In Memoriam – Helen Codere, Anthropology News – – – – – Judith Irvine and Stephen Pastner

Helen Frances Codere, 91, Professor of Anthropology Emerita at Brandeis University, died in Concord, MA on June 5, 2009.

Born in Winnipeg in 1917, Helen became a naturalized US citizen after her family moved to Minnesota in 1919. She received her BA from the University of Minnesota (1939) and her PhD in anthropology from Columbia (1950), where she studied with Ruth Benedict.

Helen was an independent-minded, tenacious and sometimes feisty person who also had a strong sense of humor and much generosity and kindness. The determination with which she endured a cold-water flat and other hardships of student life in New York in the 1940s also saw her through fieldwork in Rwanda in a year of political revolution (1959–60). Her scholarly independence shows in her resistance to intellectual fads; Lévi-Straussian structuralism was her particular bête noire. She is perhaps best known for her Kwakiutl work, including her 1966 edition of Boas’ unfinished manuscript Kwakiutl Ethnography. Her thorough knowledge of the Kwakiutl (or Kwakwaka’wakw) was gained from both textual sources and fieldwork (1951, 1955).

Helen’s doctoral dissertation on Kwakiutl history, published as Fighting with Property (1950), steered an original path. She was always willing to oppose claims she thought were oversimplified or biased. Despite her respect for Benedict, Helen’s Kwakiutl publications offer a decidedly non-Dionysian depiction. Similarly, in her work on Rwanda she argued forcefully against the views of those anthropologists who—relying mainly on Tutsi sources—presented Rwanda as a functional equilibrium based on a consensus of social inequality,
whereas her analysis revealed the importance of power, coercion and Tutsi–Hutu antagonism.

Although Helen never actually met Boas, she was a true Boasian in her concern for ethnographic depth and detail. Her 1973 Rwanda book’s presentation of 48 autobiographies simultaneously recalls Boas’ interest inlife histories and anticipates anthropological interest in political contestation, cultural fragmentation, and the complexities of the self. Yet, she did not avoid generalizations and theory, as her arguments about power in Rwanda society and her 1968 paper on a theory of money clearly show.

In her academic career Helen held positions in the American Ethnological Society and various faculty appointments, notably at Vassar (1946–63) and Brandeis (1964–82), where she also served as dean of the graduate school (1974–77). She was a generous colleague, particularly kind to junior and women faculty in an era when senior women faculty were scarce and their support especially welcome.

To her graduate students she was a nurturing if demanding intellectual mentor and often a close personal friend. Her witty candor about what “really goes on” in professional anthropology was certainly an invaluable, if extracurricular, aspect of their training.

Almost immediately after Helen’s retirement (1982) her longtime companion Marion Tait, a classicist and former dean at Vassar, was diagnosed with lung cancer. For Helen, Marion’s death was a terrible blow from which she never fully sprang back. Largely withdrawing from academic involvements in her later years, she lived quietly in Concord, MA, doing volunteer work for the Concord public library. Well before her death, she donated her landholdings to the Vermont Land Trust and much of her personal library to the University of Vermont anthropology department, which she was instrumental in creating. Among family members she leaves two nephews, a niece, and their children.
(Judith T Irvine and Stephen Pastner)

5 responses to “In Memoriam – Helen Codere, Anthropology News – – – – – Judith Irvine and Stephen Pastner

  1. I knew of Helen all my life but never met her. Her uncle, Phlip A. Codere was my grandfather and her mother, my Aunt Mabelle was my godmother. What a wonderful woman she was.

  2. I knew of Helen all my life but never met her. Her uncle, Philip A. Codere was my grandfather and her mother, my Aunt Mabelle was my godmother. What a wonderful woman she was.

  3. Anna Roosevelt

    I am interested in finding out where Helen Codere’s research papers ended up. In her publication on Rwanda she mentions several rare typed ephemeral documents from Rwanda that she had copies of that are not available in archival collections I have studied. I’m also interested in finding out what happened to the tapes that appear to have been made of interviews and informal conversations that she reported on in her publication. The conversations have not been published but appear to have useful information in them. Anna C. Roosevelt UIC

  4. Anna Roosevelt – the email address you gave rejects communication.
    Please send a correct email address. also is rejected
    or annaroosevelt is not the correct form of the name.

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