Viola Edmundson was born in Des Moines, Iowa. Her family moved a few years later to Coupeville, Washington, on Whidbey Island in Washington State. She enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle beginning in 1919, transferring for financial reasons to what is now Western Washington University, where she became certified as a teacher. This led to her position teaching Tsimshian children in Metlakatla, Alaska, in the 1920s, an experience which sparked her interest in Northwest Coast ethnology.
While working at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, she became the typist for Charles Garfield, an Alaskan and former miner and fur trader. They married in 1924.
In 1927 Garfield re-enrolled at the University of Washington, earning a B.A. in 1928 and an M.A. in anthropology in 1931 with a thesis on Tsimshian marriage patterns, based on fresh fieldwork in Metlakatla. At the U.W. she studied under Erna Gunther, but her Ph.D. work (1931-1933) was largely guided by transfer graduate courses she took at Columbia University with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Through the early 1930s she conducted immensely productive fieldwork in Lax Kw'alaams, B.C., or Port Simpson, as it was then known, the largest of the Canadian Tsimshian communities. Her chief facilitator was the hereditary chief and trained ethnographic fieldworker William Beynon. Their work in Port Simpson covered every imaginable facet of Tsimshian culture, including especially social structure -- this at the instigation of Boas, whose own Tsimshian monograph had been upstaged by Beynon and Marius Barbeau's published Tsimshian research. She more than met Boas's expectations. Her 1935 dissertation, published in 1939, was Tsimshian Clan and Society, still a masterful and eminently useful monograph.
While in Port Simpson she was adopted into the Laxsgiik (Eagle clan) and given the Tsimshian name "Diiks."
For decades until retirement she taught at the University of Washington but never rose above the rank of Associate Professor or received tenure. She died in 1983.
Her extensive papers are housed in University of Washington Special Collections.