Gladys Reichard was born in Bangor, Pennsylvania on July 17, 1893. Her family was of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and she was raised in a Quaker household. After graduating from high school, she taught in the public schools for six years. In 1915 she enrolled in Swarthmore College where, in 1919, she received her AB in classics. She received a fellowship for graduate study and entered Columbia University in the fall of 1919. There she joined a large group of women who worked with Franz Boas. She received an MA in 1920 and began assisting Boas in his classes at Barnard College in the 1920-1921 academic year. In 1925, after receiving her PhD in anthropology, she began teaching full-time at Barnard College, where she remained on the faculty until her death in 1955.
She is widely considered an exceptional linguist and an extraordinary ethnologist. While her main scholarly focus was on Navajo people and culture, she also studied Coeur d’Alene grammar and Melanesian design. Early in her career, she won a New York Academy of Sciences Prize for her monograph Melanesian Design (1932). But it was her work with the Navajo that would give her recognition as the most important female anthropologist to have studied with the Navajo, the largest Native American population in the United States.
She experimented with new forms of ethnographic writing, producing three descriptive accounts of Navajo weaving, family life, and ritual. The first, Spider Woman (1934), is a narrative ethnography centering on the trials of learning to weave, interspersed with descriptions of sheep dipping and a healing ceremony. The second, Navajo Shepherd and Weaver (1936), is a more technical monograph about Navajo weaving, while her third book, Dezba: Woman of the Desert (1939), is a novelistic account of Navajo life centering on the female head of an extended family. In this work she reveals that for the Navajo, there is an intimate connection between religious belief and physical health.
Beginning in the mid 1930s and continuing throughout the 1940s into the 1950s, she focused on the study of Navajo language and religion. She lived in the home of a Navajo curer and, together with the artist Franc Newcomb, published Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant (1937), which includes a translation of the Shooting Way myth and a symbolic analysis of the sandpaintings. These paintings were reproduced in both line art and color in the book. Two years later, she published a sequel, Navajo Medicine Man: Sandpaintings and Legends of Miguelito (1939), in which she included a fuller discussion of the relationship between these paintings and the myth.
By the 1940s, she undertook a broader analysis of Navajo language, belief system, and religious practice. In her monograph Prayer: The Compulsive Word (1944), she outlined the content and structure of Navajo prayers. But her most important work, Navaho Religion (1950), is a two-volume study. In the first volume, she discusses Navajo ritual and symbolism, while the second contains a concordance of Navajo supernaturals, ritualistic ideas, and rites.
- Lamphere, L. (1993). Gladys Reichard among the Navajo. In N. Parezo (Ed.), Hidden scholars: Women anthropologists and the Native American southwest (pp. 157-181). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Reichard, G. (1950). Navaho religion: A study of symbolism. New York: Bollingen Foundation.