In today’s blog post, I thought that I would lead my readers on a guided tour of a small sampling of the Wolfsonian’s ample world’s fair materials, ruminating over the depiction of Native Americans at those venues.

Celebrating the four hundred year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois aimed to demonstrate to the world that the United States had evolved from native “primitivism” to the highest stage of “civility.” Columbia’s Courtship, a book of color plates designed by Walter Crane, for example, used romanticized images of an Indian maiden to represent the young American nation. But by the end of the allegory the Indian maiden has been replaced by a fair-skinned Miss America in patriotic dress being conducted by Chicago to the world’s fair.

To establish the contrast between savagery and civilization, the fair organizers not only erected a monumental neo-classical “white city” full of modern marvels and wonders, but also commissioned statuary of Native Americans and exhibited living “tribal” peoples as proof of just how far the nation had “evolved.”

While anthropologist Franz Boas had been called in to organize the ethnographic displays, he later complained about feeling that he had been asked to take on the role of a circus impresario.

If Boas felt as if his educational displays had been reduced to entertainment, he would probably have been just as uncomfortable visiting the Buffalo Bill Wild West Exhibition which employed more than 200 Indians in its theatrical recreation of the conquest of the West.

The manner in which Indian people were presented at this particular World’s Fair was not atypical of the way natives (and other colonized people) were depicted in the artwork and human zoos in other international expositions. In the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, for example, much of the statuary of these “stone-age” natives showed them either as blood-thirsty savages eager to scalp their hapless victims, or as tragic—and inevitably doomed—noble savages heading down a trail that led only to extinction.


THE SCALP                               END OF THE TRAIL

Boas’ protégé, Alfred Kroeber, who had won anthropological fame as the self-appointed caretaker of Ishi, the last “wild” Indian in California, decided he wanted no part of the exposition’s “amusement concessions” and instead took a sabbatical to live among the real Zuni Indians in New Mexico. Undaunted, the fair organizers of the International Panama-California Exposition in San Diego (1915) erected a simulated village of cliff dwelling Indians in the midway Zone just outside the official fairgrounds.

Ironically, Ishi accepted an invitation to attend the fair as guest of honor of the Blackfeet delegation. Arriving in style in a friend’s brand new automobile, the “wild man” Ishi dressed in his Sunday best and stood in stark contrast to the painted, feather bonneted Blackfeet Indians who had been recruited as “exotics” intended to promote the Great Northern Railroad’s route to Glacier National Park. (Click on the link below to see a photograph of the meeting)

The Great Northern Railroad would continue the tradition of using images of Indians to promote their route, hiring the German-American artist Winold Reiss to create culturally sensitive illustrations of the Blackfeet to adorn their promotional calendars in the 1930s.

The aptly titled A Century of Progress International Exposition held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934 left no doubt as to how the fair organizers perceived the changes wrought in the land once the aboriginal inhabitants were “removed” from the vicinity of Chicago. Not unlike the imagery used in the late nineteenth century Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the publications produced for the Century of Progress Exposition also made use of Indian faces and statuary. One such book placed the head of a bonneted chief behind that of a woman representing the new America, while another souvenir album placed an equestrian Indian statue in the foreground, with neo-classical and modern architectural motifs taking the viewer from past to present.

Another publication reinforced such notions by picturing skyscrapers soaring out of the ground just behind old Ft. Dearborn, all the while dwarfing a statue of an Indian—all that remains of the native people who once called Chicago their home.

Such a picture, of course, belies the fact that many Native American men participated in the construction of those self-same skyscrapers, walking along and welding the metal girders many stories above the ground their ancestors once tread.

~ by "The Chief" on June 28, 2011.


  1. Este interesante block muestra como, en nombre del progreso, perdimos nuestra original identidad con la naturaleza.

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