"Indian art roots are the deepest in the country, and they're very important. I hoped to present in a truthful, non-exaggerated fashion the greatness of Indian art, and hoped to leave this legacy for Indian art to the American people"
Clara Lee Tanner:
Preserving the Legacy of a Pioneer
Clara Lee Tanner (1905-1997), one of the UA’s first archaeology graduates, shared her love of Indian arts with UA students and the community for more than 50 years.
To honor the legacy of Clara Lee, her husband, John Tanner, and daughter, Sandy Tanner Elers, created an estate gift worth more than $500,000 to help fund the Clara Lee Tanner Endowed Professorship, which will go to an anthropology faculty member who studies the Native American peoples, their material culture and their societies through time. When John passed away in 2010, the School of Anthropology received the gift and hopes to grow the fund to $1 million within five years so the professorship can be endowed.
“Clara Lee was one of the pioneer women in the field of anthropology, and certainly in the Southwest,” said Ray Thompson, head of the UA anthropology school from 1964-1980. “That alone, I think, inspired a great number of the young women who studied with her.
How It All Began
Clara Lee Fraps Tanner was born in 1905 in Biscoe, N.C., and moved to Tucson when she was three-years-old because of her mother’s health. Clara Lee grew up with five brothers, an experience that she said prepared her well to work in a profession dominated by men.
Clara Lee came to the UA intending to study English, but her plans changed when she crossed paths with Professor Bryon Cummings, who started the archaeology department. In 1927, Clara Lee graduated with a degree in archaeology, and, in 1928, she received one of the first three master’s degrees in archaeology granted from the UA.
After spending the summer in Europe, Clara Lee began teaching for the UA anthropology school (with a salary of $1,500), teaching five courses per semester for many years.
“Tanner taught many different courses in all fields of archaeology and ethnology; she was living proof that women did have to work harder than their male colleagues,” wrote Thompson.
In 1932, Clara Lee met John Tanner when he came to Tucson to visit his sister Helen, who was the wife of UA anthropologist John Provinse.
“One day not long after John’s arrival, Clara Lee casually mentioned to Helen that she desperately needed someone to run a projector for a lecture that very evening,” wrote Thompson. “Helen volunteered her brother, which was fortunate because projectors in those days were real monsters that weighted a ton. John courted Clara Lee on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and they were married on 22 January 1936.”
The Passion and the Legacy
Clara Lee’s passion for Southwest Indian arts and crafts was one she shared with her husband. John opened Yucca House in downtown Tucson in 1938 and later opened Desert House Crafts in 1946. John and Clara Lee helped many Native American artists, renting them space and holding special exhibits of their work.
Elers paints a picture of a family life brimming with vitality and intellectual stimulation. “You never knew who they [her parents] might bring home to dinner,” she said. “They were interested in talking to people. One day it might be a Navajo artist, and the next day it might be an archaeologist from the East Coast.”
Both Clara Lee and John were highly respected in the field and judged at the Gallup Indian Ceremonials in New Mexico. Over the years, Clara Lee’s expertise put her in touch with some famous people, such as Robert Redford (a fellow judge) and actor Vincent Price, who had a large Indian art collection.
“She had a long conversation with Vincent Price on a couple of occasions,” said Elers. “That was when long distance calls were expensive and if you called someone, you talked for three minutes and then you hung up. He called and talked for 45 minutes, and she was so impressed.”
Clara Lee’s knowledge of Indian arts also meant that she was in demand as a speaker. She gave hundreds of talks to groups ranging from first graders to senior citizens.
“She always felt that teaching the public was very important,” said Elers. “It was
never a waste to educate peopleanywhere, any time. And that was not popular during the years she was teaching. You were supposed to be an academic and publish for your peers.”
Thompson concurs. “She had a sense of responsibility to the public and the community that gave her an almost missionary zeal to introduce the entire world to the beauty, skill and creativity of Indian artists and artisans,” he wrote.
Sandy Elers, who married mining engineer Karl Emerson Elers and received her UA degree in elementary education, said that it was a bit unusual to have a “career mom” while growing up.
“I grew up with the idea that I could do anything I wanted to,” said Elers. “I found out that my mom also influenced some of my friends to pursue careers not traditionally held by women.”
Clara Lee’s influence on a generation of women was undeniable.
“She absolutely loved teaching. She was always talking about how she loved ‘her kids,’”said Elers. “She would encourage everyone, but particularly women.
“She would be very pleased to know there was an endowed professorship in her name,” Elers adds. “She felt education was terribly important. It is gratifying to know her work will go on.”
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