Melissa L. Meyer
Professor of History
UC Los Angeles
1954 – 2008
Melissa L. Meyer, historian of American Indians, died on April 9, 2008, of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered the previous summer. She was fifty-three years old.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, of mixed Irish, German and Eastern Cherokee heritage, Meyer graduated from the University of Cincinnati and went on to receive her doctorate in American history from the University of Minnesota in 1985. Already as a student, Meyer began her search for answers to questions about Native American identity that would ultimately define her intellectual journey and scholarly career.
With the publication of The White Earth Tragedy in 1994, Meyer established her reputation as a leading scholar in her field. In it, she detailed the expropriation of land from Anishinaabegs of the Great Lakes region from 1889 to 1920. Her research demonstrated the adaptivity of the Anishinaabegs in the face of migration, intermarriage, federal policy and corporate schemes. She also revealed how internal divisions tragically furthered the process of their dispossession. Her analysis of ethnicity among the Anishinaabegs at White Earth showed how distinctions between “mixed bloods” and “full-bloods” came to be framed and why they produced long-term consequences for the welfare of the White Earth bands. The White Earth Tragedy also thrust “blood” into the centerpiece of debates about tribal enrollment and the issues of intermarriage and historical experiences of individuals of mixed descent.
Across the next decade, Meyer expanded her analytical frame to explore belief and rituals concerning blood in regional and religious contexts throughout human history. She included the preliminary findings in her 1999 article “American Indian Blood Quantum Requirements: Blood is Thicker Than Family,” published in the collection Over the Edge: Remapping the American West, edited by Blake Allmendiger and Valerie Matsumoto. In 2005 she published the magisterial Thicker than Water: The Origins of Blood as Symbol and Ritual, which one critic praised as a text that links discourses about blood with the myths, legends, and science that are repeatedly used to explain “that most impossible of things: life.” Even scholars who criticized Meyer’s book praised its “unusual virtues.”
Meyer was an active and engaged faculty member both at UCLA and in the profession at large. In addition to being a member of the Department of History, she was associated with the UCLA American Indian Studies Center and American Indian Studies Interdepartmental Degree Program. She was also a longtime Member of the Advisory Board, Center for American Indian Research and Education (CAIRE). During her years at UCLA, Meyer represented the History Department in the Academic Senate, and she served on Undergraduate Council as well as numerous History Department committees. Meyer also participated in the American Historical Association, the Pacific Branch of the American Historical Association, Western Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, and American Society for Ethnohistory. She was a frequent member of prize and conference program committees.
A generous and attentive mentor, Meyer worked closely with undergraduate and graduate students alike. Her course materials blended American Indian autobiographies with contemporary issues that caught the attention of students. An undergraduate in the class she was teaching at the time of her stroke described her as “a great professor who was very enthusiastic about the material she taught, and it showed in her class.” She inspired by example. One graduate student remembers her as never afraid to “roll up her sleeves” and get into the trenches to demonstrate what good teaching was about, and doctoral students with whom she worked now teach at institutions like UC Berkeley, New Mexico State, Knox College, Loyola Marymount and UCLA. In her teaching as well as her scholarship, Meyer insisted that Native Americans not be marginalized or romanticized, arguing for their central place in American History.
Meyer disdained the role of poseur. She was not an ivory tower intellectual. Although earning coveted teaching positions at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Dartmouth College, and UCLA, she worked tirelessly to reform the institutions and the bureaucratic practices that sometimes stood in the way of scholarly work, collegiality, and good teaching. A self-described “child of the sixties,” she challenged authority. She viewed asymmetries and abuse of power as intolerable. She was outspoken in her advocacy, courageous in adversity, and fiercely loyal to her friends.
She was as civic-minded as she was tough-minded. She applied her expertise in museology to assist in the design of a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. She acted as a consultant on Native American issues for CBS News, the Smithsonian, the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, the U.S. Department of Justice, Indian Claims Division, and the History Channel.
Melissa Meyer’s untimely death has saddened her students and friends as well as her colleagues both in the UCLA History Department and the larger, national Native American Studies community. She is survived by her mother Helen Meyer, her sister Diana Meyer-Margeson of Loveland, Ohio, her husband, Russell Thornton, a professor in the UCLA Department of Anthropology, her daughter Tanis, and her son Zane. Meyer dedicated Thicker Than Water to Tanis and Zane, and she clearly felt them to be her greatest source of inspiration. In countless scholarly conversations and emails to colleagues, she returned time and again to “those precious children.”