Focusing her practice on plateau Indian culture, Dr. Lillian Ackerman was raised in an Armenian community and was always interested in how Americans lived. Having friends already involved in the field, she switched to anthropology after reading books that explained questions she had about the differences between the two cultures. Dr. Ackerman has served Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, as a researcher in anthropology since 1982 and adjunct professor since 2001, previously serving as an instructor in anthropology from 1963 to 1965. She began her professional career as a Russian translator at the Arctic Institute of North America in Toronto in 1960, remaining in this position for two years. She later taught anthropology at Wenatchee Valley College in Nespelem, Washington, in 1979.
In addition to this tenure, Dr. Ackerman was a researcher and consultant for the U.S. Census in Washington from 1989 to 1990. Likewise, she has served as an anthropology consultant in Pullman, Washington, since 1982. Prior to the start of her career, Dr. Ackerman pursued a formal education at the University of Michigan, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in anthropology in 1950 and 1951, respectively. She went on to matriculate at Washington State University, obtaining a PhD in anthropology in 1982. Civically, she was also the chairperson of the Developmental Disabilities Board of Whitman County in Washington from 1969 to 1984.
A fellow of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the American Association of University Women in 1979, Dr. Ackerman has authored four books. Her first book, co-authored with Laura F. Klein and titled “Women and Power in Native North America,” was published in 1995. It was followed by other titles such as “Ethnographic Overview and Assessment of Federal and Tribal Lands in the Lake Roosevelt Area Concerning the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation” and “A Song to the Creator: Traditional Arts of Native American Women of the Plateau” in 1996 and “A Necessary Balance: Gender and Power Among Indians of the Columbia Plateau” in 2003. Furthermore, Dr. Ackerman has contributed myriad articles to professional journals.
Dr. Ackerman’s greatest accomplishment to date was her study on gender equality on the plateau. She also discovered that people were grouped in extended family, but the extended families served a clan and people could change their clan; usually, that would happen because they had a relative within the other clan. For instance, if they had a grandmother in the other clan, then they could move to that other clan. Nowadays, people can move from reservation to reservation. Dr. Ackerman was able to work with a number of tribes and also did some work with Nez Perce to develop the Nez Perce American Girl doll. In 2002, after the Nez Perce doll came out, she was invited to the Nez Perce tribe. She and the others that worked on it were divided. She did writings involved with that, as well as a census job in research.
In order to keep updated on trends within her field, Dr. Ackerman maintains involvement with the American Anthropological Association, the American Ethnological Society, the Society for Applied Anthropology, the Alaska Anthropological Association, and Sigma Xi, of which she was also a grantee in 1978. Correspondingly, she was awarded grants from the Phillips Fund of the American Philosophical Society in 1979 and 1988.
Now in retirement, Dr. Ackerman is the proud mother of three wonderful children, Laura Lynn, Gail Ellen, and James Eric. Her eldest daughter is an artist based out of Austin, Texas, and her youngest daughter works as a middle school teacher. Dr. Ackerman did not have many mentors, but her greatest supporter was her husband, Robert Edwin Ackerman, who encouraged her greatly during her professional journey. He had a large library, which she used for her studies. Her other inspirations include Verne F. Ray and Angelo Anastasio.