Viola Edmundson Garfield was born in Des Moines, Iowa. When she was a small child, her family moved to rural Whidbey Island, Washington, where she attended local schools. In 1919, she enrolled at the University of Washington before transferring to Bellingham Normal School, now Western Washington University, where she earned a teaching certificate. In 1922, she took a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs teaching Tsimshian children in a remote village on Annette Island in Alaska. The experience sparked her interest in the culture of Northwest Native peoples and defined the future course of her life and work. When the job ended, she went to work as a stenographer-typist for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. There she met Charles Darwin Garfield, an Alaskan former miner who had founded the Seattle Fur Exchange, whom she married in 1924. In 1927, she re-enrolled at the University of Washington and earned a B.A. in sociology and an M.A. in anthropology with a thesis on Tsimshian marriage patterns. For the next several years, she alternated between summers in New York spent working on a doctoral degree at Columbia University and the rest of the year as a teaching assistant at the University of Washington. Through the early 1930s, she conducted fieldwork at Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson), a Tsimshian community in British Columbia. Her 1935 dissertation, Tsimshian Clan and Society, was published in 1939 and is considered a classic and eminently useful monograph. She joined the University of Washington as a full faculty member, and taught there until her retirement in 1970. A major part of her life was spent studying, promoting and trying to preserve the art and culture of the Northwest Coast Indians. She became best known for her work on totem poles and wrote The Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska (1948) with Linn A. Forrest, a U.S. Forest Service regional architect with whom she worked on a restoration project.