HELEN CODERE – a real anthropologist

The Boston Globe
Helen Codere, 91; anthropologist studied Rwanda, Pacific Northwest
By Gloria Negri Globe Staff / July 5, 2009


Helen Frances Codere showed her independent spirit and interest in how others live while growing up in St. Paul. A teenager who had read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,’’ she told her father she would like to live alone in a cabin in their woods, as Thoreau had done at Walden Pond.

Charles Codere knew his daughter was strong-willed and acquiesced, though the cabin was without plumbing, her nephew, Richard H. Fleming of Chicago, recalled. “There was no question that Aunt Helen had already fallen in love with anthropology,’’ he said.

She, Fleming said, became a cultural anthropologist at a time “when there were not too many women in the field. Aunt Helen was a trailblazer.’’

Dr. Codere, a professor of anthropology at Brandeis University and then dean of Brandeis’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, died of congestive heart failure June 5 at Emerson Hospital in Concord.

She was 91 and lived in Concord.

Dr. Codere’s books and notes of her pioneering field trips in the 1950s and 1960s, first among the Kwakiutl societies of the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia, and then among the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa societies in Rwanda, remain gems among anthropological literature and will soon be preserved in several anthropological libraries and museums.

Her academic years spanned five decades and included professorships at Vassar College, the University of British Columbia, Northwestern University, Bennington College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Her many awards and fellowships included those from the Social Science Research Council and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Outstanding among her achievements, said Peter Macnair, retired curator of the Royal British Columbia Museum, was her 1966 editing of “Kwakiutl Ethnography,’’ by the late Franz Boas, her mentor whose work among the Kwakiutl she continued. Boas, who died in 1942, had chosen her as his literary executor for his Kwakiutl manuscripts.

“She put together his intended manuscript. That was her huge contribution,’’ Macnair said.

In 1950, Dr. Codere’s book, “Fighting with Property: A study of Kwakiutl Potlatching and Warfare, 1792-1930,’’ was published. In it, she explained the intricacies of the tribe’s potlatching, a system of the redistribution of material possessions. “The party able to give away most of their wealth was clearly the richest of the tribe.’’ Fleming said.

Dr. Codere’s field trips with the Kwakiutl were in 1951 and in 1954-1955, when she lived most the time with a Kwakiutl family.

Dr. Codere did groundbreaking research, said Benson Saler of Concord, a retired Brandeis anthropology professor. “She became a person of some note, particularly for her scholarly field work among the Kwakiutl.’’

Saler recalled her telling him how she lugged a huge amount of oatmeal with her for fear it would be unavailable during her field trips with the tribe. “Field trips in those days were much rougher than they are today,’’ he said. “No four-wheel drives. But one of Helen’s hallmarks was to experience a culture firsthand. You go there and you live with them.’’
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Dr. Codere wrote of her Rwanda field study in 1959-1960 in the book “Women in the Field,’’ edited by Peggy Golde. “Most of the year’s field work revolved around the opportunities and problems of the Rwanda political situation,’’ Dr. Codere wrote.

Dr. Codere, who never married, pointed out that in the field, “Single women lack some of the freedom and mobility of single men; they are objects of even greater curiosity and scrutiny in a world in which going two by two is projected.’’

“The general purpose of the Rwanda field research,’’ she wrote, “was to study change.’’ She was challenged to communicate in two languages, Kinyarwanda and French. “I had come to study social and cultural change,’’ she wrote, “and there was too damned much of it. It was too vast, too widespread, too fast, too violent, too much of a mass phenomenon for me or any other anthropologist to deal with.’’

It was a troubling time for Rwanda. “Before 1959,’’ Dr. Codere wrote, “there had been virtually no foreshadowing of the trouble that began in July following the unexpected death of the [King] Mwami Mutara III,’’ and the resulting conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu.

Her nephew recalled that while in Rwanda she was invited to meet a tribal chief who gave her a gift. “She didn’t know how to reciprocate, so she gave him the five silver dollars her father had given her.’’

Even in her academic life, after retirement in 1982, and her 20 years as a volunteer in the Concord Free Public Library, Dr. Codere never lost the look of a pioneer, friends said.

She favored khaki-type trousers and casual shirts. Her white hair was short. She was 5-foot-4 and wore glasses. “Helen was a renaissance woman,’’ said Patty Bareford, a friend from Concord. “She was extremely accurate with words, had a great sense of humor, a compelling laugh, and was still fiercely independent. She was adamant about reading the paper every day.’’

In her L.L. Bean shoes and Pendleton slacks and jacket, Fleming said, “Helen was always ready to go on a hike.’’

She was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba,and came to the United States with her family in 1919. Her father was a businessman.

She graduated summa cum laude in 1939 from the University of Minnesota and received her doctorate from Columbia University in 1950.

After teaching at Bennington College in Vermont in 1963 and 1964, Dr. Codere moved to Massachusetts and taught at Brandeis, where she later served as dean from 1975 until she left the university in 1977.

She continued her interest in living close to and cultivating nature in her vacation place in Vermont, Saler said.

Saler and his family visited her there and found that her girlhood interest in living like Thoreau had not waned. “I remember,’’ he said, “there was no running water but an interesting system of rain barrels with gutters along the two cabins.’’

“A lifelong conservationist,’’ according to her nephew, Dr. Codere donated her 260 acres in Andover, Vt., and Chester, Vt., to the Vermont Land Trust.

Dr. Codere never lost her sense of humor, Bareford said. When she asked Bareford to pick out a plot for her at Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Bareford called her with two options, one less expensive than the other.

“Buy the expensive one,’’ she told her. “You only get buried once.’’

In addition to her nephew, Dr. Codere leaves another nephew, a niece, five great-nieces and one great-nephew.

Memorial services will take place in Concord at an as yet undesignated location on Sept. 10, which would have been Dr. Codere’s 92d birthday.
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

I taught a seminar with Helen for several years at Brandeis – and we were close
and she exhibited a generosity I have rarely experienced in this world. Her book on Rwanda and its interviews with Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa: The biography of an African society: Rwanda 1900-1960 —
based on forty-eight Rwandan autobiographies
(Annalen : Reeks in-8o : Menselijke Wetenschappen … voor Midden-Afrika, Tervuren ; no. 79 by Helen Codere 1973)
and her article “Power in Rwanda” pointed to the harsh conflicts in Rwandan society – in contrast to the ‘harmonious’ picture of functional hierarchy prevalent in the anthropological literature — should have been an indicator of the explosion to come
a generation later. As she put it – the main problems of Rwanda could be summed up in the word “Contempt” – that of the Tutsi for the Hutu. That many non powerful Tutsi were killed in the explosion of Hutu resentment when their first President was shot from the air by the Tutsi army, is one of the sad events of the world. But she made it clear that the Tutsi had planted the seeds of that explosion — and it was their armies rebelling against the very idea of a Hutu president who had the arrogance to shoot down his plane.
Karl Reisman

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