Dr. Nancy Peterson Walter, noted anthropologist, dead at 77


Nancy Peterson Walter, 77, a resident of Mammoth Lakes for the past 19 years, died at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno on Feb. 5.

The cause of death, according to her husband, John, was leukemia.

Born in Rockford, Ill., on Dec. 3, 1935, Walter achieved her childhood dream of becoming an anthropologist, culminating in being awarded her PhD in 1986.

Her research work and theses concentrated on the Native Americans of the Owens Valley. Her Master’s thesis concentrated on archeology, covering many thousands of years of Owens Valley stone tools.

Her doctorate work moved to modern times as she studied the relationships between the Paiute-Shoshone Tribes and LADWP. Much of her work was based on the assistance she received from the tribal elders who so freely shared their personal experiences of life in the Owens Valley in the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

A consummate technical meeting attender, she authored and or presented over 50 technical papers and reviews. In the last 25 years, Walter’s research interests expanded to include the peoples of Central Asia, where, in addition to traveling extensively, she lived, conducted research, and taught for over two years.

She served as a Research Associate in Anthropology/Archeology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where she also served on the Board of Governors for four years. After moving to Mammoth Lakes, she served on the Board of the Southern Mono Museum.

It was in the field of education that Walter undoubtedly made her most lasting impact, said her husband John.

Her work in the classroom, he said, “reflected in the inspiration, support, encouragement and guidance she provided to thousands of students of all ages.”

Her formal teaching career spanned over 30 years, including 12 years with the Los Angeles Community College District, principally at LACC. 

She had a longtime association with California State University Northridge, where she also was awarded her BA and MA degrees, retiring as an associate professor. Her other teaching institutions ranged from Cerro Coso Community College; to Xinjiang University, Peoples Republic of China; to three different Universities in Kyrgyzstan.

Both in the U.S. and abroad, the Walters’ home was frequently filled with students, including high school students from Kyrgyzstan attending Mammoth High School; Chinese, Uighur, Kyrgyz, and Kazak graduate students on their way to academic and Silicon Valley careers, along with kids from the inner city who were trying to launch new lives in the San Fernando Valley. 

John Walter said she was “particularly effective in assisting in the development of disadvantaged women students that wouldn’t normally set their sight on higher education.

“She had a way of convincing them they should think big, but equally important she would find a way to help them achieve their aspirations.”

Within days of her diagnosis and rapid passing, calls were arrived from all over the world.

Since moving to Mammoth Lakes in 1994, Walter continued her teaching with classes at Cerro Coso and her research with frequent trips to Central Asia. A great admirer of the late Andrea Laurence, she was active with the Range of Light Group of the Sierra Club, where she served many years as program chair.

She served on the Mono County Democratic Central Committee for 12 years.

Walter is survived by her husband John; children Jon Walter of Republic, Wash., and Sandra Legallet of Santa Cruz: her grandchildren Shawn Legallet and Kristin Walter; and her brothers. Don Smith, Dave Smith, and Jim Smith of Illinois.

A celebration of Nancy Walter’s life will be held March 25 from 3 p.m. to 5   p.m., at the Walter residence, 240 Mammoth Knolls Dr., Mammoth Lakes.