Skip to content

Native American and First Nations Studies at the American Folklore Society Meetings During the 1940s

Here is a second quick post on the presence and absence of Native American and First Nations studies at the American Folklore Society Meetings. Here the focus in on the 1940s. For most current members of the society, the surprise and interest in my report will not actually have much, if anything, to do with my specific topic. Likely to be of greater interest is simply the tiny number of presentations given at AFS meetings in this earlier era. To take the densest year for which I have data–1948–there were sixteen “regular” papers given at the annual meeting. On Friday, October 18, 2019, between 8 am and 10 am, thirty-seven classic papers were delivered. This number does not include more informal panel discussions and other special events that are now very common at AFS meetings. Thus, through the rise of concurrent sessions and especially the tremendous expansion of the field and society, we do more than twice in a single session block than was done at an entire large meeting in the 1940s. For 1941, I record a total of six presentations all together. This is the equivalent of one and a half or two present-day AFS panels. This is a dramatic change and when younger members of the society are exposed (endlessly) to elders droning on with declensionist post-golden age, narratives of disciplinary contraction and woe, consider treating their stories not as history but as a kind of sacred narrative doing a different work–for good or for ill–than descriptive history in a documentary mode. The American Folklore Society today is a juggernaut compared to seventy-five years ago.

As noted in the first post in this series, to know about the meetings in the 1940s, the easiest source to access are the reports of the meetings then-published in the Journal of American Folklore. Past AFS Executive Director Tim Lloyd, working with the librarians at the Indiana University Libraries, worked to make these reports available in IUScholarWorks and everyone can access them there. For 1948 and before, we have these post-meeting reports rather than the kinds of printed programs available for 1949-present.

An upside of the reports is that one gets a much richer sense of the society and its meetings outside of the presentations. The data in my first post should be considered in light of this lesson. Where we have reports of the meetings in the 1940s, one can learn about who presented what talk, by title. But the 1940s reports in JAF (available in the journal itself and excerpted in IUSW) also make clear that many active members were attending these meetings but not presenting lectures. The 1940s reports show that the expectation that a person would formally present at the meetings as a normal outgrowth of attending those meetings was absolutely not in effect, in sharp contrast to present-day norms in which presentation by attendees is very (I would say excessively) common. There are structural as well as ethos reasons for this and I do not foresee any likely change on this point, even in a post-COVID world.

Percentages are ratios and thus are only instructive in relation to the data on which they are based. (One paper on a given topic can represent 50% of the content at a meeting comprised of two papers…) With this caveat in mind, the picture for Native American and First Nations studies work at the meetings during the 1940s does not look much different than during the 1950s. For those with an interest in this field, a full program would boil down to two papers among a overall group of fourteen to sixteen presentations (ex: 1945, 1948). For at least two years (the data is incomplete at present, with gaps for 1940, 1942, and 1943) there were no papers related to Native American and First Nations studies work. As in the 1950s, none of the presenters working in this field are known to me to have been members of Indigenous Nations encompassed by the present-day settler states of Canada or the United States. Please correct me if you know this statement to be wrong.

Illustrating the way that presentation is a very incomplete measure of engagement and presence, I can note that the 1940s was the crucial decade for Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin, whom I mentioned in my previous post. She was editor of the Journal of American Folklore for much of this decade and she was AFS President at the end of the period. As I noted previously, her work was fully engaged with Native American studies and in the 1950s she would be central to not only the founding of the American Society for Ethnohistory and founding and editing its journal, Ethnohistory, she was central to the land claims work arising from the Indian Claims Commission in the United States. Another key scholar present at the meetings and on the program in this period was Gertrude Kurath, known for her extensive studies of dance throughout the Americas among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Looking to the reports beyond the meeting, it becomes clear that in the 1940s a large number of anthropological folklorists working in (sometimes also with) Native American communities were active presences within the society and its activities. Continuing from an earlier period, the publishing work of the society was clearly one key aspect of this. The society published monographs alongside the journal. Illustrating this nexus is anthropological folklorist Gladys A. Reichard. She served as AFS President in 1943 and the Society published her monograph An Analysis of Coeur D’Alene Indian Myths in the Memoirs of the American Folklore Society in 1947. A. Irving Hallowell, Frank G. Speck, and Morris Opler were among the the anthropological folklorists working in Native American studies (still) active in the 1940s.

Returning to the experience of the meetings from the perspective of the what one might hear in the lecture hall, reality is complicated. The range of topics under discussion in general in the 1940s was extremely narrow if judged by the standards of an AFS meeting held in the 21st century. Native American expressive culture was included in that narrow band. AFS members in that time clearly deemed work on Native American and First Nations topics (especially verbal art, but including dance) to be relevant. The attendance of a significant number of members working in this area implies that the value of attendance lay in informal discussion rather than formal presentation. Attendees today know this value too, but in relationship to the present state of Native American and First Nations studies in folklore studies, the question then becomes how large of a critical mass of attendees with shared interests are enough to sustain community of scholars.

For three years, the set of annual reports published in JAF seem to lack meeting data. If I can fill in the holes in the following, I will do an update later.

YearPresentations on Non-Native American TopicsPresentations on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
1940???
1941600%
1942???
1943???
19446114%
194512214%
19461218%
1947900%
194812214%
19491900%
Totals for Available Data6968%
Presentations on Non-Native American- and Native American-Related Topics at the Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society During the 1940s

As in the 1950s, the joint meeting arrangements remained varied and in flux. The society met alone as well as with partners. Those partners included the American Anthropological Association (and those other societies who also met with it) and also the Modern Language Association.

If I can recommend any document from the 1940s set, it is the crucial report from 1940. That document reports on work and proposals trying to resolve critical tensions between the “humanities” (MLA-minded) and anthropological (AAA-minded) AFS members. Because of the different disciplinary roots, research foci, and community engagements at play in this contest, the conflict directly links to my interest in the presence and absence of Native Studies in folklore studies. The larger colonial, racialized, and nationalist contexts at a deeper level relate to the adjacent issue of the absence of Native American and First Nations AFS members/participants. Here is the evocation preceding the structural reforms intended to re-balance relations between the two interest blocks:

It is clear that the major difficulty facing the Society arises from a fail- ure to assess the importance of the fact that, by its very nature, the Society and its Journal are peripheral to two major concerns-those of anthropolo- gists and those of persons in the humanities. It is the opinion of the Com- mittee that in the future the Society should recognize more explicitly than in the past the importance of this fact, attempting by active encourage- ment to underscore those points at which fields of interest converge. On the basis of this fundamental assumption, the following proposals are put forward to implement this position:

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: