Skip to content

And Now for the 1970s: Native North American and First Nations Folklore Studies After the Field Gets Big

Here is the next in my series on the presence and absence of Native North American and First Nations studies in the work of the American Folklore Society, as a representative of the field of folklore studies in the present-day United States.

In the first table here, I present (using the same format as in earlier posts) data from the annual meetings of the AFS during the 1970s. (At the end of this post, I note some methodological issues to keep in mind when considering my gathering of meeting and Journal of American Folklore (JAF) data.) I want to call attention to two meetings specifically. From a Native American studies perspective, 1974 is the noteworthy meeting. What was going on then? I do not want to give all of the credit to Dell Hymes, but this can be seen as a very Hymes-inflected meeting. He was AFS president and he gave his presidential address at this meeting, which was held in his beloved home town of Portland and in the state where his studies among Native American peoples were centered. His address took account of these matters and emphasized the study of Native American verbal art of the region. Adding to the synergy was the fact that Barre Toelken, the other senior folklorist of that era focused (in large part, but not completely) on Native North American studies, was central to the organization of this meeting.

In addition to Hymes’ lecture and his influence on the meeting, there are some other distinctive features of the 1974 gathering. It included individuals and events that were not typical of AFS gatherings. Hymes chaired a session on “The Use of Folklore in the Education of Indian Students.” Panel discussions are not included in my meeting data unless each participant was given a title-like discussion topic. That is not the case for this session (thus it is not counted in the first table below), but the event is noteworthy and needs to be surfaced. Participating in the event were Barre Toelken, Jarrold Ramsey, Larry George, Deni Leonard, Bruce Rigsby, Rayna Green, and Alfonso Ortiz. On this panel, businessman Deni Leonard is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservations of Oregon and anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz was a member of the Indigenous nation of Northern (present-day) New Mexico now known as Ohkay Owingeh. I believe the Larry George participating was a Yakama Nation artist. I mention the panel for the obvious reason that it platformed these Native (and non-Native) people to explore a significant social issue of relevance to the field and to communities.

The 1974 meeting also included a panel related to the federally recognized Nez Perce Tribe (of present-day North Central Idaho) and among those presenting Native studies oriented papers was Richard Dauenhauer, who devoted his life to work on Tlingit language revitalization, history, and literature. Not Tlingit by birth, he was married to Tlingit poet and scholar Nora Marks Dauenhauer and clearly, over his lifetime, became extraordinarily involved in Tlingit national life.

The other meeting that will stick out when scanning the table is 1976. Participation on the program for that meeting in Philadelphia was very large. I do not have a fully developed account for this, but I note that this was the bicentennial year for the US and it is generally understood within the field that that year was one of special intensity for this reason, with a huge amount of disciplinary activity. In addition to being held in a city relevant to the bicentennial theme, it was a meeting held in a folklorist-dense region in a folklorist-dense city. The meeting was held in coordination with the Society for Ethnomusicology, but the impact of that is not particularly evident from the AFS meeting program. The meeting was not particularly strong on Native American studies work, but like most meetings in the 1970s, it had a dedicated panel gathering together work in this area, with a few more papers appearing elsewhere on the program.

Films (later also videos) were a prominent part of the meetings during the 1970s and 1971 is of special relevance to this project in this aspect. In that year, two films on Navajo subjects appeared on the program. Both were by Navajo film makers. I cannot tell if they were in attendance (This source suggests that this is unlikely). The films were A Navajo Weaver by Susie Bennally and Intrepid Shadows by Alfred Chah. The context for these films is pretty well known and the connection is obvious on the program, as Sol Worth was present and listed as a discussant. These two films belong to a group of films arising from the visual anthropology project reported in the book Through Navajo Eyes and various articles by Worth and John Adair.

In general, the pattern for the 1970s was for there to be one, sometimes two, omnibus panels of 4-5 talks under a heading such as American Indian Folklore (later becoming Native American Folklore). A few of the scholars participating in such panels are widely known (in addition to Toelken, I highlight Claire Farrer and Margaret Brady), but most are not or, if they are well-known, it is for other work on non-Native topics. In this period, we also see a new dynamic emerge in which broad-focus, community-based public folklorists can be seen working across a diverse communities in their home regions and, along the way, making connections and gaining understandings of Native American traditional and expressive culture in a way that is not superficial but that is also not the same being solely focused. A clear example of this during the 1970s is James Griffith’s growing connection to Arizona Native communities. (ex: 1976).

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 1970s.

The pages of the JAF contain one special story alongside more evidence of the general trend. In Toelken’s first issue as editor (#343 for 1974), he published a paper titled “Coyote Tales: A Paiute Commentary” by Judy Trejo. Ms Trejo was then a student at the College of Idaho and she would go on to become noted for her recordings of, and her performances of, Paiute ancestral music and for service as a teacher among her people. I recommend her article to you. By way of context, Toelken wrote:

This paper inaugurates a new policy of encouraging the bearers of tradition to add their own critical comments to the ongoing study of folklore. Especially to the members of those ethnic minority groups who have been scrutinized and dissected exoterically do we extend a standing invitation to provide our profession with their perspectives.

An LA Times obituary for Ms. Trejo reports that she was enrolled in the Walker River Paiute Tribe but it may be that she was enrolled at the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe. The near complete and very regrettable absence of Native American people from the twentieth century work of the society and field make episodes such as this one particularly instructive. Toelken’s intervention at the level of the journal should be studied more and considered in light of present work aimed at diversifying both the society and the journal, a theme to which I hope to return at the end of this series.

At 5% for the 1970s, the rough count for the decade roughly matches that for the 1960s. For the time being then, the decline for the journal has plateaued while, for the meetings, the larger population of attendees (and thus the size of the active field) seems to have contributed to a modest increase (2% to 4%) in presentations related to Native North American studies. The table for the JAF follows.

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 During the 1970s.

Caveats–Keep in mind that the scratch paper counting that I am doing is imperfect–more imperfect than it would be in a formal inquiry based on a rigorous approach to coding. I am doing this fast and questions can arise that I not attending to except in on the fly deciding. The whole effort would need to be redone on the basis of experience to reduce this aspect. Here are a couple of examples to stand as a warning. During the 1970s, the AFS annual meetings programs gained abstracts. These can help clarify the nature of an ambiguous title or to determine if a scholar known for work in Native American studies was, in a particular instance, actually speaking about this topic. An example of ambiguity can be found in 1970, where Roger Welch spoke at the annual meeting about Omaha foodways. Given his career, this could equally have been a discussion of the foodways found in the city of Omaha or among the people of the federally recognized Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa. I counted this talk in the “Native Studies” column, but deeper research could prove this to have been the wrong choice. It is an example. Were I to start over again, I would categorically exclude obituaries from consideration, but I decided early on to include them in the Native studies column if the scholar being remembered was fully or primarily focused in Native North American/First Nations studies. My thinking then was that a person working in this field would likely be as interested to read such an item as one by the scholar being remembered. Obituaries by scholars not working in Native Studies or working in it only marginally (as with minor work by European tales scholars on Native American borrowings of European tales) were included in the non-Native group. Colleagues following behind me would surely take a somewhat different approach and get somewhat different numbers. I think that the trends would remain the same.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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: