June Helm (1924–2004)


  • Tom Andrews




une Helm, an anthropologist who worked for 50 years studying the culture and ethnohistory of Dene in the Mackenzie River drainage, has passed away at the age of 79. In declining health for many weeks, she died peacefully in her sleep on 5 February 2004, at home in the company of her husband, Pierce King. In 1945 June married Richard S. "Scotty" MacNeish, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, .... In 1949, Helm and MacNeish moved to Ottawa, Canada. While June worked as a sessional lecturer at Carleton University (1949-1959), MacNeish was employed as an archaeologist with the National Museums of Canada. During MacNeish's archaeological fieldwork in the Northwest Territories in the summer of 1950, he learned of a teaching opportunity in the community of Jean Marie River. In 1951, June and her research partner, Teresa Carterette, went to the community as volunteer English teachers, launching a 50-year career in the North. June's work in Jean Marie River (1951-52) formed the basis for her dissertation at the University of Chicago, which granted her a Ph.D. in 1958. She and Scotty MacNeish divorced amicably the same year. ... Over the next three decades, June made many trips north (in 1951, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959-60, 1967-72, 1974, 1976, and 1979). During these years, she undertook ethnographic research and field excursions along the Yukon and Northwest Territories western Arctic coast, at Jean Marie River, Fort Good Hope, Deline, Fort Simpson, Lac La Martre, and Rae. In 1959, Nancy O. Lurie joined June for five months of fieldwork in Lac La Martre, beginning a 25-year focus on Dogrib ethnography and a research partnership that produced several influential and important articles, books, and reports. Helm and Lurie remained close friends, keeping in regular contact and visiting often throughout Helm's life. ... June became one of North America's most eminent anthropologists, holding a tenured position at the University of Iowa from 1960 to 1999. In March 1989, she suffered a serious stroke, resulting in partial paralysis on her right side. Despite this handicap, she maintained regular office hours at the university until her retirement in December 1999. ... June's numerous publications have made a significant contribution to Dene ethnography and ethnohistory. Her 11 books and monographs and over 40 chapters and articles, most focused on the Dene of the Mackenzie drainage, have left an important record of historical and ethnographic documentation. ...Over the last four years, June worked to organize her photographs, audiotapes, field notes, letters, and other documents for donation to the Northwest Territories Archives. Just a few months ago, a large shipment of her material arrived. As an expression of her deep respect and fondness for the people of the North, she felt it important that her research materials be returned to the North. In conjunction with her efforts to return the caribou skin lodge these donations constitute a major contribution to the preservation of Dene historical and ethnographic documentation. They will continue to gain in importance as future generations of young Dene find value in them.