June Helm (1924-2004)

Department Founder
Education: 
PhD, University of Chicago, 1958

June Helm, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at The University of Iowa, died in Iowa City on February 5, 2004. Helm spent fifty years conducting research on the culture and ethnohistory of the Mackenzie-drainage Dene in the Canadian north. Her studies of Dene ecology, kinship, and demography are important contributions to our knowledge of hunter-gatherers. Helm's best-known sole-authored books are Prophecy and Power among the Dogrib Indians (University of Nebraska Press 1994) and The People of Denendeh: Ethnohistory of the Indians of Canada's Northwest Territories (University of Iowa Press 2000). She also edited several books, including volume VI (the Subarctic) of the Handbook of North American Indians (Smithsonian Institution Press 1981). Helm was chair of Section H of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1978), held the presidencies of the American Ethnological Society (1981-1983) and the American Anthropological Association (1985-1987), and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994). She received the Regents' Award for Faculty Excellence in 1995 and was named the F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of Anthropology in 1996.

Helm was born in Twin Falls, Idaho on September 13, 1924 to parents who had been raised on Kansas farms. The family returned to Kansas in 1930, where Helm's father worked as a mechanic. After graduating from high school, Helm enrolled at the University of Kansas City, the only college she could afford. Her father's income increased in the early 1940s when he converted used machines to war production and Helm was able to transfer to the University of Chicago, where she received a Ph.B. in 1944. In 1945 Helm married her first husband, the archaeologist Richard “Scotty” MacNeish. The couple immediately went to Mexico, where MacNeish conducted archaeological fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation and Helm carried out ethnographic research for her M.A. at Chicago (1950) in a rural mestizo community in Tamaulipas. In 1949 Helm moved to Ottawa, Canada, where MacNeish held a position at the National Museum. Helm began her research along the Mackenzie River at this time. Her ethnographic field data from 1951 and 1952 became the basis of her Ph.D. thesis from Chicago (1958).

In 1960 Helm joined the department of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of Iowa. Helm was instrumental in establishing a separate department of anthropology at Iowa in 1969 and served as department chair on several occasions. She also was the chair (1993-1996) of the newly formed American Indian Native Studies Program. After her retirement in 1999, Helm retained an office in the anthropology department, which she used regularly until a few months before her death.

Helm was a straightforward, well-read woman who prized intellectual honesty and empirical data. Although she had a devastating sense of humor and always spoke her mind, Helm's sharpness was tempered with an appreciation of the frailties of humanity and a love of dogs. She liked word puzzles and contributed numerous acrostics with anthropological themes to the Anthropology Newsletter. Helm is survived by her husband Pierce King, an architect she married in 1968.