Ruth Bunzel was born in New York City into an intellectual Jewish family. She graduated as a history major from Barnard College in 1918. In 1920, she became Franz Boas’s research assistant and secretary in the anthropology department at Columbia University, a position funded by the wealthy social psychologist and feminist Elsie Clews Parsons. This early contact with one of the leaders of the discipline encouraged Bunzel to undertake graduate work in anthropology. She entered the graduate program in 1923, and the following year she went on her first field trip to the American Southwest. The research trip was organized by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Each summer, for the next 10 years, Ruth Bunzel undertook research on the material art of the Southwest. During this time, she learned to speak the Zuni language fluently.
In 1929, she received her PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. Her dissertation, The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art, was immediately published as a book under the same title by Columbia University Press. In this classic work, she combined her discussion of the materials, methods, and decorative elements together with statements made by Zuni and Hopi potters about their craft.
In 1930 and 1931, when Bunzel was a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, she wrote and edited her findings on Zuni language and culture. This work was published as a set of four interrelated essays running 610 pages in length in the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Her first essay, “Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism,” was an elegant introduction to Zuni religion. She analyzed the organization of ritual, the cult of the ancestors, and placed this within Zuni conceptual categories. In “Zuni Origin Myths,” she demonstrated that there is no single Zuni origin myth but rather a long cycle of overlapping myths. In the third essay, “Zuni Ritual Poetry,” she asserted that for the Zuni, prayer was never the spontaneous outpouring of the soul but rather a repetition of magical formulae. The final section, “Zuni Katcinas,” contains an analysis of this religious cult, a list of all known masked dancers, their role in Zuni religion, and black-and-white ink drawings of these deities.
During the 1930s, Ruth Bunzel went to Guatemala, where she once again undertook detailed ethnographic and linguistic research. This time she worked with the K’iche’ Maya of the highlands. Her book Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village is widely considered a classic ethnography. This careful work on both the language and the culture of two unrelated Amerindian cultures has encouraged some scholars to consider her an ethnographer’s ethnographer.
Her final work was an ambitious applied anthropology project that she undertook jointly with Margaret Mead. They received funding from Columbia University to set up an institute for Research on Contemporary Cultures (RCC) in which they coordinated a multiethnic study of immigrants in New York City.
- Babcock, B., & Parezo, N. (1988). Daughters of the desert: Women anthropologists and the Native America Southwest, 1880-1980. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Caffrey, M. M. (1989). Ruth Benedict: A stranger in this land. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Parezo, N. J. (1993). Hidden scholars: Women anthropologists and the Native American Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.