Helen Hornbeck Tanner (1916–2011)

Brenda J. Child, September 2011

Historian of Colonial North America

Helen Hornbeck Tanner, a historian of colonial North America, and a senior research fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago, passed away on June 15, 2011, at her lake home near Beulah, Michigan, at the age of 94. Tanner is remembered by her many colleagues and friends as a scholar who cared deeply about the history, people, and region where she lived and worked, a number of whom were collaborators in a large project she directed at the Newberry Library that resulted in her authoritative study that was published in 1987, the Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Tanner also served as interim director (1984–85) of the D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History at the Newberry Library. She was an active member of the American Society for Ethnohistory. In 2006, Tanner was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for achievement in history and American Indian rights.

Tanner was a major figure in the scholarship often labeled as “new Indian history,” a critique of American colonialism from a perspective that acknowledged American Indians as complex historical actors and drew upon Indian oral histories and other indigenous sources and records, rejecting the ethnocentric bias that characterized historical studies of Indian-white relations. Established in 1972, the McNickle Center was widely recognized as a national meeting place for American Indian research and scholarly interaction at a time when most history departments had no courses in Indian history, making the dialogue that emerged there among community- based tribal scholars and university-based anthropologists and historians, especially influential. Tanner's Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History modeled a multidisciplinary method of ethnohistory to document the Indian presence and dispossession, while incorporating research from the unparalleled maps and resources of the Newberry Library's collections and other state and local history resources.

Born in 1916, Tanner was part of a generation of female scholars initially not welcomed into the halls of academe. Her ideas were not always taken seriously by her male contemporaries who had employment and status as historians and anthropologists. Yet, she graduated with honors from Swarthmore College in 1937, married psychologist Wilson Tanner and reared four children in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before receiving the PhD in history from the University of Michigan in 1961. Trained as a Latin Americanist, she discovered a new calling in middle age as a scholar who partnered with American Indians, serving as an expert witness on behalf of Great Lakes tribes in 16 cases before the Indian Claims Commission from 1962 through 1972. She emerged from this decade of labor and personal growth as an authority and a friend, especially to the Ojibwe and Odawa people of her Great Lakes home region. Tanner had a reputation for being unflappable on the witness stand. Never retiring, Tanner was one of a number of scholars (the only one in her 80s) who worked on the landmark case Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, which ended at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999. Ojibwe living in states including Wisconsin and Minnesota were systematically harassed for over a century by citizens and local law authorities when they exercised treaty rights by hunting, fishing and gathering in their homelands. The court ruled for the Ojibwe rather than the state of Minnesota, and upheld the Indian right to hunt, fish, and gather on lands that had been ceded in an 1837 treaty.

Raised in Michigan where her mother was dean of women at Kalamazoo College, Tanner was an early and passionate advocate for women's equality and education. Her own experience as a woman in higher education did not cause her to be bitter or to complain, but it may have contributed to her true genius, which was empathy. Three decades ago, Tanner was instrumental in the establishment of a visionary fellowship program at the Newberry Library to bring American Indian women pursuing postgraduate degrees to the library and the Indian history center. The fellowships were made possible by a bequest from Frances C. Allen, Tanner's mother. Tanner wished to recognize the difficult circumstances Indian women face in their efforts to complete graduate programs, and in the early 1980s the numbers of Indian women in the academy were very small. This remarkable fellowship program, and the subsequent Susan K. Power and Helen Hornbeck Tanner Fellowships for American Indian scholars, are also part of Tanner's legacy.

To her Ojibwe colleagues and the dozens of Frances C. Allen fellows who cherish her memory, Tanner was mindimooyen, more than a role model and mentor, but also a highly respected elder. To her family, friends and colleagues, Helen was not only a special person, but a spectacular example of how to live a long life well—with zest, with dance, with books, and with a devotion to ideas that result in equality and justice. Miigwech!

—renda J. Child
University of Minnesota