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Native North American Studies in the Work of the American Folklore Society during the First Decade of the 20th Century (1900-1909)

This is another post in a series devoted to better understanding the place of Native North American and First Nations studies within the field of folklore studies as represented in the present-day United States by the work of the American Folklore Society (AFS). In a post published here, I itemize the posts in the series so far.

From at least one perspective, 1900-1909 was a kind of high water mark for Native North American work within the American Folklore Society. In the early 20th century, the AFS had a lot of members (in my view), although its leaders constantly stressed the smallness of the membership and stressed the need to grow both members and the number of state and local chapters within which, in those days, most members engaged with the field. There was a relatively small elite of members, both literary and anthropological in orientation, that attended annual meetings and that published substantive articles in the pages of the Journal of American Folklore (JAF). During the 1900-1909 decade, two such elite members were Native North American men–William Jones (Sauk) and Frances La Flesche (Omaha).

Jones was the first Native American to earn a PhD in Anthropology and one of the first to earn this degree at all in the United States. He undertook extensive research among his own people–the Sauk and closely related Meskwaki (Fox)–but also other groups speaking related Central Algonquian languages. He published widely and during his lifetime he published two papers in the JAF. Two additional JAF papers were published posthumously. His first JAF paper is “Episodes in the Culture-Hero Muth of the Sauks and Foxes in JAF #55 (1901). His second paper, “The Algonkin Manitou” appeared in JAF #70 in 1905. He also published reviews in JAF during his lifetime. Sadly, in an episode that has been widely considered in the history of anthropology, he was killed in 1908 while conducting research as a Field Museum curator among the Ilongot people in the Philippines. An unsigned obituary, likely written by his mentor Franz Boas, appears at the end of the decade in JAF #84 (1909). Despite the racism of his day, I do not have any difficulty imagining William Jones having been the President of the American Folklore Society. Many of Boas’ former students, both male and female, came in time to fill this role. Among them Jones was particularly engaged in folk narrative research and he was widely admired. His death remains a vividly felt loss. When I position Jones as an leading member of the AFS in this decade, I include the fact that he was one of a very small number of members to actually present a paper at an annual meeting during this period. He delivered a paper titled “Customs and Rites Concerning the Dean Among the Sauks and Foxes” at the 1901 (13th) annual meeting in Chicago, one of sixteen given at that meeting.

Similarly prominent in this time as a working anthropologist and folklorist, although trained formally in law, is Francis La Flesche. Like Jones, he also undertook ethnographic field work among his own people (the Omaha) and among closely related peoples (the Osage and other peoples speaking Degihan langauges). The JAF volume for 1905 featured Jones’ Manitou paper and, in the next issue, La Flesche’s “Who was the Medicine Man?”. With his research collaborator (and soon-to-be AFS’s first female president) Alice C. Fletcher, he also presented a paper on “Military Insignia of the Omaha” at the 14th Annual Meeting of the AFS, held jointly with the American Anthropological Association and the anthropological section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC at the end of 2002 and the beginning days of 2003. While La Flesche did not become an AFS officer, he clearly could have as reflected in his Presidency of the Anthropological Society of Washington (1922-1923) and his 1922 election to National Academy of Sciences (a high honor then, as now).

A reoccurring theme in these posts, I will address the tiny group of prominent Native North American folklorists in a separate concluding post. Here, I just wish to underline that the 1900s (111 to 120 years ago was the apparent peak moment for such involvement in the society, as represented by the participation in both meetings and the JAF of both Jones and La Flesche during the decade. Ella Deloria (Dakota) would publish in JAF in the 1920s and Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan) would present at the meetings once in that decade, but as measured by total involvement including three full JAF articles published by La Flesche during his career and four full JAF articles published during (and after) his lifetime by Jones, they, and this decade, really stand out. I hope it is clear that I admire them and that I am frustrating that the best moment in terms of Native American scholars being near the center of the field would be in the first decade of the 20th century. As in previous posts when I touched on the question of Native American participation in the society, I welcome information on Native scholars involved in AFS that I many not be recognizing.

During the 1900s decade, meetings remained small and centered mostly in the Northeastern US. It was common, not just for the AFS, but for scholarly societies in general, to systematically meet in what one annual report refers to as a convocation, in which a significant number of scholarly societies are jointly hosted by a university. The AFS met in such situations multiple times in the 1900s decade. Such meetings often included an overarching welcome by the host university president, break-out meetings for the participating societies, and keynote lectures and receptions held again jointly.

It is important to recall that the AFS was founded fourteen years prior to the founding of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Prior to the founding of the AAA, the Anthropological Society of Washington (ASW) (of which La Flesche would eventually be President) and the anthropology section within the AAAS were the key anthropology organizations. AFS met regularly with the ASW and with AAAS throughout its early history and after the AAA formed, it was added to this mix of regular meeting partners. Once the AAA was in the mix, it became common for there to be an AFS focused day within a multi-day meeting. This would have probably been adaptive for the non-anthropologists who may have wished to take in the AFS portion of the meeting but perhaps not the AAA (etc.) parts. I am guessing about this. With respect to the balance between scholars of Native North American and non-Native North American topics–a distinction that in this decade does map rather closely onto the anthropology/literature distinction–Native American-focused presentations at the annual meetings across the decade were somewhat dominant, but as shown in the first table, there was much variability. The most imbalanced meeting, in 1907, was one of those held jointly with the AAA and AAAS. It was held in Chicago (an emerging hub for anthropology due to the Field Museum), a new development that may have made the meeting more difficult for the New England-centric literary folklorists and appealing to the anthropologists who were in this time increasingly fanning out across the country. The meeting in 1904, where only a small number of papers were given and where the Native studies percentage is at its lowest for the decade, was in Philadelphia during one of the joint meetings that included the still new AAA and AAAS. It is likely that AFS members appeared on the AAA’s program in this context, impacting the figures. How AFS papers are reported in the annual report varies year to year in response to different meeting configurations and other factors.

The 1900s decade is when Boas’ students (both formal and informal) begin to show up in growing numbers and assume leadership roles. Jones has been mentioned here and in previous posts. In the previous decade A. L. Kroeber was present as a student, now he is present as an established figure. He is not only a presenter at meetings and a regular JAF author, but he and colleagues begin the California chapter in this time and it becomes a force within the field. In this period, there is often a dedicated section of the journal presenting papers and notes under this California branch’s auspices. Kroeber followed Alice Fletcher as AFS President, serving in 1906. John Swanton, active starting in this decade, would serve as President in 1909. Other Boas students such as Frank Speck, Robert Lowie, and Edward Sapir–all scholars of Native American topics–entered into the life of the AFS and rose to prominence in it, eventually service as Presidents.

As noted previously, the membership size and the number of presentations at AFS annual meetings are very different things. Most members articulated with the society as journal readers and as members of local branches, not via the annual meetings. There continued in this period to be elite AFS participants from both the anthropology community (ex: Alice Fletcher, James Mooney, Franz Boas and others) and the literary and historical side (inclusive of such topics as ballad studies, Black vernacular culture, children’s folklore, etc) (ex: George Lyman Kittredge, Alcée Fortier, Phillips Barry and others) as reflected in meeting attendance and service as an officer of the society. The politics of the AFS seems to have mainly taken place at the annual meetings, thus centering leadership and decision making among a small group (nearly all white, mostly men, weighted towards the northeast, but less exclusively so) able to both attend annual meetings and engage in the work on a national basis. The Annual Meeting table follows.

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 1900s.

As in earlier decades, the JAF picture is distorted by my initial choice (probably a mistaken one) to code notes and articles rather than limiting attention just to full articles. In this period, the JAF often (but not always) published notes that ranged from substantive contributions with a byline to very short items (as short as a couple sentences). As I have noted elsewhere, my inclusion of notes serves to supress the percentages for Native North American topical works, because the smaller notes are weighted towards items related to Non-Native North American folklore topics. I am just guessing, but it seems likely that in the decade of the 1900s, the ratio for sunstantive Native and Non-Native North American content in the journal might have been about 50/50 rather than the decade-based 39% presented in the table below.

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 1900s.

Early volumes of the JAF are available without a paywall from JSTOR, thus I end by suggesting that anyone who has made it this far read the brief obituary published for William Jones in #84. Find it here. It is unsigned but his mentor Franz Boas was the editor of JAF at the time and knew him well, suggesting to me that he is the likely author of the obituary.

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