Margaret Lantis was a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky from 1965 until her retirement in 1974. Her lifetime spanned a century (1906-2006), and her career trajectory as an anthropologist often mirrors the history of the field itself.
A survey of the Margaret Lantis Collection yields insight into the vigor of her work, her meticulous ethnographic field notes, her comfort as an interviewer, the passion with which she pursued her research interests, and her commitment to applied anthropology. She remained an active member in the field both in Kentucky and nationally for thirty years after her retirement—sharing her research notes and insight with colleagues and students well into her 90s. Like many female anthropologists of her generation, Margaret never married; but dedicated her life to probing the human condition in the Arctic, Subarctic, and the United States.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1906, Lantis was raised in the upper Midwest. She spent her summers on her grandparents’ farm and her school years in the various cities where her father taught sociology and her mother was keenly interested in urban ghettos and labor issues. Lantis claimed her exposure to the rigors of farming life and the urban social condition of the early 20th century working class influenced her approaches to ethnography and research and prepared her for the demanding conditions of field work in Alaska.
Margaret received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1930 with a double major in anthropology and Spanish. She studied under Robert Lowie and A. L. Kroeber at the University of California, Berkeley, and the program’s emphasis on comparative ethnography and cultural relativism largely shaped Lantis’s dissertation on Alaskan Eskimo ceremonialism. She received her Ph.D. in 1939 and pursued postdoctoral studies at the University of Chicago in 1942 and at the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1947. The influence of each of her graduate programs is evident in Lantis's focus on culture-area trait classification, societal structures and functions, and culture and personality studies.
Like many women in her field, Lantis was limited by the meager options in academia, and this limitation impacted the early decades of her career. From 1940 through the mid-1960s, Lantis worked in a series of research fellowships, visiting faculty appointments, and public agency contracts including positions with the War Relocation Authority, the U.S. Public Health Service, The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Arctic Health Research Center, and the Arctic Institute of North America.
Her interest in the Arctic was prompted by an invitation from a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) teacher for assistance with the BIA school on Atka Island in the Aleutians. Lantis arrived on Atka in 1933, soon to be abandoned by the BIA teacher for a challenging year she would later describe as “rough, with tuberculosis and alcoholism and the Depression economy.”
Lantis returned to Alaska in 1939 to pursue fieldwork on Nunivak Island—a culture still largely resembling its pre-contact cultural and subsistence economy conditions. She stayed for a year and later returned in 1946, 1955, 1961 and 1972.
Lantis was a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky from 1965 to 1974. Shaped by 25 years of field experience and varied applied anthropology contexts, she was described by students to exhibit "an impressive depth of perception" and to employ a "no-nonsense, realistic theoretical approach" in her research and writing.
In the collection's correspondence with students, Lantis is portrayed as an "incessantly curious observer," intent on "watching and listening acutely to the world." As Lantis entered her retirement, she was remembered by her colleagues and students as "ultimately human; ultimately humanistic in her approach."
Lantis held the presidency of the American Ethnological Society (1964-65) and the Society for Applied Anthropology (1973-74). Additionally, she held office in the Anthropology Society of Washington and served on the research committee for the Arctic Institute of North America (1959-62) and the Polar Research Committee of the National Academy of Sciences (1969-72).
Lantis was awarded the Society for Applied Anthropology’s distinguished Bronislaw Malinowski Award in 1987, and the Alaska Anthropology Association recognized her with a Lifetime Contribution Award to Alaska Anthropology in 1993.
With her painstaking recording of cultural and linguistic nuances, particularly in her ethnography of southwestern Alaska, Lantis is recognized as a pioneer ethnographer. Her publications on Nunivak genealogies and family organization have enabled Nunivaarmiut to research their personal and collective histories.
Through her lifelong advocacy for applied anthropology, Margaret posited the anthropologist as responsibly applying research to real life issues. A bit wary of the trappings of academia, Lantis felt at ease in the field—an ease facilitated by her ability to move comfortably within new contexts and in the face of the daily struggles of real lives.
Her focus on issues of temporal social disorganization, whether from health crises, natural disasters, environmental change or acculturation, reveal her interest in how change affects us all.