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October 21, 2004



Frederica de Laguna and a friend in Alaska

William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Frederica Annis Lopez de Leo de Laguna '27, the founder of the Bryn Mawr College Department of Anthropology and an internationally recognized pioneer in the study of indigenous Alaskan cultures, died of heart failure at her home in Bryn Mawr on Oct.6, three days after her 98th birthday.

De Laguna, who was known as “Freddy” to friends and colleagues, was the recipient of countless awards and honors, including a Tlingit potlatch that later became the basis of Reunion Under Mount Saint Elias, a 1997 documentary about her work. In 1975, she and Margaret Mead became the first female anthropologists elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. She later served as president of the American Anthropological Association.

De Laguna was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., on October 3, 1906. The daughter of Bryn Mawr philosophy professors Grace and Theodore de Laguna, she graduated from Bryn Mawr summa cum laude in 1927 and was the winner of the prestigious European fellowship. She earned her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1933 from Columbia University, where she studied with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. She served as a field director of the University Museum in Philadelphia and a soil conservationist for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service before returning to Bryn Mawr as a lecturer in anthropology in 1938. She received the College's Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1972 and she retired from Bryn Mawr as a chaired professor in 1975.

A distinguished scholar and leader of expeditions to Alaska, de Laguna began to do fieldwork in Alaska in the early 1930s. In 1934, she published The Archaeology of Cook Inlet, Alaska, which was reissued in 1975 by the Alaska Historical Society. She studied a variety of indigenous cultures in Alaska and in Arizona before World War II, in which she served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy WAVES.

After the war, she returned to Alaska to begin the work for which she is best known. Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, her groundbreaking holistic study of the archaeology, ethnohistory and ethnography of one culture, was published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1972. It has been hailed as "one of the first of such studies of a North American Indian society." De Laguna also authored numerous articles and papers as well as three popular novels, an autobiographical work on anthropology and two books of verse.

De Laguna donated to Bryn Mawr many archaeological and ethnographic objects that she collected during the 1950s and 1960s while conducting ethnographic research in Alaska and in the Southwest United States.

Friends report that de Laguna was an active scholar until the end. In the last month, she founded her own press, and she had recently finished editing a book and revising her magnum opus on the Tlingit for republication.

A memorial service is planned for December.

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