Robert F. Spencer

Name Robert F. Spencer
Born March 30 1917
Died June 9 1992
Birth Location San Francisco

Anthropologist and staff member of the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) who spent nearly a year doing fieldwork at the Gila River , Arizona, concentration camp. After completing a doctoral dissertation based in part that fieldwork, Robert Francis Spencer (1917–92) spent nearly his entire academic career at the University of Minnesota, where he chaired the anthropology department and published on a wide variety of topics based on fieldwork throughout Asia, Alaska, and the Southwest.

Early Life and Education

Spencer was born on March 30, 1917, in San Francisco to Frank S. Spencer and Elsa M. Koepke Spencer, who divorced when Robert, their only child, was a toddler. He was largely raised by his mother and her parents in a German and English speaking household that was staunchly Lutheran. His father, a successful insurance executive, saw him frequently and supported his education through college, though Robert did not get along with him. Frank's mother was a school principal, and he arranged for Robert to attend her school in the Richmond District, after which Robert attended Lowell High School, graduating in 1933 at the age of sixteen. He entered the University of California in Berkeley in January 1934, commuting by ferry. Initially intending to study for the Lutheran ministry, he ended up graduating in December 1937 with a double major in German and Semitic Languages. During his summers, he worked as a ship crew member and traveled to Australia, Japan, and Hawai'i. At both Lowell and Berkeley, Spencer had Nisei friends and even dated a Nisei woman while in college.

After graduation, he traveled through Mexico with friends and learned Spanish before moving to New Mexico, where he got married to a woman he had met at Berkeley. Deciding to apply to a master's program in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, he entered the program in 1938, working under Leslie Spier. He did fieldwork in the Rio Grande Valley and wrote his thesis on Keresan, a Native American language, completing his degree in 1940.

Anticipating being drafted—and already divorced—he subsequently returned home to San Francisco. Through an uncle, he got a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) doing administrative work in a railroad office. Following the advice of Spier, he applied to the doctoral program at Berkeley to study under Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, who were then among the best known anthropologists in the world. Accepted, he began his studies in the fall of 1941.

JERS Fieldworker

When the JERS project began in the spring of 1942, Lowie recommended Spencer to JERS Director Dorothy Swaine Thomas. Relatively speaking, Spencer was well qualified for the project, given his fieldwork experience and that he had studied Japanese language for a year while at Berkeley, had visited Japan, and already had some knowledge of the Japanese American community through Nisei friends. Thomas hired him, and he began work in April after he finished his WPA job. Along with Morton Grodzins and Virginia Galbraith, fellow Berkeley graduate students, he was among the first to be hired and went with Thomas and others to Tanforan to interview potential Nisei fieldworkers. Thomas dispatched him to Gila River in August 1942 to document its opening.

Spencer's first reports from Gila document his shock at the dire conditions inmates faced and the woefully unfinished state of the camp that led to overcrowding. "There are maggot grubs in the food," he wrote. "There is epidemic dysentery, heat rash, sunstroke. There are not doctors to cope with it. The barracks are ovens." Though he knew and was friendly with Gila's first director, Eastburn Smith and his wife Nan Cook Smith, both of whom were anthropologists, from his time in New Mexico, conditions in the camp were such that the Smiths asked him to leave for the time being, and a miserable Spencer wanted out and did leave for a time. But Thomas prevailed on him to return, and he did. Though problems persisted, especially as the administration of Smith's eventual replacement, LeRoy H. Bennett, proved to be more hostile to JERS, Spencer stuck it out for almost a year.

Over the next several months, Spencer wrote of his impressions of Gila in frequent letters to Thomas and other JERS staffers and in various reports, working out of various quarters initially in Canal (the smaller of Gila's two sub-camps) and later in Butte. He formed a close working relationship with fellow JERS staffer Charles Kikuchi , and the pair co-authored a detailed analysis of administration/inmate relations across various departments. Given a budget to hire additional staff, he brought on Issei Shotaro Hikida, Yataro Okuno, and Baron Gohachrio Miura along with Nisei attorney Joe Omachi. He also immersed himself in the life of the camp, working in the relocation office, teaching Spanish in the adult education program, and giving frequent lectures about "Indians" to various school groups. He also joined the sumo club at Gila, which allowed him to get to know some of the Kibei. Later in his time at Gila, he began studies of specific blocks and of the Buddhist church at Gila. Throughout, he remained fearful that he and other JERS staff would be kicked out of the camp by the administration. In a 1987 interview, he told Art Hansen, "... I was genuinely suffering and at times, terribly anxious, terribly depressed. And I'm not a person that's easily depressed, but the situation there at Gila was depressing."

In the late spring of 1943, Kroeber offered Spencer a position in an army sponsored language program that would allow him to teach. He also wanted to marry his girlfriend in Berkeley, which he did in May of 1943, at which point he resigned from JERS, leaving Gila at the end of June. Rosalie Hankey, another Berkeley graduate student, replaced Spencer at Gila.

Academic Career

After working for Kroeber for year, he continued with his graduate studies, taking his exams in 1945 and completed his doctoral dissertation—a study of Buddhism that was based in part on his research at Gila—in 1946. His first position upon graduation was as an instructor at Reed College in Oregon starting in the fall of 1946. While there, he got his second divorce and met Marietta Bunzel, whom he would later marry and remain married to for the rest of his life. Unhappy at Reed, he moved to a position at the University of Oregon the following year before accepting a position at the University of Minnesota in 1948. He became a full professor and chairman of the anthropology department in 1956 and would remain at Minnesota for the rest of his academic career. He went on to publish seven books and some ninety journal articles and book chapters. His students produced a festschrift published in 1990. Known for his facility with languages, he was fluent in four and had reading knowledge of ten others.

After publishing a pair of articles on Japanese Americans in the late 1940s, Spencer largely moved on to other topics. In 1987, Yuji Ichioka organized a conference to sought to reexamine the legacy of JERS. Spencer declined an invitation to attend the conference, though he did contribute an essay recalling his time at Gila to the anthology that came out of the conference.

Spencer passed away in Minneapolis on June 9, 1992, at the age of seventy-five.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

" An Interview with Robert F. Spencer, conducted by Arthur A. Hansen, July 15–17, 1987. " In Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project , Part III: Analysts. Ed. Arthur A. Hansen. Munich: K. G. Saur, 1994. 176–340.

Winthorp, Robert, and Robert Jarvenpa. "Robert F. Spencer." Anthropology Newsletter 34.3 (March 1993): 3.

Guide to the Robert F. Spencer papers at the University of Minnesota .

Works by Spencer on Japanese Americans

"Japanese Buddhism in the United States, 1940-1946: A Study in Acculturation." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1947.

"Social Structure of a Contemporary Japanese American Buddhist Church." Social Forces 26.3 (Mar. 1948): 281-87.

"Japanese American Language Behavior." American Speech 25.4 (Dec. 1950): 241–52.

"Gila in Retrospect." In Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study . Ed. Yuji Ichioka. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989. 157-75.

Key JERS Documents by Spencer

[All of these—as well as many others—are available online as part of the University of California at Berkeley Bancroft Library " Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive " collection.]

" Diary report of visit to Gila ," Aug. 15, 1942. 12 pages. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder K8.35.

" Field Report # 1, The Gila River WRA Relocation Center, Rivers, Pinal County, Arizona ," Aug. 23, 1942. 18 pages, JAERDA BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder K8.35.

" Evacuation and Resettlement Study Report II ," Sept. 13, 1942. 10 pages. JAERDA BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder K8.35.

Letters to and from Dorothy Thomas and others , August to December 1942. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder K8.81 (1/2).

Letters to and from Dorothy Thomas and others , January to July 1943. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder K8.81 (2/2).

[with Charles Kikuchi] " Evacuee and Administrative Interrelationships in the Gila Relocation Center ," March-April, 1943. 180 pages, JAERDA BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder K8.31.

Last updated Jan. 15, 2024, 4:58 a.m..