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Anthropology student receives master's, aims for PhD

May 09, 2011

Will Russell changed careers to pursue a lifelong fascination with Southwestern and Native histories.

Native American heritage, a childhood on a Cochise County ranch and exposure to cultural traditions around the world merged to create Will Russell’s lifelong fascination with Southwestern and Native histories.

“The Southwestern Native American communities we know today have been here for thousands of years,” he says. “Their indigenous histories tell us, if we listen, where they have been and the things they have done.” 

With a desire to understand and document the past, Russell craved an education that would allow him to pursue his dream.  After working as a narcotics and organized crime investigator with a federal task force, he decided to take on a new challenge and joined ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“When it comes to archaeology in general and Southwestern archaeology in particular, there simply is no better institution than ASU for learning and research,” he says.  “The faculty here is the best in the world and the research opportunities are par none.”

Russell worked full time while completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. “I returned to academia after a 15-year hiatus, complete with a family and all the bills that go along with that,” he says.

He won admittance to the doctoral program in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology. This spring he will be awarded a master’s in passing as he continues pursuing his Ph.D.

Fellowships and merit-based scholarships have allowed Russell to focus on graduate education. He is a doctoral research fellow with the National Science Foundation and Ford Foundation. He was awarded a Graduate College Doctoral Enrichment Fellowship for 2009-10 and received the Dons and Doñas of Arizona Award, a scholarship for exceptional ASU students whose academic programs focus on the American Southwest.

Russell's contributions to Southwestern archaeology are already impressive, with multiple publications in archaeology books and journals. Russell combines traditional archaeological techniques with collaboration and ethnographic approaches.

Dissertation research focused on Perry Mesa in north-central Arizona has produced some intriguing finds. Between the mid 13th and 15th centuries, a large and diverse number of people moved into an empty landscape and began building linear ground features which were used as ceremonial racetracks. 

“Historic Native American communities have used ritual racing for centuries as an integrative mechanism that cross-cut social divisions such as clans,” says Russell, who believes the racetracks on Perry Mesa and the surrounding area contain a lesson for us today.

“I hope my research will demonstrate how diverse communities can focus on underlying similarities without getting lost in their differences.  I would never argue for cultural homogeneity, but rather stress that people can acknowledge their sameness on some level and simultaneously celebrate the uniqueness of others.”

After he receives his Ph.D., Russell plans to teach at a research-oriented university.  “I am passionate about research, writing, and teaching.  I look forward to someday being the type of mentor that I’ve been lucky enough to have had myself.”

Grateful to the professors and graduate students who have mentored him, Russell has paid it forward by helping undergraduate students with their research and academic goals, and helped establish an annual scholarship for undergraduate archaeology travel. 

With a joy and passion for understanding and documenting Southwestern history, Russell says “this is where I am supposed to be. I can't imagine being anywhere else.”

Contributed by Michele St George