Erna Gunther and the Ethnography of Western Washington

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"One of the most interesting and influential anthropologists of her generation... Over the years I had many opportunities to work with her on different projects, in dance programs accompanying her Indian Fashion Shows, and on her Seattle World's Fair exhibition. This exhibition was one of many which she planned and prepared, and which are now recognized as a primary factor in the worldwide recognition of Northwest Coast Indian Art."

--Bill Holmfootnote 1

[Photo: Erna Gunther]
  Erna Gunther. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Division, UW Libraries

The work of UW anthropology professor Erna Gunther on the ethnography and ethnohistory of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast spanned a full six decades. Gunther directed the UW anthropology department for 25 years and the Washington State Museum for 31 years, and continued even after that to make pathbreaking contributions to her field. "More than anyone else she was responsible for setting the direction and establishing the reputation of anthropology at Washington," wrote Viola E. Garfield and Pamela T. Amoss in a biographical account of Gunther's life in the journal American Anthropologist.footnote 2

Gunther's most popular book was the Ethnobotany of Western Washington, published in 1945, which described and documented the uses of Pacific Northwest flora and fauna by native peoples of the region.footnote 3 It was the first ethnobiological investigation of the Northwest culture and is still the primary source document in the field. But she is perhaps most widely known for mounting exhibits of Northwest Coast arts and cultivating public appreciation for the aesthetics of these cultures. Gunther assembled a collection of Northwest Coast art for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. "In preparation she visited museums and art collections throughout the world, cajoling curators into lending some of their finest pieces to produce an exhibit of exceptional items never before seen," recall Garfield and Amoss.footnote 2

Gunther joined the UW anthropology department in 1921 with her husband, Leslie Spier. After a brief time away from the UW, both returned to the University in 1929--Spier as director of the Washington State Museum and Gunther as instructor in anthropology. When Spier left in 1930, Gunther remained to carry on as head of the department and director of the Museum.

Gunther had been a student of well-known anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University in New York, where she had received a MA degree in 1920. When she came out to Seattle with Spier, who had also studied with Boas, she pursued fieldwork with the Coast Salish, the Klallam, and the Makah peoples. Two seminal scholarly works resulting from these studies analyzed the First Salmon ceremony, a ritual welcome of the salmon each year.

[Cover of 1962 World's Fair catalog]
  Cover of 1962 World's Fair catalog of Northwest Indian art exhibit mounted by Gunther. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Division, UW Libraries

Her first paper, "An Analysis of the First Salmon Ceremony," which appeared in American Anthropologist in 1926, explored to what extent cultural traits shared by many different groups could be attributed to common environmental and economic conditions versus the historical processes of diffusion. Gunther found that the pervasive attitude of reverence for the salmon was fostered by the recognition among the people of their dependence on the annual salmon runs. Subsequently in her doctoral dissertation, "Further Analysis of the First Salmon Ceremony," presented in 1928, Gunther analyzed the salmon rituals in a wider context and concluded that the salmon ceremony was a synthesis of two cultural factors: first fruits observances and special relationships with animals.

During her tenure at the UW, the anthropology department grew substantially. It increased from two faculty in 1930 to four faculty and a teaching assistant by 1932. By the time Gunther left her post as chair in 1955, the department comprised 10 full-time faculty members.

Meanwhile, the State Museum flourished under Gunther's guidance. "Always alert to make the museum's name illustrious, Gunther often lent pieces to other museums for special exhibitions. On the local scene she brought the museum to life by sending displays to schools, giving innumerable public lectures, and by her classes, both on campus and though extension. Her radio series, 'Museum Chats,' later expanded into a television show, had lasting effect: many people who saw her on TV in the 1950s still have a lively interest in Northwest Indian art and culture 30 years later," recalled Garfield and Amoss.

Gunther recorded a number of Havasupai and Klallam folktales; she also edited a collection of Puget Sound Salish stories. Her first ethnohistorical work traced the development of the Indian Shaker Church from the late 19th century to the 1940s. Her article, "The Shaker Religion of the Northwest," published in 1949, "demonstrated a good understanding of contemporary Indian life and remains one of the basic sources on Shakerism," said Garfield and Amoss.

Gunther's service to the community and to her field was recognized by the Washington State Historical Society in 1971 with its highest honor, the Robert Gray Medal. The award was given in gratitude for her years on the advisory board of Pacific Northwest Quarterly, for her public lectures, and for her efforts to refurbish the society's large Indian basket collection.

Beginning in the 1950s, and extending throughout the rest of her years, Gunther set out to study and document details of Northwest Coast art objects. She conducted a comprehensive search of Northwest Coast collections in American and European museums. In this process, Gunther extracted information from journals and diaries of collectors with evidence on the style and manufacture of the objects to create a comprehensive picture of the use and function of each item. The results of her detailed study of art objects developed into what has been called the "ethnohistory of material culture" and details of her findings appeared in regional historical journals and catalogs.

One of Gunther's most distinguished students, Wayne Suttles, reflects:

Most academics, after three decades of work, quit and play or die. But here's Erna now going on for three more decades--traveling through Europe looking for 18th-century collections, crossing Asia on the Trans-Siberia Railway, reading papers at international conferences, and publishing more than she did in her earlier life. That inspires me. I suppose her main contributions during these last decades were still in educating a broader public. I suppose...that her work in tracking down 18th-century collections--could it be called 'the ethnohistory of material culture'?--was her most important contribution to scholarship.footnote 4

  1. Erna Gunther: A Personal Memory," by Bill Holm.
  2. "Erna Gunther (1896-1982)," Viola E. Garfield and Pamela T. Amoss, American Anthropologist, 86(2), 394 (1984).
  3. See volume one of this series, entitled Pathbreakers: A Century of Excellence in Science and Technology at the University of Washington, Deborah L. Illman, Series Editor Alvin L. Kwiram, University of Washington, Office of Research, Seattle, 1996.
  4. From a letter by Wayne Suttles about Erna Gunther to Bill Holm, Oct. 22, 1982.

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