Mildred Mott Wedel

Honored by:David M. Gradwohl and Joseph A. Tiffany
Brick location:C:3  map

Archaeologist and ethnohistorian Mildred Mott Wedel has been a distinguished scholar of Plains archaeology and ethnohistory for over 55 years. She entered anthropology at a time when very few women were working in the field. Her meticulous research has resulted in significant contributions to the academic community and perhaps even more importantly to the linkage of the Ioway, Oto, Pawnee, Arikara and Wichita Indians to protohistoric archaeological remains. These data, particularly in the case of the Ioway and Oto, were important in land claims suits in which Native Americans have sought remuneration for broken treaties that removed them from their traditional homelands.

Mildred Mott Wedel was born in Marengo Iowa on September 7, 1912. Her father, Frank Luther Matt, was a journalist professor at The State University of Iowa and director of the School of Journalism there; he later received the Pulitzer Prize for American History and became the Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

Perhaps encouraged by her father, Mildred pursued academe with a notable degree of diligence tenacity and perfectionism. She completed her B.A. in history at The State University of Iowa in 1934. Mildred went on to the University of Chicago and became the first woman to receive a fellowship in anthropology there. In 1938 she received her M.A. from the University of Chicago. Her thesis entitled "The Relation of Historic Indian Tribes to Archaeological Manifestations in Iowa" (subsequently published in the Iowa Journal of History and Politics) still stands as a classic example of scholarship in the discipline and the application of the "direct historic approach" in archaeological methodology. Among other things, her thesis substantiated the linkage of the historic Ioway and Oto Indians to the protohistoric and prehistoric Oneota archaeological tradition first defined in Iowa and subsequently identified in adjoining states. Mildred was among the scholars who initially defined the concepts of "ethnohistory" and the "ethnohistorical approach," which crystallize an area of overlap between history and anthropology.

In 1939, Mildred married Waldo R. Wedel, the preeminent Plains archaeologist who held a position at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. From 1940 into the 1960s, she assisted her husband in salvage archaeological projects along the Missouri River in North Dakota and South Dakota. During this time she also pursued her own research interests in ethnohistory and raised three children: Waldo M., Linda and Frank. Later in the 1960s and 1970s, Mildred consulted with the Ioway and Oto Indians and undertook extensive research regarding their federal land claims suits.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mildred served as a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. During this period, she concentrated on examining and retranslating texts from the French colonial period in the New World -- in particular the eighteenth century journals of Jean-Baptiste Benard Sieur de la Harpe and Claude-Charles Dutisne. She also collaborated with her husband on a research project which involved the ethnohistory and archaeology of the Wichita Indians. As part of that project, she was commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to identify the tribal affiliation of the Native American inhabitants of the Deer Creek archaeological site (34KA3) in Oklahoma. An analysis of eighteenth-century French and Spanish texts substantiated the attribution of the Wichita Indians to the Deer Creek site. Mildred also served as a consultant to the Iowa Living History Farms in Des Moines regarding their reconstruction of an Ioway Indian village as it might have looked in the year 1700 A.D.

In 1988, the Plains Anthropological Association held a day-long symposium in honor of Mildred Mott Wedel, and in 1992 the PAA recognized her contributions to the discipline with its Distinguished Service Award for lifetime achievement and contributions to Plains anthropological research. She retired from the Smithsonian Institution in 1989 and moved with her husband to Boulder, Colorado, where she continues her research on the archaeology and ethnohistory of the Great Plains.

Mildred Mott Wedel is a native Iowan who has gained national prominence in a field dominated by men. Her research standards and stellar record of professional and public achievement deserve the recognition of all Iowans.