Sally McBeth’s 30 years of Experience
Interview by Talaya Banks
Sally McBeth is an Anthropology Professor at the University of Northern Colorado where she has been teaching for almost 30 years. During the summer of 1967, in the midst of the race riots, she never thought her interest for social justice would lead her to anthropology.
“In Detroit we have mile roads, so we have, like, five mile roads, six mile roads. Our family lived right on the corner of a four lane high way that divided road called, six mile road. Because of these riots, there was so much tension and division between Black and white in Detroit at that time it just was phenomenal, my Neighborhood, right in Detroit was all white. We thought it was integrated if there was protestant living there. The road was closed off, the national guard was in, there were tanks, you couldn’t go anywhere you couldn’t buy gas because people were making molitof cocktails. There was Black on Black violence, white on Black Violence. There was Black on white Violence. The city just burned and instead of thinking, it just put a lot of questions in my head. Why haven’t I learned about social injustice, why didn’t I really see this divide in the city that I grew up in?”
Coming from a big family, McBeth did not travel much growing up, however when given the chance she was able to work on a farm in Illinois, which would then lead her to live in Hawaii for a year working on farm.
“My boyfriend said, come to California with me, you know our band has a gig, I just thought, I am a baby I can’t just rely on a guy, and be the groupie that goes to California so I started working on a farm in Illinois just from connections of a woman I knew, her brother ran a farm. Then he said we do see corn work on the island of Molokai. He said if we can pay half of your rent would you go there? You’re only going to get minimum wage and you’re going to be doing field labor. I thought this is exactly what I need to explore another culture, and also grow up and do a little bit of traveling in a safe environment where I have a job and an apartment so I did that for a year, then I came back I was doing some archaeology.”
As McBeth got her first anthropology degree from Michigan State University, she found a home in anthropology that would lead her to practice anthropology for 41 years. Though she thought archaeology would be her home in anthropology, she quickly found herself in a Ph.D. program with a focus in cultural anthropology. It was in Oklahoma where she found her dissertation calling her name. McBeth’s dissertation worked closely with Native American elders and people that had gone to boarding schools, a topic that not many Anthropologists were talking about, McBeth found her voice neutral and honest in a time that only viewed boarding schools as bad. Her dissertation would open a love for Native Americans and she would continue to teach Native American studies throughout her career as an anthropologist.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I was married at that time to a graduate student and he got a job in Oklahoma, so we moved to Oklahoma in 1976, the marriage didn’t last. My very first teaching job was at a small, state university of 1200 students in a small town called Chickasha, Oklahoma. I was 27 years-old that would have been in 1978, I ended up staying up in Oklahoma after my first husband left, and did my dissertation research on boarding schools down there. It was an amazing experience, I worked pretty exclusively with Native Americans elders and people that have gone to boarding school. I finished my dissertations and the school was not really a great place for a liberal thinker because it’s in Oklahoma. At the time most of the administrators were church of Christ, which isn’t bad but they didn’t believe in evolution and they were critical of even- I was teaching Indian studies and they didn’t really like the native American students which was the biggest minority in Oklahoma. It was lip service.”
In need of something new, after her dissertation, McBeth moved to North Dakota in 1980 teaching at North Dakota State, and Morehead state in Minnesota. Fed up with year-to-year contract renewable positions, McBeth wanted something more stable. However, due to the cold weather McBeth did not see herself in a tenure track position there. In connecting with a childhood crush from, she would move to Vermont get married and have a baby. McBeth emerged back into teaching at Middlebury College and Vermont community college until she got a job at Dartmouth college teaching Native American Studies and anthropology. With a unique pedigree, Dartmouth would view McBeth’s scholarship in a different light, pushing McBeth to the University of Northern Colorado in 1989 where she received a tenure track job. Through her 29 years at the University of Northern Colorado, McBeth would play a key role in developing a promising anthropology department.
“I just thought, even if I had gotten this Job, I probably would never get tenure here anyway. I started looking for another Job and my husband at that time said that he would move- we could move the family when and if I got a tenure track. It didn’t make sense to move across the country for another one year job, so I interviewed here at UNC in 1989and got the tenure track Job and there is a long history to that. It was multicultural studies, it wasn’t really anthropology, but at any rate I have been at UNC since 1990 so this is my 29th year here which seems crazy. The school has changed a lot, it has grown.”
Through McBeth’s career, she is most proud of her dissertation work that opened up conversations about boarding schools. In addition, McBeth is proud of her collaborative book with Esther Horne that reveals the experience of Horne’s life as a student and a teacher. Through a ten-year process, McBeth’s work with Horne was life changing. McBeth is also proud of the work she does with National Parks to bring and pay native people who would claim a particular area as ancestral homelands and talk about different aspects of the land in a respectful way. Outside of McBeth’s work with native peoples, she is proud of the work she has done to develop the University of Northern Colorado’s anthropology department. Though it was never in her interest to be department chair, she knew if she wanted to make a change that was the way. She sat on many search committees to help create a young, energetic anthropology department.
In reflection of McBeth’s career, in the summer of 1967, McBeth remembers this being the start of a flood of questions of why and how the systems in place continue to work. McBeth is always trying to find herself while asking the questions that flooded her that summer.
“What happened in 67 was really just questions, why don’t I know about this, why don’t I know about the board vs. education. I just didn’t understand some of the policies the whole separate but equal. You would think in a northern town like Detroit that it would be integrated more like Chicago but it wasn’t it was so segregated, I mean the neighborhoods were segregated and not necessarily by law but whites didn’t want to live next door to a black family. So I think for me it just raised a lot of questions, I think I am still asking those questions, keep trying to find myself in retirement, I am 68 years old and I feel like I’m 20. I want to learn Spanish, I want to travel, I want to be in love, I just want to continue to grow and understand who I am.”
Furthermore, she believes that if one is open to other belief systems and ways of thinking and gets excited, they are going to be a better person no matter what field they go into. As McBeth gears up to retire, her key takeaways from her career are to be humble, understand privilege, and to have fun. Though McBeth is retiring, she still aims to keep finding herself and engage in learning Spanish, traveling, love, and continuing to grow.
About the author
Talaya Banks was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. For the last four years, she has lived in Greeley, Colorado where she recently graduated from the University of Northern Colorado where she studied Anthropology and Psychology. During her time at UNC she engaged in a plethora of clubs and organizations that are centered around creating resources for marginalized communities. Talaya's passions continue to lie in advocating and sharing resources with the people around her. When she not engaging in the world, she is a proud plant mom and tea enthusiast.