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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,659

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This is the grave of Helen Codere.

Born in 1917 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Codere grew up in Minnesota after her parents crossed the border. She was an odd child, or different anyway. She convinced her father, who was a businessman, to build her a cabin in the forest where she could live alone most of the time. No idea what he thought of that, but he eventually agreed. She was a huge fan of Henry David Thoreau and wanted to live that Walden life, a feeling that never left her. Not sure if she went home for her mom to do her laundry like Thoreau did. Codere went to the University of Minnesota, graduating with a degree in anthropology in 1939. After a few years of working, she went to Columbia for her Ph.D. in the subject, which she finished in 1950. Her initial advisor was another rare female anthropologist–Ruth Benedict. But Benedict died in 1948 and so she had to change up her committee.

Codere’s dissertation became Fighting with Property: Study of Kwakiutl Potlatching and Warfare, 1792–1930, her first book. This was a study of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, which today are usually called the Kwakwakaʼwakw. This is one of the classic totem pole tribes of the coast. She wasn’t the first anthropologist to study this group; in fact, it was Franz Boas who had mistakenly used the Kwakiutl term to discuss a bunch of different people who he talked about together. What Codere did here was to revisit the idea of the potlatch as a site of competition and aggression and instead of focus on sociability. A lot of early anthropologists were still judging indigenous people for a supposed lack of productivity and work, which reflected the colonialist attitude that they very much held. Codere pushed back against that too. She helped to launch the modern field of historical anthropology with this work and she also did a lot of work to center cultural change in the study of peoples, which was pretty new in this era, at least according to those who know more than I do about the history of the field. She and Boas were in fact close and worked together on various projects over the years.

Rather than stay working with peoples in Canada, Codere turned her attention to the modern nations of Rwanda and Burundi as they moved toward revolution and freedom. There she had to learn Kinyarwanda and French to research, continuing her work on social change. She eventually published The Biography of an African Society: Rwanda, 1900-1960 in 1973, which is really a series of autobiographies from a wide swath of people there, allowing them to present themselves in their own words, more or less.

Codere taught at many of the best institutions in the country. She started teaching at Vassar in 1946, working there until 1962, went to Bennington briefly, and eventually taught at Brandeis from 1964 until 1982, where she was also dean of the graduate school in the mid-70s. She was also a semi-closeted lesbian who had a life partner named Marion Tait, who she met at Vassar, and openly eschewed the idea of marriage, not wanting to be tied down by a man. When she retired, she split her time moved to a rustic cabin in Vermont, where she lived out her fun days, and living in Concord, where she volunteered for a local library for a couple of decades. Unfortunately, Tait died of lung cancer in 1983.

Codere died in 2009, at the age of 91.

Helen Codere is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other anthropologists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Nancy Lurie is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and William Sturtevant is in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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