Sketches from the 89th Wenner–Gren International Symposium

On the morning of November 23rd, 1981, Rosamond (Roz) Spicer joined her fellow participants for the third day of the 89th Wenner–Gren Foundation International Symposium. As the morning discussion took shape, Roz, a noted Native Americanist anthropologist, drifted from her note-taking as she started to sketch the people around her (see figures 1–5).[i] Etched with light pencil, these elegant and unassuming illustrations capture a transitional moment in the larger history of the Foundation.

Figure 1: Alan Lomax, Freg Eggan, Barbara Tedlock, and Phil Zarelli. Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

Since its inception in 1952, the International Symposium Program (now the Wenner–Gren Symposium Program) served as one of several symbols of Wenner–Gren’s active involvement in the field of anthropology. In 1958, the event developed greater symbolic importance when the Foundation secured the purchase of the Burg Wartenstein castle nestled in the Austrian Alps. The castle and the symposium developed as interlinked symbols of the Foundation’s disciplinary influence, lending an august, surreal, and fairytale dimension to its meetings. However–and importantly–Roz was nowhere near the castle or Austria when she created her sketches. She was in a conference center in Oracle, Arizona.

The drastic change in setting is not without explanation. During the late 1970s, Wenner–Gren entered a state of financial and organizational uncertainty influenced by inflation, a shrinking endowment, losses incurred from Anthro–Cast, a fossil and artifact replication program, and the growing deficit of Current Anthropology, the Foundation’s flagship journal.[ii] From these changes came a “crisis mentality” that circumscribed Wenner–Gren’s behavior leading into the 1980s.[iii] Under pressure from new financial advisors and the Board of Trustees, the Foundation was forced to sell the castle in 1980, leaving future conferences in a state of “limbo.”[iv]

Figure 2: Edith Turner. Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

After two events in upstate New York the following year, Wenner-Gren held the first two days of its 89th symposium on the Pascua Pueblo Yaqui Reservation in Tucson, Arizona and the remaining days at a conference center in Oracle, an old mining town located roughly 40 miles north of Tucson.  There were good reasons for this choice of location. The 89th symposium was intended to explore the intricacies of the ceremonial performances of the Yaqui Indians, a cross–border Indigenous community from Northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. This was to be a “test case” for a multi–part series on ritual and performance organized by Victor Turner and Richard Schechner.[v] The Oracle site was close to the Pascua Yaqui Indian Tribe–a recently federally recognized group of Yaquis. In fact, the conference was organized in conjunction with the Yaqui Tribal Council and two influential cultural representatives from local Yaqui communities, who also served as participants.[vi]

Figure 3: Victor Turner. Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

The organizers recruited scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. In addition to Roz, the Foundation invited noted Native Americanist anthropologist Keith Basso, Fred Eggan, and Edward Spicer– Roz’s husband, longtime collaborator, and an ethnographer of the Yaqui of Sonora and Arizona. While Roz had spent the previous 20 years juggling a variety of non-academic activities ranging from dance instructor to artist to mother of three, she began her professional life as an anthropologist of the U.S. Southwest making significant contributions to the Indian Education, Personality, and Administration Research project, a joint effort of the Office of Indian Affairs and the University of Chicago Committee on Human Development.[vii] Under the guidance of Robert Redfield and Fay-Cooper Cole, she also produced a master’s thesis on the Yaqui Easter ceremonies, making her a respected authority on the anthropology of the Native Southwest.[viii] Other notable attendees, who were perhaps less familiar with the region, included anthropologists Edith and Victor Turner and Barbara Tedlock, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, poet Jerome Rothenberg, and performance studies scholar Phillip Zarelli. Carefully selecting participants while forging ties with the local community, the organizers made great efforts to recreate a modified form of the Burg Wartenstein days in the desert borderlands.

Figure 4: Jerome Rothenberg. Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

In keeping with previous symposia, two days of the conference were organized around all-day sessions with topics ranging from the practical (e.g. the training of Deer Dancers) to the theoretically abstract (e.g. transformation of consciousness and “the challenge of understanding ritual”).[ix] However, in a departure from years past, the first two days of the event involved touring the Yaqui reservation and witnessing an abridged version of the Deer Dance. While organized excursions had been common in years past, these typically involved designated “places of interest” separate from the conference theme. Visiting the reservation was integral to the content of the entire event. In an attempt to retain a degree of structured sociality indicative of the Burg Wartenstein model, the usual cocktail hours and group dinners remained to bracket these activities and engagements with the tribe.

Figure 5: Keith Basso. Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

Roz’s sketches are the remnants of these efforts and the larger period of institutional transformation that they index. This was a time when Wenner–Gren experimented with ways of conducting business under new financial constraints. The Yaqui conference and changes to the International Symposium Program were not the only experiments on the table. During this period, the Foundation contemplated moving the New York headquarters to another (cheaper) part of the country, discontinuing support for Current Anthropology all together, creating a permanent academic advisory board, and selling off portions of the Foundation’s library.[x] In other words, this was a moment when it made sense to hold a renowned, international academic conference on an Indian reservation in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. Spicer’s drawings document the everyday poses and attitudes of remarkable scholars in an unusually ordinary place.


[i] Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Papers (MS 5). Arizona State Museum Archives.

[ii] Lita Osmundsen, “Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropology Research 1980: Turning Point in Perspective,” March 1980, Fred Eggan Papers, Box 30, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. Lindee and Radin also note the implementation of the Tax Reform Act of 1969. Amongst other things, the act imposed a four percent excise tax on investment income and fines for failure to comply with nonprofit law. See Homer C. Wadsworth, “Private Foundations and the Tax Reform Act of 1969,” Law and Contemporary Problems 39 (1975): 259, 261.

[iii] Susan Lindee and Joanna Radin. “Patrons of the Human Experience: A History of the Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropology Research, 1941–2016.” Current Anthropology 57, no. Supplement (2016), S280.

[iv] Lita Osmundsen, “Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropology Research 1980: Turning Point in Perspective,” March 1980, Fred Eggan Papers, Box 30, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

[v] Willa Appel, “National Endowment for the Humanities Application for Project on Theater and Ritual,” July 9, 1981, Wenner–Gren Foundation.

[vi] Lita Osmundsen, “Lita Osmundsen to David Ramírez,” September 28, 1981, Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Papers, Box 85, Folder 70, Arizona State Museum.

[vii]Joseph, Alice, Rosamond B. Spicer, and Jane Chesky. The Desert People: A Study of the Papago Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

[viii] Spicer, Rosamond. “The Easter Fiesta of the Yaqui Indians of Pascua Arizona,” 1939, Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Papers, Box 82, Folder 146. Arizona State Museum.

[ix] “Yaqui Ritual and Performance Program,” 1981. 89th Wenner-Gren International Symposium. Wenner-Gren Foundation.

[x] Lita Osmundsen, “Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropology Research 1980: Turning Point in Perspective,” March 1980, Fred Eggan Papers, Box 30, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. “Meeting of Trustees with Ad Hoc Advisory Council,” April 29, 1978, Fred Eggan Papers, Box 30, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. The Foundation also considered less cost–effective moves that might act as “good publicity,” retaining peoples’ interest and faith in the organization. This included reviving the Viking Fund Medal and Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology series. The medal was retired in 1972 and the publication series temporarily suspended in 1979. Eventually, the medal would be given again but not until 2003. The publication series was not touched.




Nicholas Barron: contributions / website /

1 Comment

  1. It was a delight to see this information about Roz Spicer this morning. Roz was a woman whom I greatly admired and I was honored to study under her husband Edward Spicer in the 1970s at the University of Arizona, and saddened that she was never officially one of my professors. I would like to continue the story of Roz’s participation in Wenner-Gren conferences. Roz was also a participant at a Wenner-Gren conference I organized with Barbara Babcock, called Daughters of the Desert: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest, 1880-1980. It was also held at the Motorola Center in Oracle, now owned by the University of Arizona. At the time I was jealous that we would not meet in Austria for it meant I never did see the famous castle. But Oracle and Tucson were the appropriate places to hold our scholarly research program because we did something different. In addition to the scholarly week-long symposium where we discussed issues of gender in the history of anthropology as a profession, to honor Roz and the other women who had worked in the indigenous Southwest Wenner-Gren sponsored the foundation’s first public symposium, held at the Arizona State Museum and the Arizona Historical Society and an oral history and video documentary project (1985-1986). The exhibit was later shown around the country under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit program (1986-1990) and Roz, I, and many other participants gave lectures around the country discussing what it was like to work as an anthropologist in the 1930s through the 1990s. The interviews, including the one with Roz Spicer, are held at the Wenner-Gren Foundation in NYC and are available for anyone to use. The exhibit materials were published by the University of Arizona Press (1988) so they would not be ephemeral. Roz’s reasons for becoming an anthropologist and remaining in the field during a period when nepotism curtailed possibilities are discussed in Hidden Scholars (1993 University of New Mexico Press) and in On Her Own Frontier: Women Intellectuals Re-Visioning the American West ( edited with Shirley Leckie, University of Nebraska Press, 2008) It was Lita Osmundsen’s last symposium before she retired and she spent many hours telling me and others about the program.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.