2011 : Helen Hornbeck Tanner, Noted Michigan Indian History Scholar, Dies

June 15, 2018 all-day

When Helen Hornbeck Tanner published “Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History” in 1987, the epic work was hailed as the most comprehensive study of the region’s Indian tribes.

The 220-page Atlas, with 33 highly detailed maps and evocative text, filled in a chapter in American history, of when Indians ruled the Great Lakes region.

Using maps, Mrs. Tanner and a research team from Chicago’s Newberry Library documented the displacement of Indian communities from 1640 to 1871, due to disease, destruction of their culture by white settlers, and duplicity.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Mrs. Tanner provided expert testimony to the Indian Claims Commission in 16 federal cases relating to land and water rights. One notable ruling in 1979 upheld Indian fishing rights in the Great Lakes.

“Her impact was tremendous because her testimony helped us win those cases,” said John Bailey, an Odawa Indian historian and former director of the Michigan Indian Commission.

Bailey noted that Mrs. Tanner vehemently opposed the term “Native American,” believing it was a bogus government label, and insisted on using “Indians” or the tribe’s name.

“She believed in human equality and justice, and it offended her to see the degradation of Indian rights,” he said.

Mrs. Tanner, 94, a senior research fellow at the Newberry Library, died of heart failure Wednesday, June 15, at her home near Beulah, Mich., said her daughter Molly Tewson.

Helen Hornbeck was born in Northfield, Minn. She attended Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Mich., and then earned a bachelor’s degree in 1937 from Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Penn.

She married Wilson Tanner Jr. in November 1940. During World War II her husband joined the Navy, and the couple moved to Florida. She completed a master’s degree at the University of Florida in 1949.

Later, they moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where she earned her doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1961 while raising four children. Her research focused on early 18th century Spanish Florida.

Tewson recalled how her mother converted part of their basement into her research office.

“I remember she had a table set up in the basement and a huge map of St. Augustine, Fla., on the wall,” she said. “She was determined and exacting and could be very convincing.”

Mrs. Tanner became interested in Indian history in the early 1960s while doing research on Ohio Valley Indian tribes. She found maps with notations that read “insufficient data” or “unknown tribes.”

Further research made it clear that the story of the Great Lakes Indians was missing from American history, and that it was so complex that it could only be told by using maps.

In the late 1960s, Mrs. Tanner was selected to serve on the Michigan Indian Commission set up by Gov. George Romney. In 1976, she began work on the atlas project at Chicago’s Newberry Library.

She and Newberry researchers pored over thousands of documents — letters, diaries, histories, biographies, travelers’ descriptions, military dispatches, treaty journals, missionary observations, ships’ logs, Indian agency reports, trade and commercial records, legislative reports, studies by anthropologists, geologists and archaeologists, judicial proceedings, and surveyors’ notes.

Indian families from all over the Great Lakes also contributed, sharing their archives with Mrs. Tanner. Tribal leaders sent letters signed with names like Big Thunder, Red Owl, and Hawk-at-Setting-Sun.

She documented, step-by-step, the Great Lakes Indian diaspora, the loss of their lands and the murders of thousands of their people.

“By using maps, the inexorable advance of the white frontier and retreat of the Indian frontier becomes very clear,” Mrs. Tanner told the Tribune in 1987. “I was overwhelmed by the enormity of their loss — words alone can’t do it justice.”

Scholars praised the atlas. But Mrs. Tanner was more pleased that Indian leaders valued the work, Tewson said. She was especially touched when a Meskwaki leader said some Indians referred to the atlas as “the Bible.”

“It meant a great deal to her that Indians felt the book truly represented them,” said her daughter.

In addition to the atlas, Mrs. Tanner also authored several books on American Indian tribes including the Ojibwa, Chippewa and Caddo.

Mrs. Tanner also supported several funds that provided financial assistance for Indian students. At Newberry, she arranged for a substantial gift from her mother’s estate, which established the Allen Fellowships for American Indian women.

She also helped establish the Susan Kelly Power and Helen Hornbeck Tanner Fellowship, which supports work for doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars of American Indian heritage.

For the full article, see  Margaret Ramirez, “Helen Hornbeck Tanner, 1916-2011 :Historian edited ‘Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History‘”, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 2011.

Leave a Reply