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Native American and First Nations Studies in the Work of the American Folklore Society During the 1910s

Here we go again, this time looking at the 1910s. This post is the eighth in a series considering the absence and presence of Native North American and First Nations studies work (and individuals) within the life of the American Folklore Society (AFS). For a summary of the previous posts, check out the opening passages in the seventh post. As with that post, I will be combining a survey of the annual meetings for the 1910s with a review of articles and notes published in the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) for the same decade. For the present-day United States, the AFS is the main organization for the discipline of folklore studies.

As in other early decades, knowledge of what happened at the annual meetings of the AFS, including the titles and speakers for presentations given, is derived from annual reports of the society published in JAF. These can be consulted in JAF today and they have also been made available in an open access way by the AFS in IUScholarWorks. While the AFS annual reports do not seem strikingly different between the two decades, comparison of meeting presentations of the 1910s and the 1920s reveals a key pattern. In the 1910s, presentations on non-Native topics (N=45) outnumbered presentations on Native North American studies topics (N=27), as is shown in the table below (compare with the first table in the preceding post). For the 1920s, this pattern was reversed, with fewer papers on non-Native North American topics (N=28) than for Native North American studies topics (N=40).

YearPresentations on Non-Native American TopicsPresentations on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
Presentations on Non-Native North American- and Native North American-Related Topics at the Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society During the 1910s

When considering this, keep in mind that the nature of the presentations on non-Native North American topics is heterogeneous. That group usually includes literary folklorists working on topics such as ballads and tales from European settler, Black, “Hispanic” (Latinx), etc. communities in the US and the Americas, but also anthropological folklore studies works related to peoples outside the settler states of the United States and Canada. Finally, this grouping sometimes includes work of a theoretical or comparative character that by scholars who were otherwise deeply involved in Native North American studies.

We still need to get back to 1888, but from the vantage point of the meetings of the 1910s, it would appear that Native American studies work within folklore studies, as represented by meeting participation, is working towards a peak that is still to come in the 1920s. (As discussed in the earlier post on the meetings of the 1930s, that decade presents a muddled picture, but it seems clear that the 1920s were the high water mark for Native North American studies work within the society’s meetings as distinct undertakings. In the 1910s, like the 1920s, but not like the muddled 1930s, there was generally a distinct AFS meeting program, even though the society was meeting in partnership with the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and other organizations. This fact helps this inquiry greatly.

Unlike the 1920s, there is no recorded moment of participation in the meetings of the 1910s by a Native North American/First Nations scholars. If I am mistaken about this, please alert me.

What about the view from JAF? The table below reflects my quick coding of articles and notes in JAF during the 1910s. As in later decades, the journal presents a more moderate picture than the meetings relative to balance. Things said about the journal in the 1920s and 1930s generally hold true for the 1910s. These decades fall into the long period of (first) Franz Boas’ and then (second) Ruth Benedict’s editorships. The stability of norms and practices in this period is very noteworthy. Throughout, there was a significant group of associate editors mapping onto the major interest groups within the society and published content reflected these interests and their constituencies.

For anyone who was very committed to Native North American and First Nations studies (particularly studies of verbal art/narrative), JAF would have been essential reading in the 1910s. For such a scholar, there would be people to talk to if one made it to the annual meetings, but it is clear that one could be active in the AFS via the journal and an associated state and local society “branches” and never make it to one of the anthropology-inflected national meetings (often held in association with the AAA and related organizations). An elite of literary folklorists working on non-Native American materials found their way to the meetings in order to engage with and shape the organization, but such scholars really shone in the pages of JAF, where their works constituted a majority of what was published in the 1910s. Consider folk song scholar Phillips Barry, for whom the Phillips Barry Lecture*, given each year at the AFS meetings is named. There are stretches in the 1910s where he seems to be present in every issue of JAF, sometimes more than once in the same issue.

(*Wasn’t Dom Flemons an incredible Phillips Barry presenter at this year’s [2020] meeting!)

Below the table, I offer a few more observations, but for Native North American studies in folklore, I want to record here that the 1910s saw JAF publish two papers by William Jones (Sauk). I cannot do justice to Jones’ amazing story here, but I note that the two papers from the 1910s were published posthumously after his tragic murder in the Philippines. Many others have written of the terrible, sad story of his death while doing fieldwork in Luzon. It is likely that Jones, if one were to do the archival work carefully, would turn out to be the first Native North American member of the AFS. I may discover new things when I look at the remainder of the meeting reports and journal issues, but for now, this is a reasonable proposition. (I will make a correction here if I discover something different. Having published many books and articles while still young and having earned one of the first PhDs in anthropology (the first Native American do to so), it is overwhelming to think what he might have accomplished had he not died so young (at age 38). (See his “Ojibwa Tales from the North Shore of Lake Superior in JAF #113 (1916) and his “Notes on the Fox Indians” in JAF #92 (1911).

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 1910s

While Native North American studies were not dominant in the journal, it was (like the 1920s and 1930s) an era in which Boas’ students published often in the journal on both Native North American and theoretical topics. A few dissertations were published as long articles and there were many text collections from both anthropological folklorists and literary folklorists concerned with non-Native North American peoples, particularly from the western hemisphere. Boas’ editorial system of making sure that every volume, for the most part, included materials related to English-speaking European settler, Spanish-speaking settler, French-speaking settler, Black diaspora, and Native American/First Nations (here including the Indigenous peoples of the Americas as a whole) was evident as was his efforts to balance short items with the very long ones that he also was keen to publish.

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