“How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong and wrong look like right” -- Black Hawk, Sauk.
Presenting a spectacular final product, forces built an entirely new “city” within the already - though just recently - established city of Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. That year, the famous World’s Fair would take place in the middle of the vast United States, within the newly developing Trans-Mississippi region. From the grand opening ceremony on June 1st, all the way to the conclusion of the event on November 1st, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 proved an astounding success. During a time of widespread business depression and confronting war abroad, the fair boasted two million paid entrances and managed to pay back its stockholders at a rate of 90-95%.1 Though an overall impressive display of national wealth and progress, the most striking aspect of the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition of 1898, contradicted in fact this image of idealized western civilization. Held in tandem with the Exposition, the overwhelmingly popular Indian Congress of 1898 exemplified the hypocrisy of the United States’ relationship with Native Americans during this period by presenting a living exposition of Native Americans from various tribes. Examining on one hand the stolid official photographs of the Indian Congress taken by Frank A. Reinhardt, the reception of the Indian Congress by the general public, and on the other hand the governmental policies ruling Native Americans, it becomes evident that the position of Native Americans was unstably fluctuating within realms of violent assimilation but also commodity fetishism. Although the individuals themselves as well as their cultural traditions were objectified and gawked at by fairgoers, it is crucial to explore the way Native Americans wielded autonomy through the
1 Mooney, James. Indian Congress at Omaha, pg 128
hypocrisy of the Indian Congress in putting on display exactly those “savage” cultures that the United States was vehemently suppressing. Native Americans thus used the Indian Congress as an opportunity to celebrate their culture during arguably one of the most extreme periods of assimilation in the United States.
Spanning 184 acres of land in the young city of Omaha, Nebraska, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 was ambitious considering Omaha was barely 44 years old at the time, and far different compared to the international cities that had hosted previous World’s Fairs. As the recently established Midwest was still growing at the time of the fair, predictably, its overarching goals were to boost the local economy and establish the region as an important hub of development within the United States. World’s Fairs were all about flaunting the progress and escalation of civilization in various realms -- and the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition flowed from the same vein. Nearly all of the diverse displays emphasized this aspiration towards progress and the brilliance of (western) civilization. Where those of the then considered “lower races” fit into this image surfaces as a complicated question.
The unsophisticated conclusion is that non-white, non-western, or colonized people simply did not fit into the ideal of western civilization of the time. This is manifested through public visual displays, like the sketch made by Thomas Rogers Kimball for the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition (Figure 1). Two Native Americans peer from a high cliff towards a glowing city: Omaha and the Exposition grounds. These two geographical entities are ideologically separated, symbolized by their being physically divided by a river-filled gorge. Native Americans were considered contemporary ancestors, relics of the past, evident through Putnam’s statement that “...these people, as great nations, have about vanished into history, and
now is the last opportunity for the world to see them and to realize what their own condition, their life, their customs, and their arts were four centuries ago.”2. As elements of the less evolved past, he implies, it was only natural for them to fade away. This lack of evolution is shown in the sketch through the stark contrast of the Exposition grounds with the Native Americans. The two Native American figures are rendered on untouched scraggly soil, wearing traditional clothing that still leaves one of them half naked, while the city of Omaha shines incandescently with technological and architectural innovation. At first glance this divide seems untraversable, yet upon more detailed observation one notices a slim bridge over the river which intimates the possibility of connection. Contemporary attitudes are represented through this physical link: the government in particular believed that Native Americans have the potential to cross that expanse and reach that “higher” ground, but only through a certain course which involved rigorous assimilation. However, the alternative - where they turn their backs on progress and disappear - is still possible. Such visual representations rendered very blatant the generally accepted outlook on Native Americans throughout the United States.
Social darwinism was making strong headway during the late nineteenth century, and indisputably shaped this outlook. (Pseudo) scientific theories on racial hierarchies were ingrained through popular culture, education, and governmental initiatives. Ethnography and anthropology were concurrently becoming more grounded in “science”, emerging as serious areas of interest concerning human history and evolution. Growing along with these fields were living ethnographic exhibits - stemming from precedents such as freakshows, living groups, and live exhibits of non-white people.3 Utilizing living humans became increasingly popular for
2 Griffiths, Alison. Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology & Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture. Pg 79 3 Griffiths, Wondrous Difference. Pgs 50-59
furthering agendas of scientific racism, imperialism and forced assimilation, along with providing entertainment for the everyday spectator.
Living exhibits were considered effective educational tools for spreading these ideas. Much the same as elaborate physical displays within World’s Fairs, they were another form of visual material that acted as an object lesson from which viewers could extrapolate information. One of the most famous living exhibits in all of World’s Fairs was the Indian Congress, held in tandem with the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898. For four months, hundreds of Native Americans lived and performed on a four acre-wide stretch of land in the northern edge of the fairgrounds. Each day they were on a figurative and literal stage, open to huge audiences that flocked each day to the encampment. In line with the development of scientific human studies, the Indian Congress was originally conceived as a serious ethnographic display grounded in science, to educate the public on Native American customs, traditions and lifestyles. Organizer Edward Rosewater originally requested the inclusion of all tribes within North and South America in order to provide a sweeping survey of all Native Americans in the western hemisphere.4 This Congress would provide a valuable space for ethnographers to study and document these cultures, but also would grant the fair’s visitors the opportunity to learn about Native Americans and catch a last glimpse of this dying race.5
In the late nineteenth century, Native American populations were on the decline, and most citizens of the United States were aware of this diminishing. Largely due to government actions, this disappearance was even considered natural, due to their purported low status on the evolutionary scale. This rhetoric with its roots in salvage ethnography created a documentary
4 Katz, Wendy Jean, ed. The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899. Pg 263 5 Ibid. 263
style that dominated the Indian Congress, which is most evident through the images produced by one of the Exposition’s official photographers, Frank A. Rinehart. Throughout the span of the Indian Congress, he captured photographs of Native Americans’ lives in the encampment. These photographs are reminiscent of those from ethnographic studies of the time, and highlight the documentary purpose which relegates Native Americans into a people of a static culture. Like the image of Black Foot, Standing Bear and Big Eagle (Figure 2), most photographs centrally pose the Native Americans in front of their encampments or in front of studio backgrounds. Here, three men in traditional clothing stand stoically in front of three tipis, the central figure in a 3⁄4 profile while the two that flank him stand directly facing the camera. Their stiff poses and steady bodies transcend the photographic medium, producing a statue-esque aura. Such posture keeps the men decidedly distant from the viewer, as if they only exist in that specific moment. In Rinehart’s photographs, Native Americans are rendered stuck in time with no envisioned future, simply kept in the past where most thought they should stay. These photographs highlight the fact that Native Americans were present at this fair not for themselves, but in the service of the government, “scientists”, and white fairgoers.
Notable in this photograph along with the entire collection is the clothing. Here, all three men are dressed in traditional garments representative of the tribe they belong to. When the organizers of the Indian Congress were contacting tribes to gather participants, they ordered the Native Americans to bring with them traditional clothing, tools, and materials to build their specific type of housing. The organizers wanted the participating Native Americans to use the most “primitive” ways of living, so as to display what they considered the most authentic (read “savage”) customs. Exaggerating the way Native Americans were “uncivilized” because of these
customs was a way to highlight the already assumed inferiority of Native Americans and therefore impossibility of them fitting into American society. Unfortunately for the organizers, these traditions were already fading fast, and tribes throughout the United States responded tepidly to this call for participation in the Indian Congress.6
Native American tribe members were reluctant to relocate to Omaha, Nebraska for over six months in the middle of the harvest season and consequently busiest time of year. The fair was not of particular importance to them, and it would disrupt their daily lives without significant reward. This reluctance along with financial and legislative complications dramatically set back organizers in constructing a successful Indian Congress; becoming desperate, they realized that the Indian Congress would have to be largely held on the Native Americans’ accord and asked them what it would take to gather participants.7 Native Americans requested payment, as well as supplementary funds in order to fashion traditional clothing and gather housing material as was instructed by fair officials, since these were hard to come by on reservations. Additionally, delegates said they must be able to arrive not at the opening of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, but when they individually chose to, in order to wait until most of the harvest season concluded. All of these conditions were met, and the Indian Congress began only on August 4, 1898, two months past the Exposition’s opening date. Unable to receive enough funding or governmental support, the scope of the exhibition had to be cinched from the original concept; only 25 tribes sent delegates and mostly represented Plains tribes, though this summed up to a still significant 500 individuals. With the opening of the Indian Congress, visitors flocked to get their last glimpse of this dying race, but they were not
6 Clough, Josh. “Vanishing” Indians? Cultural Persistence on Display at the Omaha World’s Fair of 1898, pg 71 7 Ibid. page 72
enraptured with what they saw. The reception of the Indian Congress fell flat in comparison to what officials had hoped. Audience members were not stimulated by the encampments and the boring everyday activities of the tribe members. The round wigwam built by the Sac and Fox delegates, adobe compound of the Pueblos, and the grass lodge of the Wichitas stirred heightened interest, but since most of the tribes were Plains tribes, they used tipis for housing, which most visitors were already familiar with.8 To many serious ethnographers and anthropologists’ dismay, fair officials resolved this tepid outcome by actively reshaping the Indian Congress into an entertainment exhibit in order to attract larger, more enthusiastic crowds.9
In this context, early in the life of the Indian Congress, officials decided to add components not previously envisioned for the exhibit. Native Americans were made to perform established ceremonial dances, like the Ghost dance, along with sham battles that reenacted the violent confrontations between Native Americans and US troops. Such performances called to mind very recent battles like Wounded Knee in 1890, and similar confrontations were still occurring on the reservations. Both of these played into the trope of the ‘wild’ and ‘untamed savage’ of Native Americans, branding them as dangerous, violent and incapable of integrating with western society. Also documented by Rinehart throughout the span of the Congress, these acts further supported the prevailing theories of racial hierarchies, acting as evidence of Native Americans’ inferiority. Sham battles placed the violent physical erasure of Native Americans in a positive and entertaining light, normalizing it to white audiences and glorifying their erasure. Rinehart’s image of a sham battle (Figure 3) shows how realistic they were: gun smoke fills the air, and the bodies of Native Americans lay strewn across the ground. Others are in positions
8 Clough. “Vanishing” Indians? pg 74
9 Etzel, J. Brent. “A Serious Ethnological Exhibition”: The Indian Congress of the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition of 1898.
ready for attack, with many individuals still left to battle. The thus emphasized savagery and backwardness of Native Americans was even more underscored due to their juxtaposition with the whirring world of technology and the westward march towards civilization presented by the overall image of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
It is easy to see that the organizers of the Indian Congress wanted to present the most primitive image possible of Native Americans. Interestingly, the ideal Native American type that they desired for the fair was nearly impossible to find still existing in the country. During the late nineteenth century, some of the harshest assimilation practices in United States history were imposed upon Native American populations. Policies like the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 resulted in forced relocation onto reservations, along with the fragmentation of tribal land into individual plots, with leftovers presented to white settlers. At their core, such policies strove towards dissolution of tribal societies and disruption of tribal unity through individualization of land. Traditional tribal clothing was largely banned, along with rights to perform ceremonies or speaking languages other than English. Children were placed in boarding schools, and missionaries were sent to the reservations to Christianize and “civilize” the populations, enforcing government policies. The Peace Policy of 1869 to 1882 called upon religious commissions to work on reservations and “civilize” the populations through the institution of Christian religion and suppress any other religions. The US government saw forced assimilation as the only way for Native Americans to “evolve” and be integrated into white society. Assimilation projects particularly attacked ceremonial practices like the Ghost Dance, which was actively developing in the late 1880s to the early 1890s.
Stemming from a revered messiah within the Native American community, the Ghost Dance centered around the return of ancestors to Native lands and the restoration of tribal lands and unity. Like other ceremonial customs, it truly alarmed white settlers as well as the US government. People feared it, wrongly interpreting it as inciting violence and insurrection. News and literary sources sensationalized this dance, framing it as evidence of the rising militancy of the Lakota Sioux, in whose community it grew the most significantly. The Ghost Dance brought people together, and the collective identity of Native Americans was particularly feared by white Americans and their government. It also countered apparent attempts to civilize them, as Minister of Interior Henry Teller scathingly remarks that “...if it is the purpose of the government to civilize the Indians, they must be compelled to desist from the savage and barbarous practices.”10 Its repression was vigorously pursued through government initiatives and reservation administrations - in 1883, all ceremonial dances were banned on reservations - and it even lead to extremely violent confrontations like the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Paradoxically, Native Americans were specifically asked to perform these ceremonies during their time in the Indian Congress of 1898.
As the Ghost Dance in particular became an integral component of the Indian Congress, it was, just as the sham battles, documented through Rinehart’s photographs. Looking at “Ghost Dance” (Figure 4), one can see the large crowd of Native Americans gathered on the grass, all donning traditional clothing and headdresses. Some members of the crowd hold distinct objects as they clear an opening for one central individual, a man clad in all white who steps forward, implying movement. Another figure at the right edge, along with the two leftmost figures, also
10 Dussias, Allison M. Ghost Dance and the Holy Ghost: The Echoes of Nineteenth-Century Christianization Policy in Twentieth-Century Native American Free Exercise Cases. Page 788
seem to be in motion. As the title of the photograph explains, they are engaged in performing the Ghost Dance. In this instant, maybe just a few individuals are actively moving, the rest joining in later and going through the scripted motions. Either way, many such moments of the ceremonial dances were captured by Rinehart, and concurrently enjoyed by the onlooking crowds. The fairgoers enjoyed this entertainment and were enraptured by the dances, which, like most aspects of the Congress, satisfied their stereotypes of Native Americans’ savage customs and violent trends. Whereas within their daily lives at home many white Americans were repulsed by Native American culture and thought of its erasure through forced assimilation and the decline of their population as a natural phenomenon, they hypocritically flocked to these encampments on the outskirts of the TMIE in order to have fun observing these customs. While the government was relentlessly imposing extreme assimilation policies on reservations believing that the only way they could be allowed to live within American society was to adopt all the features of “western civilization”, it promoted this large Congress which actually flaunted these customs that the government was concurrently working so diligently to erase. Instead of the Native Americans that the government and other white people wanted within society - “peaceful”, “civilized” and westernized (or even simply, gone) - the opposite was desired by spectators and many organizers alike during the Indian Congress.
This contradiction highlights the rampant commodification and fetishism prevalent in most World’s Fairs. What was originally planned as a highly educational and “authentic” display of Native Americans to observe and document their cultures before their full disappearance, turned into a spectacle to entertain audience members. Native American bodies and traditions were used to bring in revenue and amusement, and the picture painted was not an accurate
representation of contemporary Native Americans and their situation. Organizers fed off of the mixture of hatred and fascination for Native Americans that the audience members felt. Through this flagrant contradiction, however, Native Americans were able to manipulate participation in the Indian Congress to their advantage.
True, being entrapped in an encampment to be gawked at daily by hundreds of visitors was by no means an enticing endeavor. However, Native Americans had considerable control over their role within the Indian Congress and used their performances to their advantage. As previously mentioned, they outlined multiple conditions to be met in order to be willing to participate. After the bulk of the harvest season had concluded, delegates from the tribes traveled to the Indian Congress, and were granted a pause from the oppressive atmosphere of reservation life. Given this opportunity, they were able to engage in traditional arts like beadwork and weaving, and even profit from it by selling their products during the TMIE. Participation in the Indian Congress allowed them to make an income through celebrating their cultures, enjoying the ability to practice traditions that had been vehemently suppressed on reservations. Native Americans were maybe not just willing to, but perhaps even looked forward to participating in activities like sham battles and ceremonial dances. Providing a sense of relief from the monotony of the encampment where there could be little activity to engage in, these events were considered wild spectacles for audience members. For Native Americans, however, it was also a celebration of their cultures, and evidenced their resilience during that time of brutal suppression. During sham battles, traditional skills like horseback riding was practiced, seen in another one of Rinehart’s images, labeled “Kiowa”, where three Native American men face the camera on large horses (Figure 5). Two women stand between them, and all five individuals hold long staffs of
spears as weapons, the three men also wielding long rifles, evidently in preparation for a battle performance. While back on reservations ceremonial dances were completely banned, here, people were actively requested to participate in these dances, allowing them to engage in cultural practices important to them. Enthusiasm for participation in the performance of their own culture was strongly seen in shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where Native Americans contested against restrictions in their participation for similar reasons. It is reasonable to assume similar enjoyment was drawn from the events in the Indian Congress. Over 25 tribes were present, and this gathering meant people that were usually isolated on distinct reservations could meet, live together, learn from each other, even exchange stories or information. Tribes interacted remarkably well, greeting each other with handshakes, ceremonial dances or songs of welcome whenever a new tribe would arrive at the Congress.11 In a complex environment, there were still many positive experiences and ways in which involvement in the Indian Congress was used to Native Americans’ advantage.
Native Americans thus had notable autonomy in shaping their involvement in the Indian Congress of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898, and derived significant meaning from their participation that was under the veil of a commodified spectacle catered towards white visitors. During one of the harshest periods of assimilation policy in the United States when most citizens feared traditional Native American customs and saw their slow disappearance as natural, these same citizens flocked to the Indian Congress where these customs were on full display through a performative lens. This extremely hypocritical nature of the Indian Congress allowed Native Americans a vector through which to celebrate their traditional arts and
11 “Vanishing” Indians? Pg 75
derive alternative meaning from a condescending exposition. In their own home, where one would expect they would be free to do what they wish, Native Americans were stifled and oppressed. When they traveled to Omaha in 1898, contradictorily, Native Americans were given more expressive liberty in a constructed exposition. Though physically caged in the performative Indian Congress, Native Americans altered this entrapment by utilizing the cultural freedom it granted and derived positive meaning from being able to fully engage in displaying, and thus preserving, their culture.
Figure 1: Thomas Rogers Kimball, sketch for the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, undated. Artwork in the public domain.
Figure 3: “Sham battle”, Frank A. Rinehart, 1898. Omaha Public Library.
Figure 5: “Kiowas”, Frank A. Rinehart Omaha Public Library
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