Trowelblazers Presents: “The Overshadowed Archaeologist”, starring Bertha Ye-was Parker.
Rumored to have been born in 1907 in a tent on one of her father’s archaeological excavations, she was the first American Indian woman archaeologist, of Abenaki and Seneca descent. As a child, she assisted her father, Arthur Parker, before she and her mother, Beulah Tahamont, left him around 1914, moving from upstate New York to Los Angeles, California. Her grandparents, Elijah “Chief Dark Cloud” Tahamont and Margaret Camp, were actors, and this may be when showbusiness first entered Bertha’s life; as a teen, she and her mother reportedly performed with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey as part of the “Pocahontas” show.
Bertha began archaeological work with her uncle M.R. Harrington as early as 1927. In 1929, she participated in excavations at Mesa House, and it may have been this expedition where, when walking with her young daughter Billie, she discovered a pueblo site she named “Scorpion Hill”. She proceeded to excavate it, taking notes, photos, and later publishing the results; the finds were exhibited in the Southwest Museum. In 1930, she worked at Gypsum Cave, notable for the first evidence for human occupation of North America during the Pleistocene. It was on this expedition she discovered another site, Corn Creek, when she found camel bone protruding from an eroding lake bed. She worked as an Assistant in Archaeology at the Southwest Museum from 1931-1941 and published a number of archaeological and ethnological papers in the museum journal, Masterkey, throughout the 1930s-1960s. These included, for example, “California Indian Baby Cradles”, and several articles on the Yurok Tribe, such as “Some Yurok Customs and Beliefs”.
In later years, she acted as a technical advisor and consultant on TV shows and movies depicting American Indians, and hosted a TV show on Native American history and folklore in the 1950s together with her third husband, Iron Eyes Cody.
Uncovering Bertha’s story was like an archaeological excavation unto itself. In addition to using multiple surnames (Pallan, Thurston, Cody), a number of mainstream sources consistently defined Bertha in terms of her relationships to men, only describing her as a daughter of Arthur Parker, wife of Iron Eyes Cody, niece of M.R. Harrington, and even as the great-niece of one Ely S. Parker (you’ll notice they each have a Wikipedia page for further reading; not Bertha-not yet). One other (excellent) source notes this same difficulty. Even her grave does not state her name; she is simply “Mrs Iron Eyes Cody”.
Her achievements must not be overlooked any longer. She made a significant contribution to Americanist archaeology and ethnology – and in her role as a consultant for TV and movies influenced how American Indian cultures and their histories were depicted in the media – a trowelblazer indeed.
Written and posted by Suzie (@suzie_birch)
Bertha c. 1930 at Gypsum Cave, Nevada, with throwing sticks. Source: Acc. 90-105 Science Service Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives via Flickr.