Eleanor Mae Zelliot

ZelliotEleanor Mae Zelliot, 89, on June 5, 2016, among family and friends in her solar-heated home in Randolph, Minn., with its view of the Cannon River and its wildlife. Eleanor was born on October 7, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, to Minnie Hadley and Ernest Zelliot, who belonged to Des Moines Meeting and lived during Eleanor’s childhood also in Boston and Denver. Minnie served in the United Society of Friends Women International and was president of the Des Moines Council of Church Women. Eleanor earned a bachelor’s in 1948 from William Penn College, where her father had taught and served on the board. She received a master’s in history from Bryn Mawr College in 1949.

While Eleanor was associate editor of American Friend in the early 1950s, she lived in Richmond, Ind. She went to India in 1952 as the Quaker delegate to the Third World Conference of Christian Youth, and was a youth consultant to the World Council of Churches meeting in Evanston, Ill., in 1954. In 1955 she was the Young Friend and only woman in the first American Quaker goodwill delegation to visit Russia, helping to write the group’s report, Meeting the Russians, published in 1956 by American Friends Service Committee. But it was the complex and colorful society of India, not Russia, that drew her. After teaching at Scattergood Friends School in 1958–60 and editing pamphlets at Quaker study center Pendle Hill in 1960–62, she devoted 1963–65 to research for her doctorate in South Asian regional studies, which she received in 1969 from University of Pennsylvania.

For 40 years she interpreted the subject of her dissertation, B.R. Ambedkar, a Western-educated political leader from Maharashtra, who rose from untouchability to help write the Indian constitution and start a movement for India’s marginalized peoples. She became a leading international expert on the history of the Dalits, the disadvantaged and historically segregated people outside the caste system in India and neighboring countries. After teaching for three years at University of Minnesota, she taught history in 1969–97 at Carleton College, where she co-founded Carleton’s interdisciplinary program in South Asian Studies and developed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest India studies program, leading it for many years and escorting groups of students for foreign study. Between 1963 and 2003, she visited India 25 times, making Poona her home base.

In 1998, she published her dissertation in India in 1998 as Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement. Continuing to write into her late 80s, she helped to establish connections between the Dalits of India and marginalized peoples in other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia. She learned the Marathi language so that she could intermingle with ordinary Dalits. Dalit homes all over the state of Maharashtra welcomed this “mother of the Dalits.” Looking back as a homebound retiree, she reflected that her Quaker background had led to her interest in Ambedkar and the Untouchables.

At the Cannon River, after memorial services on the Carleton College campus and at Cannon Valley Meeting, at which a message of condolence and appreciation from the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research was read, her family and friends scattered her ashes. Eleanor was survived by two nephews, a niece, and their families and mourned by many colleagues, friends, and former students.

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