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Native American and First Nations Studies in the Work of the American Folklore Society During the 1920s

This is a seventh post in a series on the presence and absence of Native American and First Nations studies within the life of the American Folklore Society (AFS). So far, the series is as follows.

First, a post considered the presence and absence of Native American and First Nations studies within the AFS conference programs of the 1950s.

Second, I moved back a to the AFS conference reports for the 1940s.

Third, I considered the distribution of interest and work among the original group of AFS Fellows at the moment of the Fellows beginning in 1960, a moment that represented a kind of capstone for the state of things at the end of the 1950s.

Fourth, I moved forward to consider the annual meetings of the 1960s.

Fifth, I went back and assessed Native American and First Nations Studies at the American Folklore Society Meetings During the 1930s

Sixth, I dug deeper for the 1930s, looking at the content of the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) for that decade.

Here in a combined post, I look at Annual Meetings and the JAF for the 1920s.

While the published AFS Annual Reports for the 1920s have the same format and style as those crated and published in the 1930s, for the 1920s there is, for each year, an accounting of the papers presented at the Society’s annual meeting. There are indicators that the AFS was then meeting with the AAA and other organizations, but the picture in the 1920s is one of autonomy and in each instance there are is a small but clear and substantive group of papers presented at the annual meeting. The data on these presentations is given below. For the tracking of presentations relative to Native North American and First Nations topics, 1924 will look a anomalous, especially in the context of the decade. In addition to two papers presented on other topics, there was that year a round table event on European tales taken up by Native North American peoples. Below the table I touch on a highlight and assess the data.

YearPresentations on Non-Native American TopicsPresentations on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
192420* (Roundtable)0%
Presentations on Non-Native American- and Native American-Related Topics at the Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society During the 1920s

For me the highlight is seeing, in the program for the 1926 meeting held at the University of Pennsylvania, Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan). Born in 1899, she would have been 27 years old at the time of the AFS meetings. The annual reporting tells us that her presentation was “Notes on Mohegan Folklore.” Based on my knowledge of the people involved, she was the only Native North American person presenting during the 1920s. If you know me to be in error on this point, please correct me.

Before turning to the JAF in the 1920s, I can say that the picture that the 1920s presents is pretty consistent. Editorial matters are a dominant concern of the society. To achieve its publishing goals, financial and membership issues were very prominent. Franz Boas was a very active presence in the life of the society in the 1920s and his students were central to its work, but well-known literary folklorists maintain their place in the society and Stith Thompson in particular can be seen rising through the ranks throughout the 1920s. The other key leaders among the non-anthropologists included Louise Pound, Phillips Barry, Frank Doby, Aurelio Espinosa. I tend not to enumerate them, but nearly everyone in ethnology/anthropological folklore studies generally associated with Franz Boas is present among the anthropological folklorists of AFS, with Ruth Benedict, Gladys A. Reichard, and Ruth L. Bunzel consistently playing key roles. I should have mentioned this previously, but throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Elsie Clews Parsons (herself a student of Native American topics) really was the patron saint of the AFS, consistently providing major donations to advance large projects and to patch holes in the society’s finances during difficult moments.

The meetings were small but those who gathered at them and served as officers, including as councilors, were major figures in the field. As I discuss below, the picture from JAF is much larger. Here is the basic count for the 1920s.

YearPublished Papers and Notes on Non-Native American TopicsPublished Papers and Notes on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
JAF Publications on Non-Native North American- and Native North American-Related Topics at During the 1920s

As in the 1930s, review of the content published in the JAF during the 1920s presents a more balanced perspective on the field, both in terms of literary vis-a-vis anthropological folklore studies and in terms of Native North American and First Nations studies vis-a-vis the study of other peoples and traditions.

Key to contextualizing the JAF data is remembering, as in the 1930s, that the journal regularly published huge text collections from various peoples of the world (particularly of the Western hemisphere). While these were sometimes collections related to Native North American and First Nations peoples, there were also frequently devoted to other groups that were prominent in the concerns of the broader membership–European American settler populations in rural North America, European immigrant populations in cities, African American populations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Americas, French Canadian groups. As in the 1930s, a there is non-trivial amounts of work published related to Africa and Asia (particularly Chinese) and a significant amount of material related to both Indigenous groups and settler populations in the Spanish-speaking Americas. (A lot of work on the Spanish-speaking Americas is present in JAF during the 1920s. Put another way, the diversity of the field is much clearer in the pages of JAF than it is in the meeting halls where AFS leaders gathered for a business meeting and a small group of papers.

[Before moving on, a comment here on the studies of the Spanish-speaking Americas. Many people contributed to this work, including even Boas himself. But the central figure is Aurelio Macedonio Espinosa, Sr. He is clearly the star figure in this corner of the field and it is evident that he was greatly respected overall. He served as AFS President in 1924 and was reelected for 1925. His role, and that of other folklorists who might be identified as Latinx today is important in its own terms, but it is also important to keep this other thread in mind as we search the annals of the society for Indigenous and Black scholars.]

As noted previously, an assessment by pages published rather than by itemized articles and notes would generate a different picture. While very large articles are devoted to all groups (and the 1920s saw a huge amount of text material published on Puerto Rico), a page approach would shift perceptions of Native American studies in the AFS. As in the 1930s, JAF as a key location for the publication of Native North American text collections. 1929, for instance, looks different on the table above than it does on the tables of contents in JAF. Among the three Native North America-related publications for that year is a huge Hopi text collection.

Noting Gladys Tantaquidgeon, above, at the 1926 meeting was a relief in the face of the absence of Indigenous scholars at the decades and decades of meetings already surveyed. As noted in an earlier post, the 1920s also feature a paper in the JAF by Ella Deloria (Yankton Dakota), her “The Sun Dance of the Oglala Sioux” published in number 166 in 1929. (She was age 40 at the time.) While both Tantaquidgeon and Deloria did research with other Indigenous peoples it is perhaps relevant to note that their 1920s AFS contributions were reflections on studies undertaken among their own peoples.

What provisional patterns stick out from the 1920s survey, here combining JAF and the annual meeting in one post? If a scholar were interested in Native American expressive culture, particularly verbal art, in the 1920s, JAF would be essential reading. If such a scholar had the means and ability to travel to the (usually Northeast US) cities where the AFS met during this decade, they would find fellow scholars with which to converse and from which to learn. But the AFS was not at all reducible to the annual meeting. The journal represented and presented a bigger and more complicated scholarly world. Separate from Native North American studies concerns, it is strange to note that the difference between the 1920s and the 2020 on this point is basically an inversion. In 1920, the JAF involved more people and a more diverse set of concerns. In 2019 and even in virtual COVID-19 reshaped 2020, the annual meetings are simply bigger and more diverse than the content of the JAF. It has been thus for a long time. JAF is great, but it is a a very partial slice of the AFS today, whereas in 1920, the annual meeting was a tiny slice of the membership and of the journal as a community.

It is painful to contemplate that the 1920s might have been more inclusive than many later decades in terms of the involvement of women scholars and also of BIPOC scholars. I am not combing through this data just for kicks, although it is good to learn more about my fields. I am trying to get a better handle on just such painful questions as this one. I have not surveyed all of the data yet. There are later decades (ex: 1970s, 1980s, etc.) to consider as well as earlier ones (ex: 1900s, 1910s, etc.) to look at. But the patterns are starting to emerge more sharply.

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