Exploring the History of Dr. Ruth Underhill’s Work

Dr. Mindy Morgan

Over the course of the past few years, Dr. Mindy Morgan (left) has been exploring the history of anthropology and engaging in new conversations regarding our disciplinary past. Dr. Morgan is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and affiliated faculty member of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program, as well as the Graduate Program Director for the Department of Anthropology, specializing in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology.

Dr. Morgan’s recent work grew from her larger investigation into the periodical Indians at Work, which was published by the Office of Indian Affairs in the 1930s and contained articles authored by bureaucrats, tribal members, and anthropologists. Dr. Ruth M. Underhill, an anthropologist trained by Franz Boas at Columbia University, was one of these contributors.

Dr. Morgan first wrote about Dr. Underhill’s contributions to anthropological debates at the time in her 2017 article “Anthropologists in Unexpected Places: Tracing Anthropological Theory, Practice, and Policy in Indians at Work,” which was published in the esteemed journal American Anthropologist. During this time, Dr. Morgan also helped coordinate a roundtable for the American Anthropological Association meetings in Minneapolis that allowed her to think more deeply about the ways in which Underhill participated in both the production and circulation of disciplinary knowledge in the early 20th century.  Dr. Morgan’s recent article, “Look Once More at the Old Things: Ruth Underhill’s O’odham Text Collections” which appears in Histories of Anthropology Annual (volume 13), grew out of the paper for the roundtable.

Dr. Ruth Underhill fieldwork
Dr. Ruth Underhill, center (image provided by the Denver Museum of Natural History)

In her new article, Dr. Morgan looks at the ways in which Underhill’s collection of O’odham songs and texts in the early 20th century was taken up by others decades later, and reinterpreted according to the needs of the contemporary community. Many of the songs collected by Underhill for her seminal work Singing for Power were retranslated and republished in the 1970s by several O’odham community members working in collaboration with an anthropologist. Their work, Rainhouse and Ocean: Speeches for the Papago Year, does not just reproduce Underhill’s text but extends them by offering new insights and analyses of the songs. A later edition of Singing for Power was issued that carried an introduction by Ofelia Zepeda, an O’odham linguist and scholar working within the language revitalization movement of the early 1990s. This movement sought to ensure the survival of languages at risk of disappearing.

Dr. Morgan looks at how these various processes of texts extracted from their original contexts not only bring new meanings, but new opportunities for transmission and circulation. A central argument in the article is that Underhill’s manner of both collecting and representing the song texts was prescient and indicated her own belief that these texts would and should continue to circulate among the O’odham community for generations to come.

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