An Affinity Leads

Diana Lanier Smith ’45

By by Merri Rosenberg ’78

It’s not a coincidence that Diana Lanier Smith ’45 has a connection to the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History. It was the gift of her great-grandfather, Heber R. Bishop, an acclaimed philanthropist and collector who had amassed more than 5,000 Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest Coast.

Like her great-grandfather, Smith has long had a serious interest in the lives of Native Americans; one that started in childhood when, Smith recalls, she saw a group going to a market to display their wares. “My interest in their history grew and grew. I read avidly,” she recalls, especially the Oliver LaFarge works. She adds, “My mother was wonderful about taking me to lectures and Native American programs as a child.”

That initial curiosity translated into Smith’s continuing studies, involvement in the Association of Indian Affairs, the careful acquisition of significant Native American artifacts and, in 2004, the endowment of the Diana Lanier Smith ’45 Scholarship Fund. As she explains, “The least thing I could do would be to create a scholarship for someone from a reservation,” with the hope that the recipient would later be able to contribute to her native community.

The scholarship is designed for students who are financial aid recipients, with a preference given to Native Americans, says
Abigail Talcott, stewardship officer. The first student recipient of this fund was named in the 2005-2006 academic year.

The current recipient, India Lovato ’14, acknowledges the impact of this scholarship, which she also received last year. Studying art history, Lovato is originally from Colorado and an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho tribe; she’s also a Sicangu Lakota through her maternal grandfather. “To receive this kind of support from someone like Mrs. Smith is fantastic and I am very grateful for it,” Lovato says. “The Torchbearers dinners I’ve gone to, both last year and this year, have given me the opportunity to more personally thank her.” Lovato also corresponds with Smith during the year to keep her updated on her studies and activities at the College.

Although Smith isn’t able to visit campus often (until she attended the Torchbearers’ reception last year, she hadn’t been to Barnard for 40 years), the College exerts a strong pull. “I completely loved my courses at Barnard,” recalls Smith, who majored in government and minored in history. One of her fondest memories is of the daily lunches she enjoyed in the courtyard with other international-relations students. And Smith still remembers one of her favorite classes, with anthropology professor Gladys Reichard, one of the most important anthropologists to study the Navajo in the mid-twentieth century.

When an opportunity arose for Smith to live on a Native American reservation in the West, family obligations prevented her, to her lasting disappointment. “I could not leave my young children and family,” Smith says with regret. Ultimately, she was able to take a Smithsonian Institution camping trip to study the cultures of the Southwest, which was a definite highlight of her many travel experiences.

Smith enjoyed a career in editing, publishing, and public relations, including two years at the Herald Tribune in New York and a lengthy tenure at the Peabody Museum at Yale. While Native American culture and history remains a focus of Smith’s intellectual interest, her passions also include American history, historic preservation, and anthropology. The widow of Karl B. Smith, she divides her time among residences in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Florida. The mother of three sons, she also has seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

She is a member of the Rhode Island chapter of the Colonial Dames of North America and trustee for the Lanier Mansion Foundation in Madison, Indiana. Her great-great-grandfather James Franklin Doughty Lanier, a banker and investor, was a significant figure in Indiana’s history during the mid-nineteenth century, even rescuing the state’s government from bankruptcy after overspending on infrastructure. But looking back at her family tree, the genes of her great-grandfather Bishop, the intrepid collector of Native American artifacts, seem to have exerted the strongest influence.

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