Fenton, William N. (William Nelson), 1908-2005

Alternative names
Birth 1908-12-15
Death 2005-06-17

Biographical notes:

William Nelson Fenton is an anthropologist and ethnologist specializing in Iroquoian studies.

From the description of Papers relating to Indian affairs, 1709-1797. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122439907

From the guide to the George Chalmers papers relating to Indian affairs, 1750-1775, 1750-1775, (American Philosophical Society)

William N. Fenton is an anthropologist specializing in Iroquois studies. He has published many papers, reviews, and books about the ceremonies and customs of the Iroquois, including a translation with Elizabeth Moore of "The Customs of the American Indian Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times by Father Joseph Francois Lafitau." His 1987 book, "The False Faces of the Iroquois," is a comprehensive treatment of the creation and use of masks by the Society of Faces.

From the description of Papers, 1635-1994. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122578866

Seneca Indian Jesse Cornplanter transcribed the songs.

From the guide to the Indian songs in Seneca dialect, 1916-1951, in syllables, and other rituals, 1916-1951, (American Philosophical Society)

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., on December 15, 1908, William Nelson Fenton, became a leading scholar of the history and culture of Iroquois Indians. Raised in New Rochelle until the age of 16, he passed his summers on the family farm in western New York state, located midway between two Seneca Indian reservations. Exposed to anthropological work, Fenton's interests were encouraged by his father and grandfather, friends to Indians there, who assembled a small collection of Indian memorabilia which was later acquired by the Museum of the American Indian.

After receiving his B.A. from Dartmouth in 1931, Fenton attended Yale for graduate study in anthropology. At the end of his first year in New Haven, the Laboratory of Anthropology at Santa Fe awarded him a scholarship for training in field archaeology on the Great Plains of Nebraska and South Dakota, where he took part in his first professional ethnological interviews. Returning to his old home in New York in 1933, Fenton embarked on what would become more than fifty years of field research on the Allegany, Cornplanter, Cattaraugus, and Tonawanda Seneca Reservations and on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. From 1935 until he received his doctorate in 1937, Fenton also served as a community worker for the United States Indian Service, working principally on the Tonawanda Reservation.

In his first academic appointment in 1937, Fenton introduced anthropology to St. Lawrence University, though he remained for only three semesters before being called to replace J.N.B. Hewitt at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) of the Smithsonian Institution, earning promotion to Senior Ethnologist in 1943. During the war years, he served as a Research Associate of the Ethnogeographic Board and as Secretary of the Smithsonian War Committee. While a member of the Committee on International Relations in Anthropology at the National Research Council (NRC) from 1952 to 1954, he served as the first Executive Secretary of the Division of Anthropology and Psychology. Meanwhile, he was employed as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and Catholic Universities, and at the University of Michigan.

In 1954, Fenton returned to New York State with his wife, Olive (1908-1986), and their three children to become Assistant Commissioner of the New York State Museum and Science Service in Albany, serving as director of the State Museum for thirteen years. In 1968, he abandoned administration and returned to teaching as Research Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Albany. In 1979, the trustees named him Distinguished Professor, and Anthony F.C. Wallace delivered the honorary lecture.

Throughout his career, Fenton's research centered on the religious ceremonies and customs of the Iroquois, epitomised by his translation (with Elizabeth Moore) of The Customs of the American Indian Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times by Father Joseph François Lafitau, and hy his most influential work, his 1987 book, The False Faces of the Iroquois .

Fenton received numerous awards, including the Peter Doctor Award of the Seneca Nation (1958), the Cornplanter Medal for Iroquois Research (1965), the Citizen Laureate Award of the University of Albany Foundation (1978), the Distinguished Service Award of the American Anthropological Association (1983), and an LL.D. from Hartwick College (1968). He was president of the American Folklore Society (1959-1960), the American Ethnological Society (1959), and the American Society for Ethnohistory (1961); a Board member of the American Anthropological Association; and a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (1976-1989). He was a founder of the Conference on Iroquois Research in 1945, and a founding member of the SUNY Albany chapter of Sigma Xi. He was also a long-time member of the Phillips Fund Committee of the American Philosophical Society (1975-1991) and of the American Committee of the Permanent Council of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (1952-1972), as well as Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany. He passed away on June 17, 2005.

From the guide to the William N. Fenton Papers, ca. 1933-2000, (American Philosophical Society)

A Wisconsin native, Lounsbury completed his undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and took an MA degree there. He then went to Yale University and was awarded a Ph.D. for work on Oneida phonology and morphology in 1949. While in the Ph.D. program he started teaching, and remained at Yale for the rest of his career. Retiring in 1979, Lounsbury was appointed Sterling Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, a post he held until his death at age 84.

Influenced by his graduate advisor, Morris Swadesh, Lounsbury undertook (1939-1940) the WPA-funded Oneida Language and Folklore Project, Green Bay, Wisconsin. This work eventually culminated in his MA thesis and dissertation. Lounsbury undertook pioneering work in descriptive and comparative Iroquoian linguistics, and made very significant contributions to the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic texts. He was also an important innovator in the formal analysis of kinship terminologies and structural semantics. Fieldwork was conducted among the Oneida and all other speakers of surviving Iroquoian languages, Natchez, two Mayan and six Brazilian Indian languages. Lounsbury was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences (1969), and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1976) and American Philosophical Society (1987).

From the guide to the Floyd Glenn Lounsbury papers, ca. 1935-1998, Circa 1935-1998, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Eagle dance
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