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Dr. Timothy B. Powell, 58, Penn scholar who worked to preserve Native American culture

To Native Americans, the artifacts and records from their past dating from the 1800s and early 1900s have spiritual meaning. "That is what Tim saw, and he wanted to protect that," a tribal elder said.

Timothy B. Powell
Timothy B. PowellRead moreCourtesy Powell Family

Timothy B. Powell, 58, of Philadelphia, a University of Pennsylvania scholar whose wide-ranging intellect and empathy for Native Americans led him to study their culture and find ways to respect and preserve it, died Thursday, Nov. 1, of cancer at home.

Starting in 2006, Dr. Powell was a senior lecturer in Penn's department of religious studies. His specialty was Native American religions, and that study led him to examine how the archived literature, music, and cultural artifacts of indigenous people are handled by society at large.

"He had become aware that artifacts are extremely important to native tribes," said Thomas N. Belt, a knowledge keeper for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. "He was concerned about how they were being viewed and used."

To Native Americans, the artifacts and inanimate objects from their past dating from the 1800s and early 1900s have spiritual meaning. "That is what Tim saw, and he wanted to protect that," Belt said.

Dr. Powell founded Penn's Educational Partnership with Indigenous Communities. He helped Indian leaders recover cultural materials stored outside their tribal lands; digitize the records; and return copies of the records to their home tribes.

"[Our] history and language are housed in archives all over the place," said T.J. Holland, cultural resources supervisor for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.

"For years," Holland said, "we tried to gather the stuff that was out there. We would Xerox it and bring it back to the tribes, but it was difficult. With the digital age, we made computer copies of these things that were as close as you can get to the original documents."

Dr. Powell worked with the Ojibwes in northern Minnesota on cultural preservation. In 2011, at an academic meeting, he handed Elizabeth "Lyz" Jaakola, an expert in tribal music, a jump drive containing century-old recordings from Ojibwe elders. From then on, she said, "my life became focused on gaining more knowledge about our culture, history and music, so that I could best serve our communities by carrying these digitized resources [forward]."

Dr. Powell offered to help the Ojibwe find and recover the songs, stories, photos, and documents in collections at the American Philosophical Society, U.S. Library of Congress, and elsewhere.

He went ever further. From 2008 to 2016, he led a project under the auspices of the American Philosophical Society (APS) in Philadelphia, where many tribal cultural relics are housed.

He created the society's Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. The center helped the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, the Penobscot Nation in Maine, the Tuscarora Nation in New York State, and Ojibwe communities in Minnesota set up their own digitized archives.

Brian Carpenter, the APS curator of Native American materials, said Dr. Powell convened an advisory board of scholars and tribal leaders to create guidelines on who should have access to the society's collection and under what conditions.

"The guidelines were to help the APS understand how to work with the tribal communities and what elements were culturally sensitive," Carpenter said.

Such protocols had never been drafted by an institution before, said Holland. The guidelines said no materials with spiritual value could be released to the public without the permission of the tribe.

Born in New Haven, Conn., to David and Lucia Powell, Dr. Powell grew up in Cheshire, Conn., and graduated from Cheshire High School in 1978. He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and political science from Bucknell University in 1982.

He traveled to Egypt, where he taught English and met Eve Troutt, then a presidential intern at the American University in Cairo. In 1987, they married in New York City. Both dedicated their lives to academia.

In 1987, Dr. Powell earned a master's degree in English from Trinity College and a doctorate in American literature and history from Brandeis University in 1995.

The couple taught at the University of Georgia in Athens before moving in 2006 to Philadelphia, where both joined the Penn faculty. Troutt is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History.

The author of numerous articles and the recipient of 18 federal and philanthropic grants, Dr. Powell traveled widely visiting indigenous communities.

Dr. Powell loved swimming, tennis, hiking, fly fishing, and summers at the family cottages on the Rustic Ridge in Northfield, Mass.

Besides his wife and his parents, he is survived by sons Jibreel and Gideon; a brother; and a large extended family.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at West Laurel Hill Cemetery Chapel, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd. Burial is private.

Memorial donations may be made to Fidelity Charitable, P.O. Box 770001, Cincinnati, Ohio 45277. Checks should be marked for the Timothy B. Powell Scholarship Fund.