The Clara Lee Tanner Endowed Professorship

A Case Statement

May 2019

The vision for the Clara Lee Tanner Endowed Professorship is a faculty position shared by the School of Anthropology (SoA) and the Arizona State Museum (ASM) at the University of Arizona (UA). The incumbent, using ASM’s collections, would teach, conduct research, publish, and engage with the public on topics related to the indigenous peoples of the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico, their material culture, and their societies through time.

The Clara Lee Tanner Endowed Professorship fund was established in 2010 by her husband John Tanner and daughter Sandy Tanner Elers, as a way of honoring the 50-year career of their beloved wife and mother. This shared position will honor Tanner’s legacy in perpetuity. The need is to grow the fund’s principal to $1.5 million. The principal currently stands at $700,000. The goal, therefore, is to raise an additional $800,000.

Clara Lee Tanner: The Grande Dame of Basket Researchers

Clara Lee Tanner (1905-1997) was a respected and beloved professor who served in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arizona for half a century, from 1928 to 1978. She was, in fact, one of the first two students to earn a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from UA in 1927 and one of the first three students to earn a master’s degree in archaeology from UA in 1928. She is described as having been the authority on Southwest Indian arts and crafts during her lifetime, dedicated to sharing her knowledge through university and public lectures, scholarly and popular publications, and involvement in Native art shows.

Tanner was a prolific researcher and her publications based on ASM’s basketry have helped to make the museum’s collections known throughout the world.

Among Tanner’s 166 published titles is Indian Baskets of the Southwest (UA Press, 1983). With more than 200 pages and over 500 photos and drawings, it was the first comprehensive study of southwestern Indian basketry, addressing materials, technologies, and designs. Apache Indian Basketry (UA Press, 1982), with its 200 pages and 300 illustrations, goes into greater depth about one of the most widely appreciated and valued cultural traditions in our region.

“It is impossible to overestimate the impact, over her 50-year career, that Clara Lee had on the appreciation of Native arts, especially basketry,” said Diane Dittemore, ASM’s associate curator of ethnology. “I was fortunate to have known her, and to have assisted her in selecting the baskets from ASM that were featured in her publications. She has greatly inspired my own basketry research.”

Tanner also was a respected educator. She played a significant role in the expansion of what began as the Department of Archaeology in 1915 into the Department of Anthropology in 1937, teaching courses in Southwest ethnology and archaeology. In addition, according to Dr. Raymond H. Thompson, former head of the department and director emeritus of the museum, Tanner strongly believed that members of the general public deserved just as much as her students to know about the creativity of Native artists. “She had a sense of responsibility to the public and to the community that gave her an almost missionary zeal to introduce the entire world to the beauty, skill, and creativity of Native artists,” Thompson said of Tanner. “She wrote her scholarly books with the general reader in mind, and she published dozens of articles in newspapers and popular magazines, more than 25 in Arizona Highways alone. She gave hundreds of talks to public audiences ranging from the scholarly to the social, and from first graders to senior citizens.”

Tanner’s papers are housed in the ASM archives. They, like almost all of ASM’s collections, are accessible for research and study.

Darlene F. Lizarraga
Office of Development
620-626-8381 or

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