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Native American and First Nations Studies at the American Folklore Society Meetings During the 1950s

Update: The post below has been updated to include the previously missing 1951 program. I use strikeout and underline to show the changes. Special thanks to Tim Lloyd for both finding a 1951 program and for his earlier labors getting the corpus of programs into IUScholarWorks. [Later in the day of the original post, October 16, 2020]

I anticipate doing a series of posts on the topic of Native American and First Nations studies within the field of folklore studies. The American Folklore Society is currently meeting (virtually) and I became interested in probing my assumptions about when, within the history of the field (in so-called, North America) began to lose participants involved in studies of Native American-related topics. To begin to get at this with more than preconceptions, I started by looking at the programs from the annual meetings of the AFS. For the period before 1949, we have meeting reports published in the Journal of American Folklore. For most years, 1949 to present, we have printed programs that are available in IUScholarWorks.


Here is a picture of Native American studies works presented during the 1950s. No presenters during this decade are known to me to have been themselves members of Native American Nations from the colonized territories presently known as the United States or from First Nations of present-day Canada. [Please correct me if you know that I am wrong about this.]

The program for 1951 is not present in IUScholarWorks and thus data for that year is presently lacking.

YearPresentations on Non-Native American TopicsPresentations on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
1951? 15? 0? 0%
Totals171 186127% 6%
Presentations on Non-Native American- and Native American-Related Topics at the Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society During the 1950s

During this period, the AFS regularly met jointly with other organizations, but this was not always the case. Oral history of the matter suggests that the AFS used to meet in alternation between the Modern Language Association and American Anthropological Association, but the actual pattern in the 1950s is more complicated. [The meeting for 1951, for which I did not have a program when I first wrote this post, was joint with the MLA.] Unless it happened in 1951, the AFS did not meet with the MLA in this period. It did meet more than once with a coterie of anthropological (and one sociological) societies, including the AAA, during this decade, but joint meetings were also held with the Texas Folklore Society (in Texas), with the New York Folklore Society (in New York), and the Folklore (Summer) Institute (at Indiana University). The Society for Ethnomusicology was part of a joint meeting that included AAA and other anthropology groups in 1957. Thankfully, it was possible during this decade to identify the AFS panels papers within the larger mix of papers given at the joint meetings with anthropology societies. In the case of joint meetings with the folklore studies groups, there was no differentiation and such meetings are treated here as AFS meetings organized in partnership with the local societies and institute.

The data for 1951 is missing, but if we set that year aside, the average for the decade was 7% of the presented papers being on Native American and First Nations. [With the 1951 data, the decade average is 6%.] If the categorization related to Indigenous studies more broadly, the percentage would be somewhat higher depending on how one might include or not-include various peoples outside the continent presently known as North America. At three meetings (perhaps four in the case of 1951) [At four meetings] there were no presentations related to Native American or First Nations studies.

This surprised me to a degree, as I had perceived that an older, pre-WWII, pattern of involvement by Americanist anthropological folklorists had persisted more strongly into the 1950s. I had anticipated this because I had, wrongly, I think, associated their departure from active AFS participation with the rise of autonomous folklore studies (and programs) in the Richard Dorson-mode, but the 1950s programs show that the trend was already present prior to Dorson’s consolidation. I also read too much, I think, into William Fenton’s role in AFS during the 1950s, serving then as an officer and then as president (1959-1960). The meeting programs suggest that by the 1950s, his involvement was a survival of the older norm no longer widely practiced. He did what his mentors–Frank G. Speck (AFS President in 1921-1922), Edward Sapir (AFS President in 1929-1930), and John Swanton (AFS President in 1909)–did, but by the time that he did it, he was really an outlier enacting a practice from another age in the life of the society.

I note in this regard that my earlier perceptions were shaped also by the role of Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin, who was AFS President in 1948. In multiple ways, I am a lesser heir to Wheeler-Voegelin’s legacy as an anthropological folklorist and ethnohistorian working on Native North American topics on the faculty at Indiana University. The programs from the 1950s do not show her remaining particularly involved in the annual meetings of AFS. Her work, after her AFS presidency, closely relates, in my view, to the further sundering of Native American and First Nations Studies from the scholarly community gathered within the American Folklore Society. In the 1950s, she was the key person in the rise of the field of ethnohistory, She had edited the Journal of American Folklore between 1941 and 1946 but in the 1950s, she founded the American Society for Ethnohistory and started its journal, Ethnohistory, which she edited into the 1960s. In these years, the American Society for Ethnohistory became a key hub for interdisciplinary work in Native American and First Nations studies. She carried her folklore studies background into that new realm, but, like Dorson, she was an institution builder and the things that she created reshaped the landscape in which the American Folklore Society, and folklore studies on Turtle Island, operated.

Non-Native Studies (Blue) and Native Studies (Orange) Presentations at the AFS Meetings During the 1950s

Editors of scholarly journals published by societies are well aware of the gap that is common between the community gathered in the meetings of their society and that represented in the pages of the society’s journal. Review of JAF content during the 1950s will likely add nuance to the pictures presented by the meeting programs. To be continued….

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim Lloyd #


    Thanks so much for this. Fascinating stuff. The AFS annual meeting programs and reports constitute a remarkable resource for similar work on other aspects of the field’s intellectual history. I hope others will take up the challenge.



    October 16, 2020
  2. Do you think has changed all that much recently? My impression is that is has not.

    October 16, 2020
    • I suspect that analysis of later decades will show even a smaller proportion as the field became more diverse in its interests and the sheer number of presentations given expanded greatly. I hope to confirm or disprove this with the data when I can.

      October 16, 2020

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