History’s Heroines

Bertha Parker Pallen Cody – First Native American Archaeologist

Bertha_Parker_Pallan_(Cody)_(1907-1978)_(6891503755)

Bertha Parker Pallen Thurston Cody 

August 30, 1907 (New York) –  October 8, 1978 (Los Angeles)

     For a woman to be born in a tent at the site of an archeological dig would seem a premonition of a life of adventure. It some ways, perhaps it was, but why then, would, at her death, her gravemarker bear a name other than her own?

In many ways, Bertha Parker’s life seemed to be woven of two disparate threads whose only connection was that they both were of an unorthodox nature. From the start, her childhood was spent in the field working alongside her anthropologist father, Arthur Parker, discovering the evolution, migration, and demise of our human and animal predecessors. After the breakup of her family, at age seven, her life followed a starkly different path, to Hollywood, where she moved with her mother and maternal grandparents, all of whom were actors. Through her teenage years, she and her mother performed the Pocahontas act for the Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Circus. By the time she was eighteen, she had become a wife and mother. Together with her husband, Joseph Pallen, they had a daughter, Wilma Mae, whom they called “Billie.” Just two short years later, however, her path would take her and her daughter back to the archeological life. With her marriage to Pallen ended, she found work, first as a cook, then an expedition secretary, with archeologist (and uncle by marriage), Mark Raymond Harrington.
Though she had no formal education, her prior field experience, and natural intelligence led her to make profound discoveries at Scorpion Hill, a site she excavated, photographed and documented herself, and later, alongside Harrington, at Gypsum Cave in the Nevada Desert. Her work at the latter was especially significant as their finds at this site provided proof of the first human presence on the North American Continent during the Pleistocene era. There, she discovered a fossilized camel bone, human tools, and a Giant Ground Sloth skull. Her work and academic writing of their findings catapulted her to become considered an expert in her field. It was on the Gypsum Cave expedition that she met and married fellow archeologist, James Thurston. Following the conclusion of the expedition, however, in 1931, the two became so ill it claimed the life of James and rendered Bertha so sick moved back to be with her parents in Los Angeles.

Upon her recovery, Bertha found employment with the Southwest Museum, for whom she worked for the next forty years. Combining her native Abenaki and Seneca ancestry with her anthropological work, Bertha published academic articles in the museums Masterkey journal on topics ranging from the significance of Pueblo Kachina Dolls, Native American Baby Cradles, and many about the Yurok Tribe of Northern California.

By the 1940’s, her life led her back to Hollywood once more. There she met actor, Espera Oscar de Corti, a.k.a. “Iron Eyes Cody,” the man who would become her third husband. During the first decade of their marriage, she worked as a television programming consultant to assist with creating a positive and accurate portrayal of Native Americans in the media. Mid-Century, she and Cody were the hosts of a television program highlighting Native American culture and heritage. From T.V. to community, their efforts to support Native culture rippled out to include their work with the Los Angeles Indian Center, which provided resources and support to Native peoples relocating to the greater Los Angeles area.
Bertha wove the contrasting threads of her life together in a way that made significant impacts upon our understanding of human evolution and history, and which supported her family and community in important, meaningful ways.

She is considered the first female Native American archaeologist and an expert in her field as is evident by the work she has left behind.
Bertha Parker Pallen Thurston Cody passed away in 1978 at age 71. Her grave is marked simply, “Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody.”