William C. Sturtevant (1926-2007), preeminent North American ethnologist, museum curator, and university professor, was best known for his contributions to Seminole ethnology, as curator of North American Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, and for his work as the general editor of the Handbook of North American Indians.
Sturtevant's passion for studying Native peoples began at a young age. In third grade "after a class on American Indians, he asked his father what kind of people study Indians, and his father replied, 'Anthropologists.' Sturtevant decided then that he would make anthropology his career" (Merrill 11). After graduating with honors from the University of California at Berkeley in 1949, Sturtevant went on to Yale University to complete his graduate work in anthropology. When it came time to decide on what area of North America he should focus his research, one of his faculty members at Yale, Irving Rouse, "suggested he consider the Seminoles of south Florida. By the end of his first fieldwork season, Sturtevant was convinced that the dearth of ethnographic information about these Seminoles and their status as one of the least acculturated of all North American Indian societies justified ethnographic research among them and offered the possibility of making an important contribution to North American ethnology" (Merrill 13). Sturtevant spent the summers of 1950 and 1951 conducting preliminary fieldwork among the Mikasuki-speaking Seminole and in 1952 he took up temporary residence at Big Cypress Reservation to undertake research for his dissertation, "The Mikasuki Seminole: Medical Beliefs and Practices." This work focused on Seminole medicine, but also included Sturtevant's analysis of Seminole worldview, religion, history, inter-ethnic relations, material culture, economy, kinship, language, and social organization.
In 1954, while he was finishing his dissertation, Sturtevant made the transition from student of anthropology to professional anthropologist. He was hired as an instructor in Yale's Anthropology Department and began his career in museum work as an assistant curator of anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum. After receiving his PhD from Yale in 1955, Sturtevant moved on to the Smithsonian Institution, where he accepted a position as a research anthropologist at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE). This position afforded Sturtevant the chance to continue to explore his many research interests in ways that a full time professorship or museum curatorship could not. Over the next ten years he studied the Catawba in South Carolina; the Seneca and Cayuga nations of the Iroquois League in New York, Oklahoma, and Ontario; continued his work with the Seminole; visited European museums to examine early ethnographic examples and possible European prototypes of eastern North American Indian material culture; and spent a year in Burma. In 1963, Sturtevant and his wife, Theda Maw, the daughter of a prominent Burmese family, took their three young children to Burma so that they could visit with Maw's family. Sturtevant took this as an opportunity to branch out from his Native American research and spent the year visiting neighborhoods in Rangoon and villages in the surrounding countryside, examining archival materials, studying the Burmese language, learning about Burmese clothing and other aspects of the culture, and taking photographs. He also collected 386 items of clothing and other objects for the Smithsonian.
When Sturtevant returned from Burma, he found the BAE had been dissolved. In 1965, he was transferred from the now-defunct BAE to the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), where he became curator of North American Ethnology, a position he held for the next forty-two years. During his tenure at NMNH Sturtevant oversaw all the North American ethnology collections, planned exhibitions, served on committees, and sponsored interns and fellows. One of Sturtevant's primary duties at NMNH was serving as the General Editor of the Handbook of North American Indians, "a major multi-volume reference work summarizing anthropological, linguistic, and historical knowledge about native peoples north of Mexico" (Jackson). Each volume was designed to represent a geographic or topical area of Americanist study. As General Editor, Sturtevant selected volume editors, chapter authors, oversaw office staff, and proofread manuscripts over the course of production.
Besides focusing on the Handbook, much of Sturtevant's time was taken up by responsibilities he held outside the Institution. Sturtevant was extremely involved in professional anthropological associations and held many leadership positions. Fresh out of graduate school, he began a three-year term on the Board of Governors of the Anthropological Society of Washington in 1957. He later became a member of the executive committee of the Florida Anthropological Society, served as book-review editor and associate editor of the American Anthropologist from 1962-1968, was a member of the American Anthropological Association's Committee on Anthropological Research in Museums and was both vice president and president of the committee once it became the Council for Museum Anthropology, was on the American Anthropological Association's Committee on Archives, served three terms on the Board of Trustees of the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation from 1976-1982 and was appointed to a fourth term between 1984 and 1986, and sat on the Board of Directors of Survival International from 1982-1988. He was President of the American Society for Ethnohistory, the American Ethnological Society, the American Anthropological Association, and the Anthropological Society of Washington. Sturtevant also taught classes at Johns Hopkins University as an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology, served as a consultant on exhibits at other museums, and reviewed manuscripts for scholarly publications.
Sturtevant remained active in the profession throughout his later years. After divorcing Theda Maw in 1986, he married Sally McLendon, a fellow anthropologist, in 1990 and they undertook several research projects together. Sturtevant was recognized for his dedication and contributions to the field of anthropology in 1996 when he was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters by Brown University, and in 2002 when his colleagues published a festschrift in his honor, Anthropology, History, and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant.
Sturtevant died on March 2, 2007 at the Collingswood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rockville, MD after suffering from emphysema.
Estrada, Louie. 2007. William C. Sturtevant; Expert on Indians. Washington Post, March 17. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602273.html, accessed August 31, 2012.
Jackson, Jason Baird. 2007. William C. Sturtevant (1926-2007). http://museumanthropology.blogspot.com/2007/03/william-c-sturtevant-1926-2007.html, accessed August 31, 2012.
Merrill, William L. 2002. William Curtis Sturtevant, Anthropologist. In Anthropology, History, and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant. William L. Merrill and Ives Goddard, eds. Pp. 11-36. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Born July 26 in Morristown, NJ
Entered the University of California at Berkeley as a second-semester freshman