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Theodora Kroeber

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Theodora Kroeber
Theodora Kroeber - 1970, Photographed by Paul Bishop.jpg
Kroeber, photographed in 1970
Theodora Covel Kracaw

(1897-03-24)March 24, 1897
DiedJuly 4, 1979(1979-07-04) (aged 82)
Alma materUC Berkeley
OccupationWriter, anthropologist
  • Clifton Brown 1921–1923,
  • Alfred Kroeber 1926–1960,
  • John Quinn 1969–1979
ChildrenKarl, Ursula, Ted, Clifton

Theodora Covel Kracaw Kroeber Quinn (March 24, 1897 – July 4, 1979) was an American writer and anthropologist, best known for her accounts of several Native Californian cultures.[1] Born in Denver, Colorado, Kroeber grew up in the mining town of Telluride, before enrolling in the University of California, Berkeley, for undergraduate and graduate studies. Married once in 1921 and widowed in 1923, in 1926 she married anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. She had two children with Kroeber, and two others from her first marriage. The Kroebers traveled together to many of Alfred's field sites, including an archaeological dig in Peru. Nine years after Alfred's death in 1960, Theodora Kroeber married artist John Quinn.

Kroeber began writing professionally late in her life, after her children had grown up. She released a collection of translated Native American traditional narratives in 1959, and in 1961 published Ishi in Two Worlds, an account of Ishi, the last member of the Yahi people of Northern California, whom Alfred Kroeber had befriended and studied between 1911 and 1916. This volume sold widely, and received high praise from commentators for its writing. Kroeber published several other works in her later years, including a collaboration with her daughter Ursula K. Le Guin and several anthropological texts. She served as a Regent of the University of California for a year before her death in 1979.

Early life, education, and first marriage[edit]

Theodora Covel Kracaw was born on March 24, 1897, in Denver, Colorado, and lived there for her first four years. She grew up in the mining town of Telluride, where her parents, Phebe Jane Kracaw (née Johnston) and Charles Emmett Kracaw, were owners of a general store.[1][2][3] According to her family, Charles' family were recent Polish migrants who had come to the US via Germany and England, while Phebe had grown up in Wyoming. Theodora was the youngest of three Kracaw children; she had two brothers, five and ten years older than she was.[1] All of the children attended schools in Telluride. Theodora's brothers would go on to become physicians. Theodora, who described herself as a shy and introverted person, would later say that her childhood was a happy one.[1] Her family name "Kracaw" led to her being nicknamed "Krakie" by her friends.[4]

Kracaw graduated from high school in 1915. In the same year, her family left Colorado and moved to Orland, California, since the lower elevation there was expected to benefit her father's health. However, her father suffered setbacks in his business, and facing both blindness and tuberculosis, he committed suicide in 1917.[1] Kracaw enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1915. She considered majoring in economics and English literature before deciding on psychology.[5] She made a number of lifelong friends during her undergraduate years, including Jean Macfarlane, whose interest in psychology drove Kracaw to select that discipline for her major.[5] She graduated cum laude in 1921, and began graduate study at UC Berkeley. Her Master's thesis studied ten families in San Francisco that had been clients of a juvenile court. She volunteered as a probation officer, and was required to meet and report on the families she was studying. She would later write that she struggled to be objective in writing about these families.[6] Kracaw received her Master's degree in clinical psychology in 1920.[2][4]

In July 1921, Kracaw married Clifton Spencer Brown, who was at UC Berkeley for graduate studies in law.[2][6] Brown was suffering from pneumonia that he had contracted in France during World War I.[6] They had two children, Clifton II and Theodore. The couple were in Santa Fe when Brown died in October 1923.[6] Theodora moved back to Berkeley, to the home of Brown's widowed mother, who encouraged her to return to graduate school.[6] While living in Santa Fe, she had developed an interest in Native American art and culture, and she decided to study anthropology at UC Berkeley.[2][6]

Anthropology career and second marriage[edit]

Having chosen anthropology, Theodora went to consult Alfred Louis Kroeber, a leading American anthropologist of his generation, and the head of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley.[7][8] Though she had previously taken classes from Alfred Kroeber's assistant Thomas Waterman, this was the first time Theodora met Alfred.[4][6] She later took a seminar class with him, and married him in March 1926.[2][6] Alfred Kroeber, 21 years older than Theodora, had also been previously married: his wife had died of tuberculosis in 1913. Alfred adopted Theodora's two sons, giving them his last name.[9] The couple had two more children together, Karl and Ursula. Karl, Clifton, and Theodore later became professors, of English, history, and psychology, respectively, while Ursula became well-known as an author under her married name Ursula K. Le Guin.[4][9]

In June 1926 the Kroebers left their children with Theodora's mother, and went on an eight-month field trip to an archaeological dig in Peru's Nazca valley. It was Theodora's first visit to an archaeological site. While there, she worked on recognizing and cataloging specimens.[9] She would accompany Alfred on another trip to Peru in 1942, and other trips studying the Yurok and Mohave peoples.[4] Also in 1926, she published her first academic work, a paper examining ethnological data analysis, in the journal The American Anthropologist.[4][10] On their return from Peru, Alfred encouraged Theodora to continue working on her doctorate, but she declined, as she felt she had too many responsibilities. She would later say that she had no ambition "in the public sense of ambition".[9] When they were not traveling, the Kroebers spent most of the year in a large redwood house facing the San Francisco bay that Alfred was particularly attached to: they would both live in the same house until their deaths. They spent the summers in an old farmhouse they had bought in the Napa valley on a 40-acre ranch named "Kishamish". Alfred's friends among the Native Americans were frequent visitors to this house.[3][9][11] During the academic year, Theodora kept in contact with Alfred's academic acquaintances when the couple entertained them at their house in Berkeley.[2]

Writing career[edit]

Kroeber began writing seriously once again after her husband had retired and her children were all grown, at approximately the same time that Ursula also began writing professionally.[9][12] Between 1955 and 1956, a year the Kroebers spent at Stanford University, she wrote a novel about Telluride. This piece was never published, but helped her establish a habit of writing a little bit every day.[1] In 1959, the year she turned 62, she published The Inland Whale, a retelling of California Native American legends that she had selected in the belief that they exhibited a certain originality.[13] A review of this volume stated that Kroeber had made the legends accessible to a general audience, by "translating freely in her own sensitive, almost lyrical style."[13]

Alfred Kroeber and Ishi, pictured in 1911.

Kroeber spent the next two years exploring the literature about Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi people, who had been found starving in Oroville, California in 1911. He had been brought to UC Berkeley, where he was studied and befriended by Alfred Kroeber and his associates.[14] Ishi had died of tuberculosis in 1916, and Theodora undertook to write an account of his life, believing that Alfred could not bring himself to do so.[14] Ishi in Two Worlds was published in 1961, a year after Alfred's death. Kroeber found the book difficult to write because of its challenging subject material: it recounted the destruction of the Yahi people by white settlers and Ishi's many years spent largely in solitude.[2][14] She released a version of the story for children in 1964, which she found even harder, as she struggled to present death to an audience largely shielded from it.[14]

Ishi in Two Worlds became an immediate success, and established Kroeber's reputation for anthropological writing.[14] Described as a classic, it was translated into nine languages.[14] It had sold half a million copies by 1976,[4] and a million copies by 2001, at which point it was still in print.[12] Reviewers said that she had a talent for "making us part of a life we never took part in."[14] A 1979 commentary described it as the most widely read book about a Native American subject, calling it a "beautifully written story" that was "evocative of Yahi culture".[4] A 1980 obituary stated that Ishi in Two Worlds had probably been read by more people than had ever read Alfred Kroeber's works.[3] The book was twice adapted for the screen, as Ishi: The Last of His Tribe in 1978,[15] and as The Last of His Tribe in 1992.[16] An anthology about Ishi and his relationship with Alfred Kroeber, coedited by Kroeber's sons Karl and Clifton, was released in 2003.[8]

Kroeber published several other works in the years that followed, including a short story and two novels in addition to her anthropological writings.[4] After his death in 1960, Theodora wrote a biography of her husband titled Alfred Kroeber, A Personal Configuration that was published in 1970,[2] which was described as a "sensitive biography with her inimitable phraseology and setting of mood".[14] An obituary stated that this biography was just as important a work from an anthropologist's perspective as Ishi in Two Worlds.[4] After completing the children's version of Ishi in Two Worlds, she collaborated with Robert Heizer, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, to publish two pictorial accounts of Native Americans in California: Almost Ancestors, released in 1968, and Drawn from Life, released in 1976. These books collated images from various sources with text written by Kroeber.[17] She also wrote the forewords to two collections of Alfred's writings, published in 1976 and 1989,[17] and collaborated with her daughter on Tillai and Tylissos, a poetry collection released in 1979.[18]

Later life[edit]

In 1969, Kroeber married John Quinn, who was working at the time for the Sierra Club. Quinn had been one of the editors for Almost Ancestors.[2][4] Quinn, an artist and psychotherapist, was several decades younger than Kroeber. She reflected on this age gap, and the fact that she had been much younger than her second husband, in a 1976 essay.[19] Quinn encouraged her to complete her biography of Alfred, which she was having trouble with when she had met Quinn.[4] Ten years later, when Kroeber's health was declining, Quinn encouraged her to write a short autobiography, that was printed privately after her death.[3][4]

Kroeber described her political views as those of an "old thirties liberal." She was a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party, and she participated in peace rallies in her final years.[19] In 1977 she was offered a position on the University of California Board of Regents by California Governor Jerry Brown.[2][3] She held the position for a year before she resigned, stating that the position was exhausting her.[2] Her last act in that position was to send a memorandum to the rest of the board, challenging the University's involvement in research into nuclear weapons, and stating that the board had an "unblushing commitment [...] to the development of science and the practice of war, of human and earth destruction".[3][19] On July 4, 1979, she died of cancer in her Berkeley home.[2][4]

Selected works[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Buzaljko 1989, p. 187.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Finding Aid to the Theodora Kroeber Papers, 1881–1983 (bulk 1960–1979)". Online Archive of California. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Elsasser, Albert B. (March 1980). "Obituary – Theodora Kroeber-Quinn 1897 – 1979". The American Anthropologist. 82 (1): 114–115. doi:10.1525/aa.1980.82.1.02a00090. JSTOR 676133.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Mandelbaum, David (1979). "Memorial to Theodora Kroeber Quinn (1897–1979)" (PDF). Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. 1 (2): 237–239. Retrieved January 25, 2019.
  5. ^ a b Buzaljko 1989, pp. 187–188.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Buzaljko 1989, p. 188.
  7. ^ Buzaljko 1989, pp. 188–189.
  8. ^ a b Japenga, Ann (August 29, 2003). "Revisiting Ishi". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Buzaljko 1989, p. 189.
  10. ^ Clements, Forrest E.; Schenck, Sara M.; Brown, Theodora K. (October 1926). "A New Objective Method for Showing Special Relationships". American Anthropologist. 28 (4): 585–604. doi:10.1525/aa.1926.28.4.02a00010. JSTOR 661296.
  11. ^ Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth (1997). Presenting Ursula Le Guin. Twayne. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8057-4609-9.
  12. ^ a b Justice, Faith L. (January 23, 2001). "Ursula K. Le Guin". Salon. Archived from the original on November 3, 2012. Retrieved April 22, 2010.
  13. ^ a b Buzaljko 1989, pp. 189–190.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Buzaljko 1989, p. 190.
  15. ^ O'Connor, John J. (December 20, 1978). "TV: 'Ishi,' a Chronicle Of the Yahi Indian Tribe". New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  16. ^ Higgins, Bill (March 20, 1992). "Makers of HBO's 'Tribe' Given a Warm Reception". The Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ a b Buzaljko 1989, pp. 190–191.
  18. ^ Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth (1997). Presenting Ursula Le Guin. Twayne. pp. 93–94. ISBN 978-0-8057-4609-9.
  19. ^ a b c Buzaljko 1989, p. 191.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Buzaljko 1989, pp. 192–193.


  • Buzaljko, Grace Wilson (1989). "Theodora Kracaw Kroeber". In Ute Gacs; Aisha Khan; Jerrie McIntyre; Ruth Weinberg (eds.). Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies (Reprint ed.). University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06084-9.

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