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Native American and First Nations Studies at the American Folklore Society Meetings During the 1960s

In a fourth series post on the presence and absence of Native American and First Nations studies within the life of the American Folklore Society, I pick up with the meetings of the 1960s. The first post focused meeting presentations during the 1950s. The second post focused on meeting presentations during the 1940s. The third post considered the founding cohort of AFS Fellows and their relative placement among anthropological and literary folklore studies and their relationships to Native American studies.

For AFS members of my own generation, the 1960s is the period in which the present state of the society and of the field as it has been practiced in recent decades in present-day “North America” starts to look familiar. After discussing my narrower by primary interest in the presence and absence of Native American and First Nations work, I will make some general comments arising from study of the conference programs of the 1960s.

I can get the reoccurring observation out of the way at the start. None of the ten (out of 397) presenters sharing studies related to Native North America at the meetings of the 1960s are known to me to have been citizens of Native American or Canadian First Nations. If you know me to be wrong about this, please let me know. (Joann Kealiinohomoku [née Wheeler] is among the presenters in this group of ten, but my understanding is that the [Hawaiian] last name by which she was widely known was a married name.)

Relative to the main topic, I make some observations sequentially and then in a more summary mode. The decade began not only with the start of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society, as noted previously, but with the presidency of William N. Fenton. At the 1960 meeting, there were nineteen regular papers, all on topics outside of Native American studies. The exception was Fenton’s presidential address, which considered Haudenosaunee cosmology and that was published in the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) afterwards. The key thing is that, while he continued to be active as a scholar for many decades to come, he does not again appear on the meeting programs of the 1960s. It is my impression that, like fellow President Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin, he shifted his attention to the American Society for Ethnohistory meetings. (I met him once at the 1993 ASE meetings in Bloomington.)

Gertrude Kurath, who was a regular presenter on Native American-related topics in the 1950s returned to the program in 1963 and two key figures who would remain associated with folklore studies, inclusive of Native American studies, appear for the first time on the programs of the 1960s. Dell Hymes presented once on Native American narrative in 1965 and once on the contributions of folklore studies to sociolinguistics in 1969. Both of these presentations went on to become widely discussed publications. Also emerging in the 1960s is Barre Toelken, who presented variously on non-Native topics and who gave a paper related to Navajo narrative in 1967–the only paper on a Native North American studies topic (out of 57) at that transformational meeting. A fourth leading figure in this cluster is Alan Dundes, who presented one Native North America-related paper in 1964.

There continued to be scholars at the meetings of the 1960s whose work, outside their program participation, sometimes touched on Native American studies topics and who clearly kept up with the field in a general way. Examples include Fred Kniffen, Richard Bauman, and Weston LaBarre.

A noteworthy story for this investigation is the case of (very anthropological) Melvile Jacobs and the 1964 meeting in New York. His presidential address is listed on the program without a title. I could not remember the specifics of it and I looked it up in JAF, presuming that he would have incorporated some of his ethnographic work within it. While he devoted a great proportion of his career to Native North American studies, his presidential paper (unlike Fenton’s) does not touch on this. It is a theoretical assessment of verbal art studies in general, inclusive of, but not limited to, those of folklorists. It will not venture a summary of it, but I think that it can be characterized as quite critical of the field and very anthropological in orientation. It feels like a another key marker in a story of transition to something else. It feels like the end of an era in a way that I cannot put my finger on.

Almost every history of the discipline as practiced in the present-day United States locates key shifts–intellectual and organizational–in the 1960s. I think that that reading is true in general. As related to Native American studies, the 1960s represents a special case. As a concern of members-at-large as represented on meeting programs (and I think also in general) Native American studies topics continued to wane. The 1960s show explosive growth in program participation (concurrent sessions were born in Toronto in 1967), but this sector continues its decline, both proportionally and in terms of total papers. I will leave the Native American and First Nations studies story there, but below the table, I touch on some of the general trends revealed in the programs. These general trends shape the specific ones that I have just noted.

YearPresentations on Non-Native American TopicsPresentations on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
1963 (Emancipation Centennial)2714%
1963 Special Summer Meeting at Utah State (The West)2129%
1964 Special Spring Meeting at Duke 3100%
Presentations on Non-Native American- and Native American-Related Topics at the Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society During the 1960s

The preserved program available in IUScholarWorks show two bonus meetings during the 1960s, one held in the spring at Duke University in 1964 and one held at Utah State University in the summer of 1963. Those two meetings were large by the standards of the 1950s and early 1960s and they were a prelude to the growth that becomes obvious in the second half of the 1960s. As noted above, this is when the concurrent panel era opened up. There were two concurrent sessions for most of the meetings of 1967 (Toronto) and 1968 (Bloomington) and 1969 (Atlanta) saw the move to three concurrent sessions.

The 1960s saw other developments. Thematic panels focused on material culture (not just individual papers) become normal in the 1960s. Panel discussions also become common in this decade. (Where panelists had a set title for their assigned discussion topic, I treated these as papers. When a group of names were gathered together under an theme, but without a specific assignment, I did not count them in the totals above.) Students-as-students appear in the 1960s in panels concerned with student topics, although it is clear that students presented classic papers at an earlier point. Perhaps this was not just an outgrowth of the growth of folklore graduate programs but of the student movements of the later 1960s.

For anyone involved in AFS now, the 1960s programs produce a host of debuts for people central to the field in recent decades. For example, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Richard Bauman, Michael Owen Jones, and Henry Glassie are among those who begin appearing in the 1960s. Others, such as Américo Paredes, move from presence in the 1950s to prominence in this decade.

The old AAA/MLA dynamic seems to fully disappear in this decade, although, as today, clearly there were AAA and MLA attendees among those also gathering at AFS meetings. In is place is the stronger and growing presence of people trained in folklore programs who lacked an identities as something other than as a folklorist. The programs of the 1960s are also full of people with complicated and plural professional identities to be sure, but increasingly these diversities were being shaped by complex alignments with fields and interdisciplinary areas such as history, geography, American Studies, sociolinguistics, and semiotics and they were not a clean inheritance of the literature/anthropology binary of the founding decades. In the later 1960s, the AFS meetings (from my point of view) got a lot more interesting but at the same time, and for interconnected reasons, they got a lot less relevant for those whose studies were concerned with the Indigenous societies of the colonized U.S. and Canada.

For the broader issue of actual involvement in the field by Native American and First Nations scholars, the 1960s continued the dismal record already underway in the 1940s and 1950s. As Native American studies went from small to smaller as an AFS concern, the prospects of attracting the interests of those Indigenous scholars in the humanities and social sciences who would, or could have, become folklore scholars and public humanists in the 1970s also shrank.

Emerging folklore studies stars such as Dell Hymes and Barre Toelken may have done particularly prominent work in Native American studies and, in doing so, kept the concern within the canon, but there was no longer a critical mass of scholars involved in such work. I will be considering this lack of critical mass–and its effects–in later posts. Here it is enough to reflect that an AFS meeting in the 1960s, while more lively than one of the 1940s or 1950s, was not likely to offer much to an Indigenous scholar eager to connect with at least some other scholars (Native or not) also working in Native American studies.

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