Marvin Stokes, Botanist Who Harvested Navajo History From Trees, Dies at 82

Courtesy of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, U. of Arizona

Marvin Stokes at work in the field, holding a tree-ring core and an extractor.
May 09, 2010

Some scholars love words. Other scholars love cells. Marvin A. Stokes loved tree rings. He discovered history through trees' hidden messages, and he taught others how to do that work.

Mr. Stokes, a professor emeritus of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona, died at age 82 in Tucson last month.

By studying tree-ring patterns, Mr. Stokes helped the Navajo Nation solidify claims it made to the federal government during the 1960s for reparations. With other researchers, he collected thousands of tree-ring samples from wooden structures at Navajo sites to prove that the tribe had lived in certain areas during particular time periods.

Ronald H. Towner, an associate research professor in the university's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, studies Navajo history using similar techniques. He says Mr. Stokes's collection of tree-ring samples was critical to the Navajo people. "It really helped solidify a lot of their land claims because what they were collecting were outside the current boundaries of the Navajo Nation," he says.

Mr. Stokes also used his dating method on Spanish colonial mission churches, confirming the ages of mission sites.

Thomas W. Swetnam, director of the tree-ring laboratory and a former student of Mr. Stokes's, says one of his professor's biggest contributions was expanding a network of tree-ring histories in the Southwest that has been used by hundreds of scholars to study such topics as drought over time.

"He was kind of a pioneer in understanding our climate variability across the Southwest," he says.

Originally from Aberdeen, S.D., Mr. Stokes served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1945 to 1948 before receiving his bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Colorado at Denver in 1952.

In 1953, he worked as a ranger in Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado, where tree-ring data were used to date centuries-old American Indian cliff dwellings.

He also joined the tree lab at the University of Arizona that year as an assistant.

In 1967, two years after he earned a master's degree in botany at Arizona, he was appointed an assistant professor at the university. He retired in 1989.

Mr. Stokes wrote, with Terah L. Smiley, An Introduction to Tree-Ring Dating (University of Chicago Press, 1968). Bryant Bannister, a former director of the tree-ring laboratory, says that work "had a very broad effect across the whole world in turning people to an interest in dendrochronology."

Scholars who worked with Mr. Stokes remember "Marv" as a man dedicated to teaching and helping students.

He advised Mr. Swetnam when he was a graduate student in the 1980s, and they traveled around the Southwest collecting tree-ring samples.

Mr. Stokes was a "very generous mentor," Mr. Swetnam says. "He really cared about students. Marv wasn't that interested in becoming a superstar scientist. His interest was to nurture other young tree-ring scientists."

Mr. Bannister was already working in the lab when Mr. Stokes joined and says the two became close friends. "Marv was an exceptionally important person in the lab because of his relationships with students that came in," Mr. Bannister says. "He just turned them around and made them into tree-ring people."