"Love of Learning" - Love in the Archives 2023

Viola Cordova and Native American Philosophy


The Love of Wisdom in the Archives


"Philosophy" comes to English from the Greek for "the love of wisdom." But despite its goal to examine what would seem to be universal questions like, "why are we here?," "what is the nature of the world?," or "how should I behave toward others?," philosophy has received criticism for its traditional canon of (with limited exceptions) "dead white men."

One critic of this tendency was Viola Cordova. Among the first Native women to complete a PhD in philosophy, Cordova set about developing a unified Native American philosophy that would add a new voice to philosophical discourse, dominated in the West by what she called the philosophy of the "Euroman." 

The Center for Southwest Research houses the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC). From the collection description in the finding aid:

The Viola F. Cordova Papers contain documents concerning Viola Cordova's educational and professional career in the field of philosophy. The collection reflects Viola Cordova's interest in minority issues and philosophy from a Native American point of view. Files include materials such as essays, notes, articles, poetry, newsletters, research, and correspondence.

Also included in this collection is documentation of a discrimination suit Cordova filed against the UNM philosophy department during her graduate studies. 

Since Cordova completed both her Masters and PhD in philosophy at UNM, digital versions of her thesis and dissertation are housed in the UNM digital repository, along with original draft copies housed in her manuscript collection. A bound physical copy of Cordova's Masters thesis, "Conceptual frameworks as a source of conceptual distinctions" is also available under the call number LD3782 P46 1985 C66.

After her death in 2002, several of Viola Cordova's colleagues worked together to produce an edited volume of her work. The resultant volume, How It Is, collects essays and talks Cordova gave throughout her career about Native American philosphy. Copies are available in the Zimmerman collection, as well as in the CSWR's collection.

The Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC) offer a glimpse into the life and thought of a working philosopher and will be of interest to researchers in a variety of fields. 

Some of Viola Cordova's reading notes in the collection

(MSS-741-BC, box 02 folder 02)

The collection demonstrates not only Cordova's expertise in Western philosophy, but also her involvement in the philosophical profession. There are several conference programs, some with Cordova's marginalia hand-written in them, as well as correspondence about her involvement chairing conference panels and giving talks. Of particular interest to me are the careful reading notes that Cordova took on figures like Kant, Whorf, and Wittgenstein. Also among the papers are articles and other pieces of writing by philosophers, sociologists, and other scholars that help to give a sense of what Cordova was reading and thinking about. These, along with draft versions of essays and talks, including some with editing marks and marginalia, demonstrate the "nuts and bolts" of writing philosophy. The collection includes drafts of syllabuses Cordova used in the courses she taught as well, offering insight  into the regrettably short teaching career that took her to several institutions across the western United States and Canada. 

A course reader for Philosophy and the Native American taught by Cordova in the Spring semester of 1993

(From the Viola Cordova Papers MSS-741-BC, box 02 folder 35)

But the collection includes darker materials as well. Among the correspondence in box 2 is documentation of a discrimination lawsuit Cordova filed against the UNM philosophy department alleging that she was passed over for assistantship positions despite being qualified for them. The dispute was eventually settled, but these materials demonstrate the ongoing discrimination and prejudice faced by many scholars. 

Letter from Viola Cordova to the philosophy faculty, university president, and provost expressing her disappointment in not being selected as a teaching assistant for the second year in a row. April 11, 1985.

(From the Viola Cordova Papers MSS-741-BC, box 02 folder 46)



Archives are living, growing things whose collections reflect the concerns, interests, and, in some cases, prejudices of the social world around them. The collections housed in archival repositories do not just consist of "boxes of stuff," but rather of carefully curated materials preserved for their historical value. And this raises an important point: what counts as "of historical value" can and does change. Any document or object could, potentially, be "of historical value" to someone, but given constraints of space, time, staff, and resources, archivists often have to make difficult choices about what to accept into repositories.

In some cases, the curated nature of archives has resulted in the marginalization, silencing, or even erasure of individuals and groups whose materials and legacies were not considered "of historical value." The archival profession has recognized its complicity in the silencing and marginalization of minority groups and is now taking steps toward more inclusive collections. This new focus, however, does not fully undo damage already done. 

The Viola Cordova papers demonstrate an example of this fraught history. On the sidebar to the right is one of the only photos of Viola Cordova that I was able to find: a digitized copy of a headshot included beside a guest opinion column she wrote for an Idaho newspaper. 

Photo of Viola Cordova alongside a guest column she wrote for an Idaho newspaper.

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC box 1)

The only other photo of Cordova I was able to find in her collection comes from a copy of the February 1997 issue of Agora: A Newsletter For Lakehead University Staff and Faculty. The newsletter is presumably Cordova's own copy from her year as a visiting scholar at Lakehead. 

Viola Cordova with other visiting scholars at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario during the 1997-1998 academic year.

From the Viola Cordova Papers MSS-741-BC, box 02, folder 13

I spent quite a long time looking through the Viola Cordova papers in search of photos, and found two

Perhaps Cordova preferred not to have her photo taken, or didn't keep materials that included photos of her. The collection of her papers housed at the CSWR includes documents pertaining to Cordova's graduate studies and career in philosophy - maybe more photos of her exist, they just weren't included in her papers when they were accessioned by the CSWR. But if that's the case, then where are they? Cordova's papers include documents like conference programs, correspondence about presentations and publishing, an award for an outstanding student paper, and job paperwork. Viola Cordova was certainly not laboring in obscurity, whether during or after her graduate studies. Judging from the number of speaking and teaching engagements she undertook despite her short career, Cordova would certainly have been in positions to have her photo taken.  And yet, I was only able to find two photos of her. (Before you ask, Google was not much help either.)

The two boxes that house the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC) 

in the CSWR's Anderson Reading Room

Archives play an important role in how we think about the past, and how history affects the present. The lack of photos of Viola Cordova really could just be an innocent accident of history. These things happen sometimes. But it doesn't follow from such a possibility that all instances of absence, silencing, or marginalization in archival collections constitute innocent accidents. The line between "accident of history" and "marginalization intentional or unintentional" is often quite fine.

Despite the absence of photos in the Viola Cordova collection, the materials do include documentation of a discrimination suit that she brought against the UNM philosophy department, alleging that she was passed over for assistantship positions despite being more qualified than the students who ended up receiving them. These papers document an important, if unsavory, aspect of life in academia for minority scholars, and are also an example of the power for archival collections to expose injustice. But even here, the decision to accept these papers was influenced by the fact that these documents were perceived to be "of historical value." One could easily - if uncharitably, unfairly, or worse - have discarded them as nothing more than the records of a whiny student, unwilling to "play the game" of academia and "taking unfair advantage" based on her gender and ethnicity.  


The cover of "Hearing Other Voices," a collected volume of talks given by Cordova at Colorado State University during the 1994-1995 academic year in which she expresses the importance of multiple voices in philosophy, 1995.

From the Viola Cordova Papers MSS-741-BC box 1 folder 36

How many more Viola Cordova's are out there, whose papers will not be considered "of historical value?" Who will make that decision, and on what grounds? Archival collections are never "complete," and never "perfect," but some of the reasons for this imperfection and incompletion, ironically, open up possibilities for new ways of thinking about and collecting materials. The Viola Cordova Papers offer an example of just how important a chorus of multiple different voices can be, and offer a challenge to the archival profession to amplify as many of those voices as possible. 

Gallery from the Collection

Admission Letter

Letter dated February 23, 1984 notifying Viola Cordova of her admission to the MA program in philosophy at UNM, starting in the Fall of 1984.

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC, box 02 folder 46)

Notes on Kant

Cordova's handwritten notes on the 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, no date.

From the  Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC, box 02 folder 06)

Graduation Pronunciation

Notes on pronunciation of graduates' names prepared by the university secretary in advance of 1992 commencement exercises. Viola Cordova is tenth from the top of the left column. 

From the University of New Mexico Commencement Records (UNMA 015, Box 11, Folder: Commencement: Programs and Invitations, 1992)

What is it like to be a bat?

Cordova's handwritten notes on philosopher Thomas Nagel's 1974 essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" No date. 

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC, box 2 folder 2)

100 Years of Graduations

Viola Cordova completed her PhD in 1992. The University of New Mexico had celebrated the centennial anniversary of its founding in 1989, and the annual commencement at which Cordova received her degree was the 100th in the university's history. 

From the University of New Mexico Commencement Records (UNMA 015, Box 11, Folder: Commencement: Programs and Invitations, 1992)


Certificate of Merit

Certificate of Merit awarded to Viola Cordova for a second place paper in the humanities from the 16th annual student research conference at Eastern New Mexico University, April 20, 1989.

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC, box 2 folder 2)

Handwritten notes

Cordova's handwritten notes on Lakehead University stationery. No date, but possibly during the 1997-1998 academic year when she was a visiting scholar at Lakehead.

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC, box 2 folder 2)

The Concept of Monism in Navajo Thought

The cover page of the original version of Viola Cordova's 1992 dissertation, "The Concept of Monism in Navajo Thought." 

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC box 01 folder 01)

Commencement Program

The commencement program lists the names of all students being awarded their degrees. Cordova is listed at the very top of this page on the left, along with other graduates in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

From the University of New Mexico Commencement Records (UNMA 015, Box 11, Folder: Commencement: Programs and Invitations, 1992)


The Dream

A hand-written description on legal-size paper of a recurring dream Cordova had. At top left is a schematic of the dream's setting. No date. 

From the Viola Cordova Papers (MSS-741-BC, box 2 folder 2)

V.F. Cordova

Viola Faye Cordova, PhD (1937-2002)

(MSS-741-BC, available online at New Mexico Digital Collections)

From the finding aid: Viola Faye Cordova, a philosopher and poet, was born on October 20, 1937 to a Hispanic mother and a Jicarilla Apache father. A native of New Mexico, Cordova was raised in Taos. She attended college in Idaho and New Mexico, becoming interested in Native American philosophy. She earned a B.A from Idaho State University, an M.A from the University of New Mexico in philosophy, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of New Mexico in 1992. Her teaching career spanned several universities including the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of New Mexico, Idaho Sate University, Oregon State University and Colorado State University. In addition to Native American philosophies, she taught comparative ethics and belonged to numerous professional organizations.

Throughout her educational and professional career, Viola Cordova published many of her writings. Among them were, How It Is: A Native American Creation Story and Who We Are, a book about Native American identity. In 1995, a series of her lectures was published under the title, Ways of Seeing. Bringing a new perspective to philosophy, her writings and poetry gave voice to Native American beliefs. Despite her death on November 2, 2002, her work continues to serve as an important influence in Native American philosophy.