William C. Sturtevant; Expert on Indians

By Louie Estrada
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007

William C. Sturtevant, 80, 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 the Collingswood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rockville. He had emphysema.

Dr. 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, Dr. Sturtevant became a curator in the anthropology department at Natural History, a position he held until retiring in January.

He continued to work at his office as curator until his death.

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 field work, archival and museum research, and the search for and interpretation of early drawings and paintings.

Dr. 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 was past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, the American Ethnological Society, the American Anthropological Association and the Anthropological Society of Washington.

Dr. Sturtevant, who lived in the District, was born in Morristown, N.J. His father, Alfred H. Sturtevant, was a noted geneticist at Columbia University and later the California Institute of Technology; 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 the University of California at 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 persuasively on Capitol Hill before a subcommittee on Indian affairs in support of the Seminole tribe's opposition to legislation that would have ended its federally recognized status.

His marriage to Theda Maw Sturtevant ended in divorce.

A son, Alfred Boyan Maw Sturtevant, died in 1989.

Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Sally McLendon of New York and Washington; two children from his first marriage, Kinthi Diana Maw Sturtevant of New York and Reed Padi Maw Sturtevant of Lexington, Mass.; two stepdaughters, Annabella Pitkin and Dr. Rosemary Pitkin, both of New York; a sister, Harriet S. Shapiro of Chevy Chase; a brother, Alfred Henry Sturtevant of Portland, Ore.; and a grandson.

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