The First Native American Archeologist was Self-Taught: Bertha Parker’s Story

Bertha Parker was born in a tent at an archeological dig site and would go on to discover pieces of history that would change our understanding of humanity. Despite a lack of formal education, an abusive relationship, and the difficulties that came with being an Indigenous woman in the early 1900s she became one of the most valued archaeologists in the United States.


Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

what is bertha parker famous for

Growing Up Bertha “Birdie” Parker

Parker, affectionately called “Birdie” by her family, was born in 1907 in Chautauqua County, New York into a family full of actors and actresses. While her mother’s side of the family focused on the arts, her father, Arthur C. Parker, was a dedicated archaeologist and the first-ever president of the Society for American Archaeology, as well as a member of the Seneca tribe.


Throughout her childhood, Parker frequently attended excavations with her father. After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, where they both performed in the circus.


In 1925, Parker had her daughter, Wilma Mae (“Billie”) Pallan, with her husband Joseph Pallan. After their marriage ended due to Pallan’s abuse, she and her daughter moved to Nevada, where Parker’s uncle led the dig site at a limestone cave called Gypsum Cave.


One of the First Female Indigenous Archeologists

In Nevada, Parker participated in excavations and learned about archeology from her uncle while working as a camp cook and expedition secretary. While she was never formally trained, Parker spent most of her free time joining the dig, perfecting her excavation skills, and exploring the site on her own.


Because she was smaller than the other team members, she was able to reach places that they couldn’t. This allowed her to make many important discoveries, including the most important find of the entire expedition: the skull of an extinct giant sloth.


Groundbreaking Discoveries

The sloth skull was found close to man-made artifacts that were, at the time, the oldest evidence of human occupation ever found. By finding the skull and artifacts so physically close together, Parker confirmed that the two existed in the same time period- over 10,000 years ago. This discovery came during the era of debate about when humans migrated to North America, with the skull being proof of an earlier migration than was previously thought.


In addition to the skull, Parker made many more discoveries, including the Scorpion Hill pueblo site and the Corn Creek Campsite, both of which she made on her own.


After her second husband died of a heart attack at the expedition, Parker and her daughter moved back to Los Angeles.


Documenting What Others Couldn’t

In LA, Parker worked at the Southwest Museum, where she documented findings from Gypsum Cave and recorded the cultures and histories of Indigenous Californian tribes. Because she was Native American herself, her documentation of the Maidu, Paiute, Pomo, and Yurok tribes was trustworthy, sensitive, and honest.


Along with her third husband, Iron Eyes Cody, Parker became an advocate for Native American actors. She also worked to ensure that TV shows and movies depicted Indigenous people respectfully and educated the California public on Native American history.


She passed away in 1978.


Bertha Parker Pallan Cody: A Name Etched in History

Parker is hailed as one of the first Native American women in archeology. She is the first Indigenous woman to reach such high accomplishments in the field, which is especially notable because she never received a formal education.


Today, the Society for American Archaeology has a scholarship in her honor.


Bertha Parker is famous for her discoveries that changed the idea of human migration- but she should also be known for her tenacity, advocacy, and a life of breaking down barriers.