James H. Howard was trained in anthropology at the University of Nebraska (B.A., 1949; M.A., 1950) and the University of Michigan (Ph.D., 1957). In 1950-1953, he served as archeologist and preparator at the North Dakota State Historical Museum; and, in 1955-1957, he was on the staff of the Kansas City (Missouri) Museum. During the summer of 1957, he joined the staff of the Smithsonian's River Basin Surveys. Between 1957 and 1963, he taught anthropology at the Universtity of North Dakota. Between 1963 and 1968, he served in several capacities with the University of South Dakota including assistant and associate professor, director of the Institute of Indian Studies (1963-1966), and Director of the W.H. Over Museum (1963-1968). In 1968, he joined the Department of Sociology at Oklahoma State University, where he achieved the rank of professor in 1970. In 1979, he was a consultant for exhibitions at the Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
Howard's abiding interest were the people of North America, whom he studied both as an ethnologist and archeologist. Between 1949 and 1982, he worked with the Ponca, Omaha, Yankton and Yaktonai Dakota, Yamasee, Plains Ojibwa (or Bungi), Delaware, Seneca-Cayuga, Prairie Potatwatomi of Kansas, Mississipi and Oklahoma Choctaw, Oklahoma Seminole, and Pawnee. His interest in these people varied from group to group. With some he carried out general culture studies; with other, special studies of such phenomena as ceremonies, art, dance, and music. For some, he was interest in environmental adaptation and land use, the latter particularly for the Pawnee, Yankton Dakota, Plains Ojibwa, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and Ponca, for which he served as consultant and expert witness in suits brought before the United Stated Indian Claims Commisssion. A long-time museum man, Howard was also interested in items of Indian dress, articles associated with ceremonies, and other artifacts. He was "a thoroughgoing participant-observer and was a member of the Ponca Hethuska Society, a sharer in ceremonial activities of many Plains tribes, and a first-rate 'powwow man'." (
As an archeologist, Howard worked at Like-a-Fishhook Village in North Dakota, Spawn Mound and other sites in South Dakota, Gavin Point in Nebraska and South Dakota, Weston and Hogshooter sites in Oklahoma, and the Fortess of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. He also conducted surveys for the Lone Star Steel Company in Haskall, Latimer, Le Flore and Pittsburg counties in Oklahoma.