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William S. Simmons
In Memoriam

William S. Simmons

Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Over the course of his remarkable career, William (Bill) Scranton Simmons inspired the lives of many through his contributions to the fields of North American ethnohistory and anthropology, his mentorship and support of students and junior faculty, his advocacy for Native American communities, and his innovative work in campus administrations.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on September 10, 1938, Bill attended Classical High School as a track star and budding scholar, and then Brown University where he began his training in anthropology. Hired as an undergraduate to work in the newly opened Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, he cataloged and researched anthropology collections, participated in excavations in both New England and Alaska, and commenced his lifetime dedication of working with Native American communities. Bill continued his study of anthropology at Harvard University, receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, where he maintained his relationships with New England Native communities. He also undertook ethnographic field work (1964-1966) in West Africa among the Badyaranke people at the Tonghia village in Senegal.

Upon joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967, Simmons made significant contributions to the study of West African ethnography with his insightful analyses of religious conversion, witchcraft and the supernatural world, and the sociopolitics and lifeways of village communities. These were published in several articles and expanded upon in his notable book, Eyes of the Night: Witchcraft Among a Senegalese People (1971). He also implemented pioneering work in the fields of ethnohistory and colonialism through his collaborative research with members of several indigenous groups in New England, including the Narragansett, Mohegan, and Pequot. His numerous articles and book chapters on New England tribal kinship, culture, and history, as well as his innovative study of indigenous and European entanglements, particularly the blatant biases of Puritan settlers, remain classics in North American anthropology. His masterpiece, Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984, published in 1986, chronicles the ever-changing lives of indigenous communities before, during, and after their encounters with European colonists. The book remains a landmark in ethnohistory and historical anthropology for its collection of hundreds of folklore texts that document indigenous cultural practices and spiritual beliefs and how these changed and persevered over more than three centuries of colonialism. His groundbreaking research in historical anthropology was further solidified when he took on a leadership role in the American Society for Ethnohistory, serving as its president-elect and president from 1985 to 1987.

Simmons also made a substantial impact on the field of California anthropology. He was instrumental in reviving the study of California anthropology at UC Berkeley that had become moribund with the passing of Alfred Kroeber and Robert Heizer. Soon after arriving on campus, he began to reach out to local indigenous communities who had become embittered with the past conduct of some anthropologists and archaeologists in Indian country. He commenced working closely with Indian communities, such as the Honey Lake Maidu people in Lassen County, documenting places in their territory where they lived, hunted, gathered food and raw materials, and buried their dead, as well as recording their oral traditions. He loved the field: attired in his trademark cowboy boots, blue jeans, blue work shirts, and hat, you would find him at a rural café eating a hearty dinner with various members of the local community. He published several important works in California anthropology, including pieces on Maidu ethnogeography and creation stories, as well as a study on the social contexts of early contacts between indigenous communities and European explorers. His 1997 chapter on “Indian Peoples of California” in California History, 76(2/3), 48-77 ( remains one of the best succinct syntheses of Native California ever written. In 1990, Bill became curator of California ethnology in what is now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. As curator, he advocated for the importance of studying the California collections and making them accessible to everyone, particularly tribal members. He was also involved in developing early repatriation policies for the Berkeley campus that followed federal law for returning some museum objects to tribes.

One of Professor Simmons’s lasting legacies in building better relations between academia and Native Californians was the founding of the First Annual California Indian Conference in 1985. As the first program chair of the conference, he brought together tribal elders and scholars to discuss issues of concern related to California Indian country with academics, consulting archaeologists, and students. He later served as the program chair for the Fourth Annual California Indian Conference held at UC Berkeley in 1988. Today the California Indian Conference has grown into a major annual gathering of tribal people, academics, and educators from across the state and beyond.

An inspiring and caring teacher, Bill mentored many undergraduate and graduate students at Berkeley while teaching a diverse range of courses in anthropological history and theory, religion, mythology, and on North American and California Indians. He also served as a mentor to junior faculty who co-taught courses with him. His presentation in undergraduate courses would often begin with a lecture on the subject matter at hand, followed by slides, and then lively discussions with the students. His dry sense of humor, generously sprinkled throughout his lectures, would frequently be evident in his telling a story from the field or some other incident relating to the lecture – it was not uncommon for him to erupt in laughter in telling delightful stories that would leave him and students in tears. He was a joy to be around in the classroom.

Bill took on many important administrative positions at Berkeley, serving as the associate dean of the Graduate Division (1982-1983) and then chair of the Department of Anthropology (1984-1990). He subsequently became the dean of the Division of Social Sciences in the College of Letters & Science (1993-1998), playing a key leadership role at the university. Professor Simmons' tenure as department chair and later as dean corresponded to a remarkable increase in the representation of women faculty in anthropology. This led to the department becoming an important center for feminist thought in the discipline. Bill was an important mentor and supportive colleague to the assistant professors hired during this time. He could often be spotted on campus walking between various meetings with a wry grin that would expand to a quick smile in seeing an acquaintance. He was hard to miss dressed in his cowboy boots, jeans and either work shirt or dress shirt with jacket depending on the occasion. Another of the many legacies of Professor Simmons was his tireless advocacy in working to pass the American Cultures requirement for the entire Berkeley campus that provided opportunities for students to learn about diverse populations in California and beyond. He served as the first director of the Center for the Teaching and Study of American Cultures. In addition to his curatorial duties in the Hearst Museum, he also served on various committees in The Bancroft Library.

After his retirement from UC Berkeley in 1998, Bill returned to his alma mater, Brown University, where he taught and served in various capacities for the campus, including executive vice president and provost, director for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and chair of the Anthropology Department. He revisited his roots at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology where he curated exhibits and served as the director. His commitment to collaborating with diverse communities both on the campus and beyond continued at Brown University. Bill continued to work closely with the Narragansett Tribe, helped found the Rhode Island Archaeological Society, and served as a board member and First Vice President of the Providence Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also served as a trustee of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Providence Public Library.

Bill maintained his tireless advocacy for Native American rights and the expansion of educational opportunities for all students and community members until his passing on June 2, 2018, after a battle with cancer. He is very much missed on both the Berkeley and Brown campuses. He is survived by his wife, Cheryl Simmons, his daughters Riva Mullins and Kaia Simmons, his grandsons Shane and Kai Mullins, and his brother Robert Simmons.

Kent G. Lightfoot
Margaret W. Conkey
Laurie A. Wilkie