John C. Ewers

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John Canfield Ewers
John Canfield Ewers.jpg
John C. Ewers
Born (1909-07-21)July 21, 1909
Cleveland, Ohio
Died May 7, 1997(1997-05-07) (aged 87)
Arlington, Virginia
Nationality American
Fields Ethnology
Alma mater
Known for Studies on the culture and history of the American Plains Indians

John Canfield Ewers (July 21, 1909 – May 7, 1997) was an American ethnologist and museum curator. Known for his studies on the art and history of the American Plains Indians, he was described by the New York Times as one of his country's "foremost interpreters of American Indian culture."[1] He was instrumental in establishing the National Museum of American History and became its Director in 1964. At the time of his death he was Ethnologist Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and was the first recipient of the Smithsonian's Exceptional Service Award as well as the Western History Association's Oscar O. Winther Award and the American Alliance of Museums's Distinguished Service Award.


John C. Ewers was born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 21, 1909 to Mary Alice and John Ray Ewers. He was delivered by his maternal grandmother, Dr. Martha Ann Canfield, who was among the earliest women to practice medicine in Northern Ohio.[2][3] Ewers attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, receiving his B.A. in 1931. Following his graduation, he studied painting and drawing for a year at the Art Students League of New York before beginning his post-graduate studies at Yale University in 1932. There, he studied the art and culture of the American Plains Indians under Clark Wissler and received his master's degree with Honors in 1934. His Masters thesis formed the basis of his 1939 book, Plains Indian Painting: A Description of an Aboriginal American Art, the first of his many books and monographs in the area.[4]

After his graduation from Yale, he took courses at Columbia University while studying the collections at the Heye Foundation's Museum of the American Indian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and then took up an appointment as a Field Curator with the National Park Service in 1935. During his time with the National Park Service he worked at the Vicksburg National Military Park and helped with the renovation of Indian Room at Yosemite National Park. In 1941 he was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to design and establish the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana, duties which he combined with his own extensive field work on the art, culture, and history of the Blackfeet Tribe.[5]

In 1946, after two years of service with the US Navy in the Pacific during World War II, Ewers joined the Smithsonian Institution as Associate Curator of Ethnology, initially developing museum exhibits and working on the Smithsonian's modernization program. He became Planning Officer for the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) in 1956, was appointed its Assistant Director in 1959, and was named the museum's Director shortly it opened in 1964. Ewers retired as the Smithsonian's senior research anthropologist with the title Enthnologist Emeritus in 1979 but continued to research, write, and attend conferences up until his death. He also taught at Texas Christian University in 1981 and during the 1970s had served as a trustee and research associate of the Museum of the American Indian in New York.[6]

Ewers met Margaret Elizabeth Dumville in the summer of 1932 when he had finished the first year of his post-graduate studies at Yale and she was a student at Columbia. They married in 1935 and had two daughters, Jane Ewers Robinson born in 1938, and Diane Ewers Peterson born in 1944. Margaret collaborated closely with her husband in his field work with the Blackfeet in Montana and ran the newly established Museum of the Plains Indian during the two years he served in the Navy.[7] Their 53-year marriage ended with her death in June 1988.[8] John Ewers spent his last years in Arlington, Virginia where he died on May 7, 1997 at the age of 87.[9] A memorial service was held for him on June 17, 1997 at the Carmichael Auditorium in the National Museum of American History.[10]

After his death, the Western History Association established the John C. Ewers Prize, awarded biennially for the best book on the North American Indian ethnohistory.[11] In 2003, The People of the Buffalo: Essays in Honor of John C. Ewers was published by Tatanka Press, and in 2011, The University of Oklahoma Press published Plains Indian Art: The Pioneering Work of John C. Ewers. The latter book, edited by Jane Ewers Robinson, is a collection of her father's writings originally published in American Indian Art Magazine and other periodicals between 1968 and 1992.[12]

Honors and awards[edit]

Honors and awards received by Ewers in his lifetime include:[13]


During his career, John C. Ewers wrote many scholarly articles, monographs, and books as well as articles for general interest magazines such as American Heritage. He also edited and wrote the introductions to 19th-century accounts of American Indian culture by Zenas Leonard, Edwin Thompson Denig, George Catlin, and Jean-Louis Berlandier. Ewers's publications include:[15]

Books and monographs
  • Plains Indian Painting: A Description of an Aboriginal American Art (Stanford University Press, 1939)
  • The Story of the Blackfeet (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs/Haskell Press, 1944)
  • Blackfeet Crafts (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1945)
  • The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1955)
  • The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains (University of Oklahoma Press, 1958)
  • Crow Indian Beadwork: A Descriptive and Historical Study, co-authored with William Wildschut (Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1959)
  • Artists of the Old West (Doubleday, 1965)
  • Indian Life on the Upper Missouri (University of Oklahoma Press, 1968)
  • Blackfeet Indian Tipis: Design and Legend (Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University, 1976)
  • Murals in the Round: Painted tipis of the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache Indians (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978)
  • Plains Indian Sculpture: a Traditional Art from America's Heartland (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986)
  • Plains Indian History and Culture: Essays on Continuity and Change (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997)
Edited books
  • Adventures of Zenas Leonard, Fur Trader (University of Oklahoma Press, 1959)
  • Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri, by Edwin Thompson Denig (1812–1858) (University of Oklahoma Press, 1961)
  • George Catlin's O-kee-pa (Yale University Press, 1967)
  • Indians in Texas in Eighteen Thirty by Jean-Louis Berlandier (1805–1851) (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969)
  • "Early White Influence Upon Plains Indian Painting: George Catlin and Karl Bodmer among the Mandan, 1832-34". Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 134, No. 7. (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1957)
  • "Hair Pipes in Plains Indian Adornment: A Study in Indian and White Ingenuity". Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 164, 1957, pp. 29–85
  • "Mothers of the Mixed-Bloods: The Marginal Woman in the History of the Upper Missouri" in Probing the American West (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1962)[16]
  • "The Emergence of the Plains Indian as the Symbol of the North American Indian", Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1964, pp. 531–544
  • "Plains Indian Reactions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition", Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter 1966, pp. 2–12
  • "Intertribal Warfare as the Precursor of Indian-White Warfare on the Northern Great Plains", Western Historical Quarterly, October 1975 (Winner of the Oscar O. Winther Award)[17]
  • "Images of the White Man in 19th Century Plains Indian Art" in The Visual Arts, Plastic and Graphic (Mouton, 1979)
  • "Climate, Acculturation, and Costume: A History of Women's Clothing among the Indians of the Southern Plains". Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 24, 1980, pp. 63–82

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Saxon (May 27, 1997)
  2. ^ Bozeman Daily Chronicle (May 17, 1997)
  3. ^ "The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History". Case Western Reserve University. "Canfield, Martha Ann Robinson, MD". 1998. Retrieved May 1, 2012. 
  4. ^ Dittemore (1999); McElrath (2003) pp. 3-4
  5. ^ McElrath, Susan. 2003. 3–4
  6. ^ McElrath. Saxon. 2003. May 27, 1997. 3–4
  7. ^ Hagan (1997) p. xiv
  8. ^ "Ewers's essay in tribute to his wife, Companion and Colleague: Some Memories of Marge was published in 1988 by the Potomac Corral of Westerners International in their Great Western". Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  9. ^ McElrath (2003) pp. 3-4; Bozeman Daily Chronicle (May 17, 1997)
  10. ^ "John C. Ewers Memorial Service". Manuscript National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 1999–2006. Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  11. ^ "Awards". Western History Association. Retrieved May 1, 2012. 
  12. ^ Smith, Martha (January 2012). Review: 'Plains Indian Art: The Pioneering Work of John C. Ewers'. 137. Library Journal. p. 103. 
  13. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, sourced from McElrath (2003)
  14. ^ Native American Art Studies Association. Lifetime Achievement Award. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  15. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, sourced from "Bibliography of John C. Ewers" in Ubelaker and Viola (1982), pp. 25-32. Many of Ewers's books and monographs have had multiple editions and reprintings. The publisher and date given refer to the first edition. The articles listed are only a representative sample of his prolific output.
  16. ^ Athearn, Robert G. (March 1963). "Review: 'Probing the American West: Papers from the Santa Fe Conference'. Minnesota History Magazine, pp. 237-238. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  17. ^ Western Historical Quarterly. Oscar O. Winther Award Archived 2012-03-13 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved 2 May 2012.


Further reading[edit]

  • McCoy, Ron (Winter 2008). "Of Forests and Trees: John C. Ewers's 'Early White Influence Upon Plains Indian Painting' Re-examined", American Indian Art Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 63–71
  • Walker, William S. (January 2008). "John C. Ewers and the Problem of Cultural History: Displaying American Indians at the Smithsonian in the Fifties". Museum History Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 51–74

External links[edit]