Where Are They Now? - December 16, 2008
Alice Beck Kehoe: Overturning Anthropology Dogma Since the [Tender] Age of 16
A dream summer job lead to a 1952 Westinghouse finalist spot, then a career in anthropology
By Laura Vanderkam
Her finalist year: 1952
Her finalist project: A paper arguing that Native Americans had contact with other cultures from across the Pacific
What led to the project: Alice Beck Kehoe always loved archaeology and anthropology. Her parents subscribed to National Geographic, and when she discovered Alfred Kroeber's lengthy textbook, Anthropology, in a public library, she read it straight through.
Because of that fascination, when the Mount Vernon, N.Y., resident looked for a summer job at age 16, she had her eyes on the anthropology department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She wrote a letter to the department asking if they needed a typist. They did: She earned $25 a week typing up catalogues of various collections, finishing her assignment before the summer was over.
She used the extra weeks to help the curators. One of them, Gordon Ekholm, had recently put on an exhibit about pre-Columbian transpacific contacts between cultures in the Old and New worlds. Young Alice never worked for him, specifically, but she studied his research and reached similar conclusions—that there must have been contact by some New World populations with people from outside in the days before 1492—in a paper she entered in the 1952 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Despite the fact that anthropology and archaeology papers were extremely rare among the top contenders, she was named a finalist.
The effect on her career: "My self-esteem and self-confidence were certainly strengthened by having been selected," she says. "On the one hand, I realized that I didn't have the kind of brilliance some people had." She was extremely impressed by the math and physics projects other finalists had done. On the other, "It was exciting to think I was counted, literally, in this company. For a girl in the 1950s, that really helped."
She went to Barnard College at Columbia University to study anthropology. Her first job after college was working at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Mont. She developed more than a professional interest in the young museum director, Thomas Kehoe, who hired her. She married him, and the two attended graduate school at Harvard University.
Kehoe found the subject of her dissertation in 1959 after Thomas took a job in Canada as the provincial archaeologist in Saskatchewan. Traditional anthropological theory maintained that the ghost dance religion—widespread among Native Americans in the late 19th century—had died out. Kehoe discovered that the practice was still alive and informing the spirituality of Saskatchewanian residents who were descended from Sioux refugees of the 1862 uprising and subsequent massacre of the tribe in Minnesota.
The fact that reality so clearly contradicted the theory made a big impression on her—and contributed to her lifelong battle against anthropological and archaeological theories based mostly on the prejudices of the day. "American archaeologists tend to be politically naive," she says. They go into archaeology because they aren't interested in economics or politics or things like that. "They want to go out in the country and dig in the ground and handle things." But just as the national myth of Columbus "discovering" the Americas stifled work on other cross-cultural contacts for years, Kehoe maintains that assumptions about the inferiority of non-European people or women have also led to a lack of scholarship. (For instance, the assumption that the people living in pre-Columbian America were "primitive" and therefore not up to much of importance led to a lack of study in their varied histories and cultures until relatively recently.)
After a new party took power in the Saskatchewan provincial government and eliminated Thomas Kehoe's job in 1964, the Kehoes decamped for Lincoln, Neb., where Alice taught at the University of Nebraska until Thomas applied for and landed what she calls his "dream job" at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Kehoe began teaching at Marquette University in 1968 and remained there until her retirement in 2000. (The couple divorced in 1993; Thomas died a few months ago.)
During and after her academic career, Kehoe became a prolific author, writing several books including America Before the European Invasions; The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization;and The Land of Prehistory.
What she's doing now: Kehoe's most recent book, Controversies in Archaeology, came out earlier this year and aims to introduce students to hot-button issues from pre-Columbian contacts to the lost civilization of Atlantis. She wrote it at the behest of Mitch Allen, publisher of Left Coast Press. "Alice Kehoe is an original, there were no copies made," Allen says. "One of the founding mothers of feminist archaeology, she has been a thoughtful and electrifying presence in the discipline for half a century."
Her specialty is putting controversial theories through the rigor of archaeological field methods and analysis; Allen notes that he asked her to write the book because "she would explain the importance of scientific hypothesis testing for archaeology students" while making sure that they would "not be shy about embracing the conclusions of those tests, no matter how far from conventional wisdom the answers were."
In her retirement Kehoe enjoys writing and traveling: She's off to Angkor Wat in Cambodia in January to see the pyramids there that bear a similarity to the ones in Mexico. Coincidence? Part of the fun of anthropology and archaeology, she says, is figuring that out.