrated by Native American artists, were widely read within the education system and by the general public. More significantly, numerous indigenous school districts adopted these books for high school education. Consequently, Ruth influenced many Native American readers through her interpretation of their history and her perspective on what it meant to be “Indian.” Ruth believed these were her greatest contributions. Underhill’s 1938 publication “First Penthouse Dwellers of America” gained her widespread recognition. Critics like Oliver Lafarge commended her for avoiding the dry and overly technical style typical in scientific writing, appreciating her ability to present her work in an engaging and accessible manner. However, she also received criticism from others for her writing style, some critics believed the same thing that Lafarge commended her for was a weakness. Reviewers praised her for seamlessly blending the skills of a talented writer with the expertise of a seasoned ethnographer, ethnologist, and ethnohistorian. Alice Marriott ended one review of Ruth’s work by saying: “The pity is that there is only one Ruth Underhill, and only a limited number of hours in a day for her to write.” Ruth’s writing emphasized “lessons that non-Indians could learn from Native Americans and her ability to write poetically and engagingly made her work popular.”[21]

The efforts of the Indian Reorganization Act represented a crucial shift in the history of the education of Native American children. These efforts were interrupted by World War II, but even before then, individuals expressed dissatisfaction with the impact of the Act and the progressive education movement within the BIA. In 1944, H. Scudder Mekeel contended that the BIA caused harm by neglecting the traditional social structures inherent in Native American communities, compelling them to adopt Anglo-Saxon democratic principles. While Mekeel acknowledged that assimilated Native Americans might comprehend and embrace the idea of creating a constitution, he asserted that individuals adhering to traditional forms of self-government perceived this requirement as foreign and overly rigid for their way of life. Furthermore, he argued that the personnel responsible for implementing the act, who were predominantly white officials, adhered to outdated notions about hastening assimilation. Mekeel recommended that white officials should aim to incorporate the values reflected in the lives of the children’s parents and friends, rather than attempting to impose the values of the dominant culture. As an illustration, Mekeel advocated for changes in history texts that celebrated the triumphs of white settlers over those the texts labeled as savages.[22]

Ruth also became disillusioned with the changing policies at BIA. Due to wartime rationing programs and loss of drivers who were often the first to enlist in the war effort, it was impossible to maintain the buses needed to transport children to the schools and many had to be closed. In the early 1940s, Collier lost hope in his community education programs and so he gave less and less attention to education and spent much of his time highlighting Native American contributions to the war effort. By 1944, most of the reservation boarding school facilities were falling apart. Collier complained that he was not getting the funds needed from Congress, but upon leaving the BIA, Beatty indicated that he thought if Collier had let him try, he would have been able to appropriate the needed funds. Ruth was forced out of a permanent full-time position with the BIA following its reorganization in 1945 when Collier resigned from his position as commissioner. However, Willard Beaty continued giving her temporary assignments so she could complete her writing tasks. Due to civil service age restrictions, she officially retired from the BIA in 1948. By that time, she had visited nearly every reservation in the United States, and for the preceding 13 years, she had lived the life of a nomad. She never settled down in one location until she began teaching at the University of Denver, retiring again in 1952. She was 69 years old. She then took a yearlong trip around the world. Even after she retired from teaching full-time, she taught intermittently at various institutions, including the University of Denver, New York State Teachers College (now the State University of New York at New Paltz), and Colorado Women’s College (now Temple Buell College). After she retired from the university, Ruth continued contributing to the increase in understanding, by both Natives and the general public, of Native history and traditions. She wrote a book entitled Red Man’s America, published in 1956, and taught a television and radio course for the public related to that work. She continued to be active with the Native American community, including Denver’s urban Indian initiatives, where she focused on the challenges faced by Native individuals in adapting to non-reservation life while preserving their ancient cultural traditions.[23]


Ruth died two weeks before her 101st birthday in 1984.[24] She has been characterized as a scholar, a clever humanist, a feminist, and a scientist with poetic talents. Ruth demonstrated a profound interest in people and social organizations that guided her through numerous experiences. She can be considered a true ethnohistorian, even though her work came before the term was coined. She displayed innovation, versatility, insight, and ahead-of-her-time research methodologies and writing styles, while working with the fluctuating attitudes of her time. According to archaeologist Cynthia Irwin-Williams, Ruth had an unparalleled ability to convey her own perceptions and the emotions and visions of those she collaborated with. In a field like anthropology, where literature often features dry technical language and obscure jargon, Ruth’s contributions stand out for the beauty of her language and its lyrical quality. Her fascination with the richness of the Native American heritage is evident in her charming and graceful depictions of their patient, quiet, and democratic ways of life.[25] She was the first anthropologist to turn over all her field notes to the tribes so they could complete their own histories, and she was the first female anthropologist to write an autobiography of a Native American woman.

Ruth’s work contributed to the transition in academic history by which Native American perspectives took center stage. As Leckie and Parezo have said in Their Own Frontier, it is appropriate to center the Tohono O’odham people, whom Ruth wrote of often and said she could “have spent a lifetime among,” in considering the impact that Ruth’s work had. A Tohono O’odham linguist, Penny Lopez, said of Ruth and her work, “Sometimes we don’t know the whole story and we can look at her books and see what it should be. We trust Underhill.” In 1980 when Ruth was honored by the tribe, Mary Grace Jones said, “I think her [books] are the most accurate of the books written. They give you a picture of how it was. You can pick them up and read again and again.” Tribal elder Joseph Enos stated, “We don’t have to make Dr. Underhill an honorary O’odham. She is already O’odham in our eyes.” The highest form of praise for Ruth is the respect she earned from the members of the tribe she loved, and whose traditions she spent her life attempting to preserve.


  1. “Citizen Register 19 Aug 1984, Page 4,”, accessed October 9, 2023,
  2. Cremin, Lawrence A., “John Dewey and the Progressive-Education Movement, 1915-1952,” The School Review 67, no. 2 (Summer 1959): 160–73,
  3. “Education: Beatty to Indians,” Time, February 10, 1936, 36-38.
  4. Graham, Patricia Albjerg, “Expansion and Exclusion: A History of Women in American Higher Education,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 3, no. 4 (Summer 1978): 759–73,
  5. lrwin, Julia F., “Nation Building and Rebuilding: The American Red Cross in Italy during the Great War,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 8, no. 3 (July 2009): 407–39,
  6. Kaschube, Dorothea V., “Ruth Murray Underhill,” Southwestern Lore 31, no. 4 (March 1966): 69–73.
  7. Lavender, Catherine Jane. Scientists and Storytellers: Feminist Anthropologists and the Construction of the American Southwest. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
  8. Leckie, Shirley A. and Nancy J. Parezo. Their Own Frontier: Women Intellectuals Re-Visioning the American West. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
  9. Leighninger, Leslie, “Social Workers, Immigrants, and Historians: A Re-Examination,” The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 2, no. 3 (Spring 1975): 326–44,
  10. Lomawaima, K. Tsianina and Teresa L. McCarty, “When Tribal Sovereignty Challenges Democracy: American Indian Education and the Democratic Ideal,” American Educational Research Journal 39, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 279–305,
  11. Melrose, Frances, “Study of the Papagos Is Fondly Recalled,” The Denver Post, January 23, 1977.
  12. Noel, Jana, “Education toward Cultural Shame: A Century of Native American Education,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 16, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 19–32.
  13. “Philaletheis.” Vassar Encyclopedia. Accessed November 18, 2023.
  14. “Strike New Note: Novelist Creates Sensation When She Writes of Man under Woman’s Jurisdiction,” Oklahoma City Times, January 18, 1921.
  15. “The Problem of Indian Administration: Summary of Findings and Recommendations / Institute for Government Research; Survey Staff, Lewis Meriam, Et al,” HathiTrust, accessed September 11, 2023,
  16. To conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes, Public Law 109-221 (1934).
  17. Topalov, Christian, “Power and Charity in New York City during the Progressive Era: A Network Analysis,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 50, no. 3 (Winter 2019): 383–425,
  18. Underhill, Ruth, Chip Colwell, and Stephen E. Nash. An Anthropologist’s arrival: A memoir. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2014.
  19. Underhill, Ruth Murray., The White Moth. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1920.
  20. Underhill, Ruth. Papago woman. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1985.
  21. “The Vassarion…Vassar College, 1903.” HathiTrust. Accessed November 18, 2023.
  22. Waltras, Joseph, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” The Journal for Educational Foundations 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 81–104.
  23. Woods, Robert Archey and Albert Joseph Kennedy. Handbook of Settlements. (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1911).


  1. Frances Melrose, “Study of the Papagos Is Fondly Recalled,” The Denver Post, January 23, 1977; Ruth Murray Underhill, Chip Colwell, and Stephen E. Nash. An Anthropologist’s arrival: A memoir. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2014, 131.

  2. Ruth Murray Underhill, The White Moth (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1920); “The Oklahoma City Times 18 Jan 1921, Page 14,”, accessed September 14, 2023,; Catherine Jane Lavender, Scientists and Storytellers: Feminist Anthropologists and the Construction of the American Southwest (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2006).

  3. Underhill, An Anthropologist’s Arrival, 48 & 86. Interestingly, there is a note in about an older sister Helen (and in Ruth’s autobiography as well). does not indicate a death date for Helen, but the editors speculated in the intro that she died as an infant. Augustus Taber Murray was an interesting man as well. He graduated from Haverford College in 1885 and later taught at Stanford, and he published his own translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey; Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” The Journal of American History 75, no. 1 (1988): 9.

  4. Underhill, An Anthropologist’s Arrival, 87; Patricia Albjerg Graham, “Expansion and Exclusion: A History of Women in American Higher Education,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 3, no. 4 (Summer 1978): 759–73. The quote regarding women in higher education is from Graham: “By 1880 women constituted 32 percent of the undergraduate student body; by 1910 almost 40 percent.” I estimate that by 1901 attendance rates would have increased at a relatively steady rate to the 40 percent quoted in 1910.

    The Vassarion: Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY, 1903). Philaletheis began as a literary society, but by the 1870s was a society focused on theatrics and production of plays. See “Philaletheis,” Vassar Encyclopedia, 2006,

  5. Underhill, An Anthropologist’s Arrival, 87; Robert Archey Woods and Albert Joseph Kennedy, Handbook of Settlements (Charities Publication Committee, 1911).

  6. Underhill, An Anthropologist’s Arrival, 89-98; Christian Topalov, “Power and Charity in New York City during the Progressive Era: A Network Analysis,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 50, no. 3 (Winter 2019): 383–425; Leslie Leighninger, “Social Workers, Immigrants, and Historians: A Re-Examination,” The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 2, no. 3 (Spring 1975): 326–44.

  7. Julia F. lrwin, “Nation Building and Rebuilding: The American Red Cross in Italy during the Great War,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 8, no. 3 (July 2009): 407–39; Unknown, “Strikes New Note: Novelist Creates Sensation When She Writes of Man under Woman’s Jurisdiction,” Oklahoma City Times, January 18, 1921.

  8. Lavender, Scientists and Storytellers, 25; “In anthropology, idiographic describes the study of a group, seen as an entity, with specific properties that set it apart from other groups.” in “Nomothetic and idiographic” Wikpedia Foundation, last edited on 13 January 2024,; “Ethnology: a branch of cultural anthropology dealing chiefly with the comparative and analytical study of cultures.” in “Ethnology”, Merriam Webster,; “Ethnography is a branch of anthropology and the systematic study of individual cultures.” Ethnography, Wikepedia Foundation, last edited on 7 March 2024,

  9. Lavender, Scientists and Storytellers, 344-346; Shirley A. Leckie and Nancy J. Parezo, Their Own Frontier: Women Intellectuals Re-Visioning the American West (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 346; N Lavender, Scientists and Storytellers, 106.

  10. Lecke and Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 360-362; Ruth Underhill, Papago Woman (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1985), x.

  11. Lavender, Scientists and Storytellers, 107.

  12. Jana Noel, “Education toward Cultural Shame: A Century of Native American Education,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 16, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 19-26; K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty, “When Tribal Sovereignty Challenges Democracy: American Indian Education and the Democratic Ideal,” American Educational Research Journal 39, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 282.

  13. Noel, “Education toward Cultural Shame,” 27.

  14. Leckie & Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 14-16; Lomawaima & McCarty, “When Tribal Sovereignty Challenges Democracy: American Indian Education and the Democratic Ideal,” 286.

  15. Joseph Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” The Journal for Educational Foundations 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 81–104; “The Problem of Indian Administration: Summary of Findings and Recommendations / Institute for Government Research; Survey Staff, Lewis Meriam, 3.

  16. Lawrence A. Cremin, “John Dewey and the Progressive-Education Movement, 1915-1952,” The School Review 67, no. 2 (Summer 1959): 164-165; Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 85; Lomawaima and McCarty, “When Tribal Sovereignty Challenges Democracy: American Indian Education and the Democratic Ideal,” 286.

  17. Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 86-87.

  18. Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 86-87. To conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes, Public Law 109-221 (1934). Leckie & Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 358. Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 87.

  19. “Education: Beatty to Indians,” Time, February 10, 1936, pp. 36-38; Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 87.

  20. Leckie and Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 358-359.

  21. Leckie and Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 358-360.

  22. Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 88-94.

  23. Jensen, Katherine. “Teachers and Progressives: The Navajo Day-School Experiment 1935-1945.” Arizona and the West 25, no. 1 (1983): 59-60; Waltras, “Progressive Education and Native American Schools, 1929-1950,” 98; Dorothea V. Kaschube, “Ruth Murray Underhill,” Southwestern Lore 31, no. 4 (March 1966): 69–73; Leckie and Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 362.

  24. “Citizen Register 19 Aug 1984, Page 4,”, accessed October 9, 2023,

  25. Underhill, Papago Woman, x; Leckie and Parezo, Their Own Frontier, 363.

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