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The 1930s from the Perspective of the Journal of American Folklore

This is the sixth post in the series looking at the presence and absence of Native North American and First Nations scholars and scholarship from the work and life of the American Folklore Society (AFS). To get a recent recap of the series, look at the start of the post preceding this one.

If the annual meetings of the 1930s presented a picture of anthropological hegemony within the American Folklore Society, the published issues of the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) present a somewhat less stark picture. As the focus of this series is on the presence and absence of Native (North) American and First Nations studies within the work of the AFS as a community of scholars, the notes and articles published within the JAF, as the journal of the AFS, present a more harmonious picture with studies of diverse peoples of the Americas and of the wider world appearing in its pages. JAF also represents a less-skewed disciplinary balance between anthropological folklorists (working not only in Native North American but around the world and with other non-Native peoples of North America) and of non-anthropological (primarily literary) folklorists

As the question of Native American and First Nations scholars active within the American Folklore Society community is not disconnected from the openness of the society to BIPOC scholars in general, I note that the 1930s is the decade in which Zora Hurston published her two JAF papers. (“Dance Songs and Tales from the Bahamas” in 1930 and “Hoodoo in America in 1931”. (Writing from Honduras in 1947, she would later publish one of the most awesomely vehement negative reviews that I have ever read. You should go find it in JAF #238).

As noted previously, Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan) published two articles in JAF, the first appearing in 1932 (“Notes on the Origins and Uses of Plants of the Lake St. John Montagnais”) and a second one to appear later, in 1941.

I am going to share the raw counts for JAF publications dealing with non-Native and Native topics, but a few points should be kept in mind. This count combines shorter notes with full articles. I do not think that the two genres were used equally across these two areas of interests, which skews the overall count in a way that increases the proportion of non-Native North American content. The counts also do not take into account page counts. During this period, articles could be very brief or they could be huge text collections that occupy full numbers. Thus an assessment by page count might lead to very different results. While the Boasian scholars (in this period still working under Boas’ leadership) used the JAF in this way actively, text collections for varied peoples produced by scholars with different orientations did so also. More likely imballanced though in this period (and earlier) was the publication of full theses as articles in JAF. This is another kind of long-form work that impacted distribution of topics vis-a-vis page counts. Anthropological folklorists in the Boasian circle were more likely to see their theses and dissertations published in this way. This is no small matter, as in this era, publication of the dissertation was a requirement for the bestowal of the degree. The rise later of University Microfilms as a means of publication aimed to solve the problem that scholars of this earlier era faced around dissertation publication. Boas and his students used JAF towards this end in cases where the topics could make sense within its pages within an anthropological definition of folklore studies.

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 1930s

To illustrate the way that page counts rather than presence/absence can offer a richer view, consider 1934, as presented above. This could seems like a bad year for a partisan whose interests were solely in anthropological folklore studies work related to Native North America. But the single item shown there, accounting for the 4% figure, is Diamond Jenness’ “Myths of the Carrier Indians of British Columbia” in JAF #184-185. At 160 pages, it represents 40% of the total pages published in JAF in 1934.

What is the take away? Native North American and First Nations studies was a vital part of the work of the American Folklore Society during the 1930s. The previous post suggested that the topic was a dominant factor when it came to AFS meetings and this one shows that the area of concern was prominent, but not hegemonic from the perspective of the society’s journal during this decade.

A very large group of scholars published on Native North American and First Nations topics in JAF during the 1930s. At least one of them–Gladys Tantaquidgeon–was member of a Native North American society that had then, or would later have, government-to-government relations with the United States. If readers know of other Native North American scholars present in JAF during the 1930s, please point this out to me.

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