FAREWELL TO OUR WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY INTERN AND A GLIMPSE AT HER WORK ON WORLD’S FAIR INDIANS
As the fall 2012 semester comes to a close this December, we say farewell and thanks to one of our Florida International University history student interns, Jennifer Toyos. Ms. Toyos settled on a project of exploring the way that certain cultures and people were represented and even displayed as “exotic” exhibits at late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century world’s fairs and international exhibitions.
Focusing on the Midways, she examined pictorial representations of Native American peoples in particular as she created metadata links that now make many of these same images in our collection available to the public for the first time.
Her timing was fortuitous, as we received in the course of her internship an extremely rare item designed by Simon Pokagon, an assimilated Pottawattomie Chief, as a protest and rebuke to the organizers of the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893. Chief Pokagon noted that from the Indian perspective, the four hundred year anniversary of the arrival of Columbus was certainly nothing to celebrate. Here is her report:
As an FIU student intern and fellow book lover, I have had the pleasure of gaining access to the Wolfsonian Library’s prized rare book collection. Over the course of the past three months, I have spent my time researching world’s fair materials, particularly focusing on the ethnological exhibits presented in the midways—the amusement section of the fairs.
These infamous exhibits presented so-called “primitive” peoples in what fair directors called their “natural habitats.” In this light, these exhibits can even be looked at as a type of human zoo. Although numerous cultures were presented in these exhibits, I was particularly interested in the displays of Native American peoples.
American Indians and Eskimos were frequently presented as so-called savages.
The accomplishments of various tribes in realms such as agriculture, trade, social organization, and politics seemed to be completely ignored. This message was often subtly reinforced by the strategic placement of their humble dwellings in front of or adjacent to the more modern and stately American and European pavilions, contrasting the “civilized” with the “uncivilized.”
Most of the American Indian exhibits also tended to present Indians in “traditional” garb.
While many American Indian tribesmen did in fact hold on to their traditional ways of dress, there were a number of others who did not. Simply presenting men and women in this form of traditional apparel was an inaccurate representation of these peoples. Even in the nineteenth century, many had chosen—and others had been forced down the path of assimilation, beginning with their attire.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which ran concurrently with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, was particularly degrading. Intended as amusement, these shows re-enacted famous battles between cowboys and Indians. Although there were a number of these spectacles, the role of the American Indian was always the same; they were presented as howling savages and merciless torturers and murderers of women and children. Yet despite their roles as barbarians in these reenactments, it was always the Indians who lost the battle and the white man who triumphed.
This finale sent out an extremely powerful message. As historian Robert Rydell states in Fair America, these battles “…underscored the message that Indians were a race in decline whose only choices were to submit to white rule or to become extinct.”
With such a negative image attached to their names at the World’s Fairs, it was interesting to see an increasing number of American Indian tribes in attendance in later exhibitions. This was most likely due to the economic incentive gained by setting up these exhibits. However, not all tribes were content with the outcomes of the fair. The Alaskan Eskimos were said to have revolted during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Ten of the twelve Alaskan tribes set up at the fair were said to have been so unhappy with the outcomes of their participation that they set up camp elsewhere.
But perhaps most powerful of all these defying messages was Chief Simon Pokagon’s Red Man’s Greeting. Chief Pokagon was an assimilated Pottawattomi Indian whose ancestors had lived in vicinity of Chicago and had once dominated much of the Great Lakes region.
In an angry tract printed on birch bark paper, Pokagon complained: “In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world.”
Although the politically incorrect exhibits continued being displayed at the World’s Fairs, messages in opposition such as this one spoke volumes regarding the feelings of many Indians about the way indigenous peoples were being exhibited and portrayed.
~ by "The Chief" on December 6, 2012.
Posted in acquisitions, colonial propaganda, ethnohistory, exhibitions, FIU, FIU students, Florida International University, Florida International University students, History Department, international expositions, Midways, Wolfsonian, Wolfsonian library, Wolfsonian Library volunteers, Wolfsonian museum library, Wolfsonian-FIU library, World's fairs
Tags: "primitive" peoples, American Indians, amusements, assimilation, Buffalo Bill's WIld West Show, California Midwinter International Exposition (1894 : San Francisco), Chicago 1893, Chief Simon Pokagon, Civilized, Eskimos, ethnocentrism, ethnographic exhibits, human zoos, Indians, Indians of North America, indigenous peoples, Iroquois, Jennifer Toyos, Louisiana Purchase International Exposition (1904 : St Louis), metadata, Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915 : San Francisco), pavilions, Red Man's Greeting, Robert Rydell, Savage, savages, scalping, teepees, World's Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago), World's Fairs