Nancy Oestreich Lurie was born in Milwaukee, Wis., on January 29, 1924. She received her bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin in 1945, master's degree from the University of Chicago in 1947, and doctorate from Northwestern University in 1952. Lurie began her teaching career in 1947 at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Milwaukee. From 1950 to 1961 she taught at the University of Colorado and the University of Michigan, returning to teach at UWM from 1951 to 1953. Lurie was also a research associate in North American Indian Studies at Harvard University's Peabody Museum from 1954 to 1956 and served as a researcher and expert witness for law firms representing tribal clients before the United States Indian Claims Commission in Boston, Massachusetts, as well as before Michigan and Wisconsin courts from 1954 to 1975.
Lurie returned to UWM in 1963 as an associate professor, becoming a full professor in 1966. Taking a leave from UWM, she was a Fulbright-Hays Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Aarhua, Denmark, in 1965 and 1966. After her return to UWM, Lurie served as the Anthropology Department chair from 1967 to 1970. She remained as an adjunct professor at UWM from 1972 until her retirement in 1994. In 1972, Lurie became the curator and section head of Anthropology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. In 1992 she became the Museum's curator emerita and retired in 1994.
Lurie has conducted numerous research projects and other scholarly activities, including an appointment by the governor to the State of Wisconsin Historic Preservation Review Board and serving on several National Endowment for the Humanities committees and panels. Lurie has been awarded more than twenty grants to conduct research by foundations such as Wenner-Gren (formerly Viking Fund), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award sponsored by the Saturday Review, the William B. Hesseltine Award from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and an honorary doctorate of humanities from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has authored or co-authored more than 110 books, articles, and monographs, including Mountain Wolf Woman (1961), The American Indian Today (with Stuart Levine, 1968), and The Nicolet Corrigenda (with Patrick Jung, 2009).