Career Spotlight is a series of interviews with anthropologists who are members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to share insights, knowledge, and expertise about career opportunities, growth, and development.
Erica Walters is a cultural anthropologist. She attended West Chester University of Pennsylvania, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in Anthropology, along with minors in linguistics, ethnic studies, and Latin American language studies. She has completed research all over the world, but has been focused on working with Indigenous communities in North, Central, and South America, doing ethnographic fieldwork. She focuses on applied anthropology, using research to make tangible improvements to the rights Indigenous peoples have to lands, food, worldview, and objects. In addition to her full-time role as an ethnographer for Living Heritage Anthropology, she is currently working on grant-funded research in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Delaware Tribe of Indians, in partnership with the National Park Service, to produce an ethnographic survey. Erica is a member of the American Anthropological Association and the Association for Indigenous Anthropologists. Her research interests include cultural resource management, indigenous stewardship and management models, worldview-aligned research and policy, cultural foodways, language revitalization, and actionable anthropology. She currently resides in the Philadelphia area.
1. What made you decide to choose anthropology as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
I am currently an ethnographic researcher for an ethnography firm called Living Heritage Anthropology. We work with Indigenous groups to complete ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and tribal consultation work. Our goal is to create products that are relevant, accessible, and empowering for tribes and clients alike while complying with federal and state requirements. I took a "cultural geography" class my first year of college and loved it. I told the professor I wanted to be a cultural geographer and he laughed and told me the class was actually cultural anthropology, and they just called it cultural geography so it could fill a geography requirement. I swiftly changed my major to anthropology. I had excellent ethnographers as professors in undergrad, including Michael DiGiovine and Paul Stoller. They taught me the power of writing to effect change and the value that good ethnography has.
2. What does a typical workday look like for you in your chosen career?
Everyday is a little different, which is why I love what I do. I'm typically working on a couple of projects at a time, which means I am traveling to do fieldwork, writing, and editing the most. Occasionally, I'll get to consult on projects that are happening at museums or within Indigenous communities. I also speak at universities and conferences sometimes, which is always fun.
3. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new anthropologist just beginning their career?
Think outside the box. I didn't even know that I could do ethnography full time for a consulting firm before one of my former professors sent me the job posting for my current position. I think a lot of students see their professors and think that academia is the only path. It is certainly one path that is very rewarding and exciting, but there are other ways to do this work that aren't as visible.
4. Is there a unique short story about how you landed in your current career or path?
I owe it all to my alma mater! I had maintained relationships with the anthropology department at West Chester University after I graduated, and I had let some of the professors know that I was looking for a job. One of my former professors, Dr. Heather Wholey, sent me a job posting for a grant-funded researcher to do ethnography with an Indigenous tribe. It is a temporary position (I'm finishing it up in October of '23), so towards the end of 2022, I started thinking about where I was going to go next. Luckily, Dr. Wholey saw another job posting for a full-time permanent ethnographer with Living Heritage Anthropology. She sent it to me and I interviewed for it and I got the job.
5. Where would you like to see your career path going next?
I would love to get my Ph.D. eventually. It's something I've always wanted to do, but now I don't want to give up the job I love so much to go back to school full time. It is something I'll do one day, even if I wait until retirement!
6. What membership benefits offered by the American Anthropological Association have helped you in your career?
My AAA membership helps me to stay well read and well informed on the current state of the field. I can always find recent publications in my area of interest and have a direct line (through Communities) to other researchers. Being informed helps me, not only in my writing and research, but also through the interview process. Being able to intelligently answer questions and discuss recent theoretical frameworks has given me an edge when trying to land a job.
7. What impact has the American Anthropological Association had in shaping your career?
The Annual Meetings have a special place in my heart. I went for the first time as a student volunteer in my sophomore year and I've gone nearly every year since. It is an excellent place to make connects with other professionals in the field, learn about the latest research, and get comments on your own work. The first presentation I ever did at the Annual Meetings was a poster, and so many professors and professionals from all over came to see all the posters and they were so supportive and encouraging. It was a safe space for me to practice presenting research, which I am required to do now in my job. Now, the Annual Meetings is somewhat of a reunion where I get to connect with people I've known throughout my career and make new connections.
Learn more about AAA and its members.