CSAS History

The Founding of the Central Section: 1921

The name “Central States Anthropological Society” dates only to 1951. The organization was founded in 1921 as the Central Section (informally called the “Central States Branch”) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).


Anthropologist Samuel Barrett (seen above), was born in Ukiah, California, in 1879. He earned the first Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California in 1908.

The founding of the Central Section in 1921 reflected the frustration of an increasing number of Midwestern anthropologists who felt themselves geographically disadvantaged by the AAA’s policy of holding its annual meetings almost exclusively in the eastern one-fourth of the country.  The AAA originally scheduled its 1920 meeting for Chicago, along with the AAAS, but pulled out in November, only one month in advance — to the sore disappointment of Midwestern anthropologists. One of them was Dr. Samuel A. Barrett (Ph.D. Anthropology, Berkeley 1908), Acting Director of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, who wrote to AAA President Clark Wissler, “We have in this . . . [middle-western] section a very considerable number, all told, of people who are either actively working in anthropology or who are at any rate interested considerably in the subject and who could be brought out to a meeting, let us say in Chicago, who would not be at all able to go to a meeting on the Atlantic seaboard.” Barrett hastened to reassure Wissler that “we are not exactly Bolshevists [i.e., revolutionaries] in this matter.”  The petition was formally approved and the AAA Constitution amended accordingly at the December 1921 AAA annual meeting (Brooklyn), and a Joint Committee on Relations with the Central States Section was appointed (Clark Wissler and George MacCurdy for the AAA, Berthold Laufer and Samuel Barrett for the Central Section).

The importance of museums as loci of Midwestern anthropology is reflected not only in the institutional affiliations of the three signatories of the organizational petition to the AAA, but also in the Central Section’s annual meeting sites during the first decade, 1922-1930. The 1923 Minutes recorded that the members supped at the Union Club at the munificence of physician Otto L. Schmidt, whom they thanked with an honorary membership; that they “visited the . . . Chicago Historical Society, where [private collector] Milford G. Chandler exhibited his collection of Indian objects and rendered selections of Indian music on the flute.”

Women in CSAS Leadership


Madeline Kneberg (above) was the first woman Officer and later was President of CSAS in 1951.

In the first decade all officers were males. This is true, also, of the Executive Committee and the short-lived Council (1922-1925). The absence of women among the organization’s formal leaders is not surprising, though, given women’s relatively low membership numbers and program participation during this period. The earliest available membership list (1929) includes 12 women (10.7%) among the 112 names (of whom only 101 were paid up). Looking at scholarly participation, women accounted for seven (5.4%) of the 129 authors of the 143 first-decade papers presented at the annual meetings.

In later decades, women were valued and critical parts of the success of CSAS. The first woman elected to a leadership position in the Central Section was Charlotte Gower (Executive Committee, 1935-1939). The first woman Officer was Madeline Kneberg (Secretary-Treasurer 1946-1950), followed by Erika Bourguignon (Treasurer 1953-1956). The third woman officer in CSAS was Bernice Kaplan (Secretary-Treasurer 1956-1962), who held the office longer than any other person except George R. Fox. Both Kneberg and Kaplan later served as Vice President and President. Kaplan presented her first paper at CSAS in 1946; her decades of service to the Society were recognized with a Certificate of Merit 63 years later, at the 2009 meeting.

Research Topics at CSAS: 1920s to 1970s

Comparison of 1922-1930 and 1971-1975: In terms of geographical (ethnographic) area, there was surprising continuity between 1922-1930 and 1971-1975: 35.4% vs. 35% North American Indians, 8.3% vs. 13% Latin America, 12.5% vs. 7% Sub-Saharan Africa, 18.7% vs. 7% Asia, and 4.2% vs. 2% Pacific. Europe appeared in the latter period (6%) but not in the former, and non-geographical papers increased from 20.9% to 30%.  The continuity of “backyard ethnography” and the declines in representation of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific are surprising, given the proportionately huge sums of money that became available for overseas research following WWII.  It appears that the big NSF grants went to researchers at the few largest U.S. Institutions, and that those recipients in the Midwest felt less need to seek out colleagues at meetings than did the majority of CSAS members.

The Three Crises

The 1930s Great Depression presented an enormous crisis for the United States in general but not for the Central Section. Membership stood at 103 in 1931, dipped slightly, then up to 122 in 1937.  Most Midwest anthropologists held jobs that were cushioned against the impact of the business decline, in the sense that they were in the public sector, which received governmental augmentation during this period.

World War II had a profound effect upon the Central Section. The 1942 Meeting program consisted of only 13 papers. The annual meeting and elections were then suspended for three years (1943-1945). Military service called away a number of the Central Section’s members, and private travel was made difficult by strict governmental rationing of gasoline and tires as well as by the shortage of civilian accommodations on buses and trains.  CSAS Vice-President James B. Griffin wrote that he did not want to miss his after-academic-hours war production job, five hours each night for six days per week.

The Defection of the Archaeologists:  Founded in 1934, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA)  was comprised largely of Midwestern archaeologists who were in the Central Section — indeed, the largest component of its membership. From 1937 (the date of the SAA’s first or second annual meeting) until 1958, the SAA met conjointly with the Central Section every year except 1954 and 1956.  Fortunately for CSAS, the post-1958 divorce initiated by the SAA occurred at a time of sharply rising numbers of ethnologists (social or cultural anthropologists) in the Midwest. After 1958, the program of the Central Section, now Central States Anthropological Society, more than doubled, reaching 85 papers in 1966, 81 in 1967, and 80 in 1968.

For Barry Isaac’s full text on CSAS history and more information please visit CSAS Archives and Historical Information.

Thank you to Amber Clifford-Napoleone, Justine Cordwell, Alice Kehoe, Harriet Oppenheimer, and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom for their contributions to this page.