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Obituary: Shelton Davis ’65

Shelton H. Davis, a 25-year resident of Falls Church, activist anthropologist and indigenous rights advocate, died May 27, 2010 of lymphoma. He was 67.

Davis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1942. He graduated from Antioch College and received a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University in 1970, after two years of field work in Santa Eulalia, a Mayan community in the highlands of Guatemala. He taught at Harvard University, creating Harvard's first course on Native Americans in the United States. In 1973, he founded Indigena, Inc. in Berkeley, California, the first documentation center in the United States on indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, publishing the first English-language newsletter on Indian peoples of the Americas.

In 1975, he founded the Anthropology Resource Center - a public-interest research organization devoted to analysis of the effects of development policies on indigenous peoples and the environment in the Amazon and western United States. He and ARC are cited today as one of the founding advocates and exemplifiers of 'public interest anthropology' - anthropology that, in Davis' words, "grows out of the democratic traditions of citizen activism" and holds that "the role of the intellectual is to work with citizens in promoting fundamental change." During his time at ARC, Davis wrote Victims of the Miracle, published by Cambridge University Press in 1978, the first in-depth account by an anthropologist of the social and environmental impact - and human cost to the indigenous Indians - of the Amazon development program of the 1970's. Victims is a seminal work in cultural anthropology, is widely cited to this day, and is still used in anthropology classes.

He worked at the World Bank from 1987 to 2004, where he - in the words of his co-workers - was one of indigenous peoples' "staunchest advocates" from inside the Bank and where he spent his time taking on "the struggle for minority rights - territorial rights, linguistic rights, cultural rights - as his professional mission." Davis firmly believed that the "best qualified experts" on what a community needs development-wise are the community members, themselves, and thus worked actively to ensure that the Bank included the poor and indigenous in the development decision-making process. As a result of his work "mainstreaming" social issues into Bank policy, social impact assessments and social inclusion of indigenous peoples during Bank project preparation became the norm. His colleagues write that he was an "indefatigable defender of indigenous peoples' rights and an unshakable optimist" and that "one could solidly count on Sandy whenever a battle for 'Putting People First' in development had to be carried out inside the Bank, or outside." Davis taught courses on sustainable development, poverty reduction and social inclusion in Latin America at Georgetown University from 1992 to 2008 in the Center for Latin American Studies.

Davis lived the past 25 years in Falls Church, attending rec sports games, George Mason High School events, and sitting on the English as a Second Language Advisory Committee for Falls Church City Public Schools for eight years. He is remembered around Falls Church as a kind and humble man, ready with a smile and words of encouragement and gratitude.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Clare Gubbins of Falls Church, his daughter, Rebecca, of Brooklyn, N.Y., his son Peter of Falls Church, and his brother, Allen of Bay Harbor Island, FL. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Maya Education Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for indigenous people in Central America. If donating online (mayaedufound.org) or by mail (Route 106, P.O. Box 38, South Woodstock, VT, 05071), please indicate that the donation is for the "Shelton H. Davis Scholarship Fund." All are welcome to a public memorial service on Sunday, June 27 at Georgetown University's Intercultural Center Auditorium- 1:30 p.m. for a marimba concert and 2 p.m. for the service. For more information on the scholarship fund or memorial service, e-mail Mary at mcg3j@virginia.edu