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William C. Sturtevant, 80; leading scholar of Native American cultures

March 20, 2007|From the Washington Post

William C. Sturtevant, a curator emeritus of North American ethnology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and a leading scholar on the traditional cultures of North American tribes, died March 2 at a nursing home in Rockville, Md. He was 80 and had emphysema.

Sturtevant's career with the Smithsonian spanned half a century, beginning in 1956 as an ethnologist at the Bureau of American Ethnology. When the bureau closed nearly 10 years later, Sturtevant became a curator in the anthropology department at the natural history museum, a position he held until retiring in January.

Among his colleagues and peers, he was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the material culture of Native Americans and the importance of clothing, cooking utensils, tools and art as identity markers.

His research encompassed fieldwork, archival and museum research, and the search for and interpretation of early drawings and paintings.

Sturtevant, an anthropologist by training, was recognized as a pioneer in the interdisciplinary fields of ethnohistory and ethnoscience.

He published more than 200 articles and, in 1970, headed the planning of the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians, a 20-volume encyclopedia covering language, culture and history. He served as the handbook's general editor until his death.

He had been president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, the American Ethnological Society, the American Anthropological Assn. and the Anthropological Society of Washington.

Sturtevant was born in Morristown, N.J. His father, Alfred H. Sturtevant, was a noted geneticist at Columbia University and later at Caltech; his mother was a scientific illustrator. The younger Sturtevant served as a Navy pharmacist's mate in the Pacific during World War II.

He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1949 and received a doctorate in anthropology from Yale University in 1955. About that time, he began a decades-long advocacy in aiding indigenous cultures when he testified on Capitol Hill before a subcommittee on Indian affairs. He spoke in support of the Seminole tribe's opposition to legislation that would have ended its federally recognized status.

Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Sally McLendon of New York and Washington; two children from his first marriage; two stepdaughters; a sister; a brother; and a grandson.

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