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Research and Teaching Exhibitions in World History


Fair Representation? American Indians and the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition

David R.M. Beck



     In conjunction with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared that the frontier had closed. Arguments regarding the accuracy of his declaration aside, the seminal change it represented was an outcome of the American project of expansion from a small nation hugging the Atlantic seaboard to a transcontinental entity on the cusp of becoming the greatest world power. From a settler colonial or settler/indigenous perspective this project was achieved by the dispossession of the land's original inhabitants of the bulk of their real estate and resources. This ushered in an abrupt new era of history for American Indians who suddenly found themselves impoverished, with their populations and communities decimated.

     By the late nineteenth century American Indian economies across the continent, and indeed across the Americas, had been largely destroyed by a combination of imperial expansion and colonial and federal governmental policies. Indian communities were under severe assault on a number of fronts – economic, political, religious and social among them.

     As a result of these rapid transformations, American Indians sought new ways to assure their survival. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition offered economic opportunities to Indians, but their participation in the fair also caused a scramble among a variety of actors to take control of the Indian presence. As part of this competition, a variety of interests worked to create an identity for American Indians that would meet their own purposes.

     The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition brought American Indians and other indigenous peoples to Chicago to be put on display for the twenty seven million visitors who attended the fair. The participation of hundreds of indigenous people at the fair created a space where a battle over who would control their representation to the broader world took place. This battle both shaped and foreshadowed the imagery of Indians that the American public would accept for decades to come. Historians and cultural commentators have paid attention to this, but have thus far failed to give it the complex treatment that it deserves. Multiple actors, including Indians themselves, presented or attempted to present Indians and other indigenous peoples to multiple audiences at the fair. A study of the various efforts in Chicago can provide us with a broad understanding of the stereotypes that increasingly defined American Indians to the United States culture at large well into the twentieth century. Such study can also provide insight into the ways that American Indians tried to counter these inaccuracies that linger into the twenty-first century.

     The following questions are valuable to ask students to consider: When studying this time period and these issues, who controlled the definition of American Indians at the end of the nineteenth century? How did American Indians view their place in the rapidly changing world? How did Indians want the United States citizenry and policy makers to view them? To what extent were American Indians successful in defining who they were to these constituencies? What was the extent of Indian agency and how did Indian successes and failures at self-definition impact the roles defined for them in their new world?

American Indians and the Exposition

     In 1893, in the words of scholar Carl Smith, Chicago put on the "most successful of all world's fairs" – the World's Columbian Exposition.1 Nations from across the planet organized extensive displays to show themselves off to the world. They sent their best examples of everything from industry to agriculture to natural resources to the arts. Anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of visitors attended the fair every day to sate their curiosity about the rapidly changing world.2

     In some ways expositions such as this were the events that began to shrink the world by exposing fairgoers to both broadly diverse ideas and inventions and to far-flung peoples. Such exposure to exoticism was open to the masses in this best-attended of all fairs. The exotic ran the gamut from what was considered high civilization to what fairgoers and organizers viewed as primitive. American Indians were categorized among the "primitive." Hundreds of American Indians, and numerous other indigenous peoples, came to Chicago in 1893 to participate in the festivities, both on and off of the fairgrounds.

     Most American Indians who came to the fair came to work, although a small number visited as tourists or participated in other ways. Most of the literature describing Indians' participation at the fair focuses on either the ways in which they were presented, or to a lesser extent, the observations they made about the fair, Chicago, and Lake Michigan. The social meanings and implications of their representation and experiences provide valuable insights into the American and the Native American psyche of the late nineteenth century. This has been the subject of much of the study of the Indian presence at the fair.3 Numerous competing perspectives infused the efforts of those who were displaying Indians. For the most part they did not reflect Indian reality in the late nineteenth century. They did, however, help create and cement American cultural stereotypes about Indians that would both impede Indian efforts to succeed in modern America and help define the scholarly literature regarding the fair for a long time to come.

     American Indian realities in the late nineteenth century stood in stark contrast to American perceptions of Indians in many ways. As a consequence, representations of American Indians at the fair failed to give accurate perspectives to the American public regarding who Indians really were, and their role in the modern American cultural world. Some Indian people actively spoke out against this, while the actions of others remained misunderstood.

     The fair's organizers clearly showed their view of Indians with the printing of the Exposition's admission tickets. They sold tickets with four images on them: an Indian in headdress, an image of Columbus, one of George Washington and one of Abraham Lincoln. These were intended to portray "four epochs in the history of our country," according to one contemporary observer. The latter three represented European discovery of North America, the revolutionary break from England and the end of slavery. The image of the Indian was meant to show "that period when the country was entirely under the dominion of the savage."4 This perspective unabashedly consigned Indians to the distant American and human past.

     Scholarly works on the role of Indians at the fair have largely pursued a binary analysis. Following long-standing interpretations of American Indians, they describe the displays as depicting Indians either as primitivistic or, in relation to Indian school displays, progressive. This reflects the scholarly descriptions that largely held until the 1980s or 1990s of individual Indians as either traditional or progressive/educated. In part the literature on representation reflects the failure to account for the myriad and broad experiences of Indians who worked at the fair.

     In reality, the representations of American Indians at the fair fall into five categories: Indians as objects of science, Indians as assimilating into American society, Indians as romantic images and actors reflecting a bygone era, Indians as savage or wild representations of America's past, and Indians as they wanted themselves to be known and understood. These representations competed with each other in various venues both on and off the fairgrounds from May until November 1893, throughout the entire run of the exposition.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Portrait of U.S. Army veteran Cornelius Cusick (Tuscarora Indian), who collected material for Frederic Ward Putnam for the World's fair exhibits. This was an image of himself that he chose to share with friends. Photo from National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC, Record Group 94.  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Detail of illustration published in World's Fair Puck. Courtesy author.  

     Compare the portrait of Cornelius Cusick to the cartoon drawing. How are the American Indian people in these two images represented? What are the differences? What do these differences tell us about the ways in which American Indians would portray themselves versus the ways in which outsiders viewed American Indians? How does the American Indian reality differ from the societal perceptions of Indians, in these two images? What do these images tell us about American Indian versus societal views of the place of American Indians in a modernizing North America?

Science, Assimilation, and Romanticization

     Frederic Ward Putnam, a Harvard University anthropologist, took a two-year leave of absence from his job overseeing the Peabody Museum to develop the anthropological display at the exposition. This work included collecting Indian artifacts from throughout the western hemisphere and organizing a living ethnological village of American Indians from several different tribes in the United States and Canada that would be open to the public. Because the Office of Indian Affairs lacked the funding to organize the entire American Indian display for the fair, Putnam worked out a division of labor with Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan more than a year before the fair's opening. Putnam would oversee the ethnological and anthropological exhibits portraying the Indian of the past, while the government would develop a boarding school exhibit with live students and instructors to illustrate the American-sponsored path to the Indian future. Putnam hoped to provide "as thorough collections as possible" from the tribes "illustrating their method of life, their customs and manufactures." He wanted these to be "purely Indian in character," and instructed collectors to acquire objects that showed no European influence.5 This would ignore contemporary Indian community realities in an effort to show fairgoers idealized pre-Columbian lifeways of the peoples of the Americas.

     In describing the roles of the ethnological exhibit and the government school in relation to one another, Putnam said, "the purpose of the Ethnographical Exhibition is for scientific study of the Indian in his primitive life; and that the United States Government undertakes to represent the progress made by the Indian in education and civilization, thus completing their history up to the present time."6

     He intended that his ethnological village in conjunction with the displays on physical anthropology and archaeology in the anthropology building would provide a primitivistic baseline to contrast science and progress. The archaeological materials collected from across the hemisphere, and the models made of Mayan ruins and the Cave Dwellers exhibit, spoke of an ancient, prehistoric past. Putnam intended his ethnological village to reinforce that. Putnam was very conscious of the meaning and his use of the term prehistoric as predating Columbus's arrival in the hemisphere.7 He thought the Columbian Exposition an ideal venue to contrast the pre-Columbian with the modern world. His planning and collecting focused on representative pre-Columbian dwellings, tools, clothing, and artisan materials.

     Putnam and others spoke and wrote often of the scientific value of his displays. Some of the Indians who worked to collect materials for the fair also did so in order to help present Indians from a scientific perspective. Captain Cornelius Cusick hailed from a family that had strong connections to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and he viewed himself as an ethnologist. Cusick was a Tuscarora Indian, one of the tribes of the Iroquois confederacy, from New York. He was a leader within his tribe before he entered the United States Army. He did collecting work for Putnam. Terrill Bradby, a Pamunkey Indian man from Virginia who collected for the Smithsonian, viewed this work as scientific in basis. And George Hunt, the Kwakwaka'wakw Indian cultural mediator from the Northwest Coast, spent much of the rest of his adult life working with Franz Boas, and during the fair co-presented a scientific paper with him at the 1893 anthropological congress.

     The Smithsonian Institution developed its exhibits of mannequins dressed in various tribal attire, in village scenes, with a focus on science as well. However, it did not use living Indians as part of the exhibit. Curator of Ethnology Otis Mason organized his exhibit around John Wesley Powell's newly developed linguistic classification system. These exhibits would then be returned to Washington DC after the fair and put on display in the national museum.8 Mason's efforts to organize his displays based on "culture-area" and "life-group" represented "innovations" that would form the basis of future museum displays not only at the Smithsonian, but in natural history museums more generally.9

     The United States government's American Indian school house stood in close proximity to the ethnological village, an intended juxtaposition of imagery.10 The school was intended to portray the federal government's heroic efforts to assimilate children. The Canadian government created a similar school exhibit with the purpose of showing the successful efforts of both missionaries and government officials in their assimilation work. With this United States government exhibit, Morgan desired to contrast the so-called primitive with the civilized. He wrote that, nearby "will be the ethnological exhibit. . .  where Indian families, dressed in native costume, living in native dwellings and engaged in primitive occupations, will exemplify the conditions out of which the Indian schools are taking and transforming their pupils. The entire picture of barbarous and civilized life will thus be concretely presented."11

     Morgan had originally hoped to develop all of the fair's Indian exhibits, but soon discovered that budgetary restrictions would prevent this from occurring. The resolution to this problem was for the OIA to focus its exhibit on school children, and turn over the exhibition of aboriginal Indian life to Putnam. Morgan told the Secretary of the Interior that he was pleased to divide the work with Putnam, as "The curiosity of people to see Indians in their native habitations will be satisfied and the efforts of the Government for the bringing of them into civilized life concretely presented."12

     The United States exhibit brought groups of thirty school children from government and private schools for three weeks at a time, with the schools rotating in attendance. The children did school work, probably not very effectively, while visitors crowded around them in the cramped space of the school building. One visitor described seeing children from the Albuquerque Indian School. The girls sewed dresses by hand and machine, while the boys made harnesses and shoes, and learned carpentry.13

     The most famous boarding school operator of the time, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, refused to participate in the government school exhibit and went straight to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for permission to bring students from Carlisle Indian Industrial school to the fairgrounds to drill, parade, and play music. A contingent of five companies of Carlisle's students had participated in the dedicatory ceremonies in October 1892.14 A year later Pratt gained permission from the fair's authorities, on recommendation from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to bring four hundred and fifty Carlisle students to the fair for a week. The military-style training of Carlisle's students drew the enthusiastic support of the fair's leadership.15 Pratt also mounted a static display in the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building that critics panned. This included examples of student work and photographs, including one of Sioux student Jennie Thunder Bull.16

     Anthropologist George Dorsey also viewed the fair as an opportunity to provide this same contrast. The contrast for him, however, was not only a contrast among Indians, but also between races. Indians represented the human past; white Americans the modern world. He described the traditional manufacture work that living Indians would produce at the fair, and noted its distinction from modernization. "Their work will afford a very striking contrast to the work shown in the government Indian school, which will be in full operation close by. The illustration of primitive life will make more apparent the material progress made in America during the past four hundred years."17 Like casual observers, the anthropological community insisted on viewing Indians as peoples of the past, as anachronistic in modern America. In this way, Indians were best viewed juxtaposed to modernism, the opposite of what many Indians themselves believed or wanted the public to see.

     World's Columbian Exposition Illustrated, a popular magazine devoted entirely to publication of news of the fair, and that claimed a monthly readership of one and a half million, reinforced this perspective. "Almost under the eaves of the [United States government Indian] school the red man will be living in his tepee and in his hogan or hut, pursuing his native labors and pastimes," one article observed. "That is to say, the squaws will do the work while the bucks will look after the pastimes, clad in the fashion of the forest before government blankets came into use among them."18 The Indian village was to provide a foil to contrast not only the development of modern America, but also the work of missionaries and government school educators.

     Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west program was far and away the venue where fairgoers most saw Indians. It was located off of the fairgrounds because he was denied a spot by the exposition's organizers. But he leased land just to the west of the fair and many visitors assumed that his wild west show was part of the exposition. A vast literature has addressed Buffalo Bill's life and the role of Indians in his popular extravaganzas.19 The seventy-plus Lakota Indians from Pine Ridge who participated in the wild west program in Chicago portrayed themselves defending their homelands against the inevitable advancement of American civilization, but then making peace with their conquerors.20

     As historian L.G. Moses describes it, "In telling his story of the triumph of civilization over savagery," Cody "reminded his audiences that, where once Euro-Americans and American Indians had met as enemies, challenging each other for mastery of a continental empire, they must now live together as friends." His wild west program presented Indians as valiant, but unsuccessful, protectors of homelands who could stoically accept defeat. Cody presented Indians in this way to portray to the public "his self-proclaimed mission to 'bring the white and red races closer together.'"21 Cody put on more than 660 shows during the fair, and regularly sent his Indian performers to represent the romantic past at events across the fairgrounds.

     The Indians who worked for Buffalo Bill were easily the most visible at the exposition, despite the fact that they camped and performed outside of the fairgrounds. Because of this they played an important role in shaping the public's perceptions of who Indian people were. Most visitors who attended the fair had never seen any Indians in the flesh. The Lakota who worked for Buffalo Bill regularly wore their regalia in public, whether in the wild west show itself, in their camp which was regularly opened to visitors, or when on the fairgrounds attending special events. Cody viewed their visibility as an opportunity for free advertising. Since with a few exceptions the Lakota were not gregarious in their relations with outsiders, they gave fairgoers an image of stoic passivity. Together with their energetic antics during the wild west program, and the encampment tipis and campfires, they left most who saw them with the impression that they had seen "real" or representative Indians. Already plains Indians were viewed by the public as prototypical Indians, and those who worked for Buffalo Bill reinforced this perception.

     One of Cody's employees, Short Bull, even served as a model for a statue depicting a Potawatomi man, crafted by the famed sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith. The statue stood in or near downtown Chicago for many years. Rohl-Smith did not seem to think the Potawatomis looked Indian enough for public display.22 This perception was widespread. In hyping its own city's fair two years later, the Atlanta Constitution reported, "'At Chicago,' . . .  Buffalo Bill's show had been 'accepted as 'the key to all,' and was voted the most genuine of ethnological exhibits.'"23

Savage Images and Indian Realities

     In contrast to Cody's romanticized focus, the exhibits on the Midway Plaisance, a commercial avenue of curiosities that was part of the exposition grounds, titillated audiences by portraying Indians in a way that would strike fear into the audience, or at least make fairgoers shudder at the recent western American past. The American Indians and other Native peoples exhibited by entrepreneurs and business interests on the Midway Plaisance reflect yet another representation, that of barbaric, wild, untamed savagery. Drawings in World's Fair Puck present grotesque caricatures of the Native peoples exhibited on the Midway, including American Indians, South Sea Islanders, Arabs and Africans.24 The Indians on display on the Midway included Lakota individuals at Sitting Bull's cabin, a group of some sixty Ho Chunk (Winnebago), Potawatomi and Sioux, and a purported village of Aztecs from Mexico.

     The "Esquimau Village," a display of nine to twelve Inuit families from Labrador, while located separately from the Midway, was referred to as a Midway exhibit in some histories. One, a contemporary volume written by former Virginia Governor William Cameron, referred to "The Squalid Esquimaux" as "the quintessence of the great unwashed." Referring to the inhabitants of this display, he writes, "In their race characteristics they are a decided novelty. They occupy a class all alone. Indeed, they mark the boundary of the human growth in the North just as the stunted pines do at timber line."25 The Native people of the Midway were presented to fairgoers as examples of primitive savagery. Most visitors probably did not make distinctions among various Native groups throughout and in proximity to the fairgrounds. Most simply viewed Indians generically, as Indians, not as distinctive cultural groups, despite Putnam's efforts in his ethnological village. This was not, however, the way that American Indians viewed themselves.

     Interestingly, newspaper accounts of the representatives of the major tribes in Putnam's ethnological exhibit did not always report on the Indians at the fair as primitive or savage. In some cases, they presented them as advanced in western civilization and adapting well to the modern world. The Penobscots were described as Roman Catholic, speaking French and English, and being politically and economically independent in Maine based on their long history of interaction with their white neighbors. They worked in lumber camps and farms, leased their river front property to lumber barons for timber storage, and used universal suffrage to elect their own governor and lieutenant governor, their own council of chiefs, and a representative to the Maine legislature. The Penobscots who came to the fair and set up camp in Putnam's ethnological village were among the tribe's leaders.26

     The Kwakwaka'wakw (known as Kwakiutl at the time of the fair), a Northwest Coast tribal group from British Columbia, were also part of the ethnological village. A Chicago newspaper described them shortly after their arrival at the fairgrounds in April 1893 as Methodist or other Protestant rather than Episcopal or Catholic. The men hunted and fished for a living, the women farmed and gathered berries. Hundreds of women worked the canneries in the summer, according to James Deans, the agent who brought them to the fair. "A more honest people never lived," he said, "and their love of home and family would put many a civilized nation to the blush." The newspaper article opines, "There is nothing about them that suggests the Indian of the plains save their copper color. Simple in their modes of life, farmers as well as hunters, religious in their tendencies, and trustful of all men as they are themselves honest, they are a strong contrast to the treacherous and wily Sioux and bloodthirsty Apaches."27 Ironically, newspapers occasionally contrasted Indian groups to each other the way that fair organizers contrasted Indians to white America, to show the differences between "savagism" and "civilization."

     The Iroquois who exhibited themselves in the ethnological village were described as representatives of leading families in their various tribes. They too, like the Penobscot, were described as having long interacted politically with their non-Indian neighbors. One New York newspaper poked fun at the efforts to make the Indians seem to be from a past age. "These Indians will live in their original fashion, it is announced, the disinfectants to be supplied by the World's Fair Commission," according to a New York Herald story. But the article then went on to say, "The last observation must not be taken literally, of course, as these Indians from New York are really quite tame and very good fellows." The Herald's definition? "They read Bibles and newspapers and like true New Yorkers are ever ready to make sarcastic remarks about Chicago." A Chicago newspaper described the Iroquois evenhandedly upon their arrival, observing that "Civilized and engaged in agricultural and other peaceful pursuits they have retained their native language uncorrupted and have pride in their past achievements."28

     These stories hardly describe modern Indians as peoples of a pre-Columbian epoch. Richard Henry Pratt later complained to the Secretary of the Interior about this: "Whole families of educated Indians were paid to put themselves on exhibition daily in their old tribal garb."29 Instead, these sources describe people and communities that were adapting to the massive upheavals and changes around them. They were participating in the modern economy, and interacting with the non-Indian world around them. Each of the articles also describes features of traditional value systems and practices that still infused the tribal communities.

     While articles in this vein were rare, they were not the only indication that Indians' lives differed from the stereotypical images presented at the fair. Some Indians enthusiastically met new people at the fair and shared their experiences with them. A book of photos from the fair described Medicine Horse, who came as part of Buffalo Bill's cast, "different from the average Indian, [he] displays an apparent eagerness to talk. He is very interesting to listen to, and the information he gives regarding his people and the prospects of their civilization becoming more general, is of much interest and value."30 The records don't show any more than this about what Medicine Horse said, but clearly he wanted fair visitors to have a positive view of the place of American Indians, or at least Lakotas, in modern America.

     These stories did a better job reflecting the modern reality of the Indians who worked at the fair than did the fair's organizers. American Indians themselves made several efforts to control their representations to the public as well. Perhaps the individual most written-about has been the Potawatomi Simon Pokagaon. But other Indian people also made efforts to show the world who they were.

     It was purportedly after a visit to the Midway that Pokagan penned "The Red Man's Rebuke," which he retitled "The Red Man's Greeting." In it, he wrote that "we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair," describing the event as a celebration of "our own funeral, the discovery of America." He poignantly lamented that the trust and aid given by Indians to the white man had led to severe destruction for tribal communities and eradication of hope for future generations. When the publication of this document led to a relationship with Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Pokagon was invited to celebrate Chicago Day with the mayor. He also met with fair organizers, and emphasized the importance of countering the stereotypical views of Indians perpetuated by the Midway displays.31

     Pokagon had a deeper purpose than simply rebuking the fairgoers who would read his birch bark greeting. His lifelong quest, following the lead of his father Leopold Pokagon, was to gain recompense for the lands the Potawatomi had sold in 1833, but had not been fully paid for. The lands included Chicago; in fact, as a child Simon had accompanied his father to the treaty negotiations in what would become Chicago after the land was sold. He developed a friendship with Harrison at the fair, and the mayor promised to help him lobby Washington for remuneration. This never occurred, since the mayor was murdered before the fair's end.32

     Another Indian who came to the fair also did so strictly to advance the interests of his tribe. Terrill Bradby, a Pamunkey Civil War veteran from Virginia, was the uncle of the tribe's chief, C.S. Bradby. He had made pottery objects for the Smithsonian display at the behest of Otis Mason and later became a key collaborator with the ethnologist James Mooney.33 Through Mason, Bradby obtained an introduction from the Office of Indian Affairs and Putnam made him an "Honorary Assistant" in the Department of Ethnology, introducing him as the Pamunkey representative to other Indians on the fairgrounds, including Iroquois and Penobscot leaders.34

     Bradby made the trip in July, and his agenda was the revitalization of the Pamunkey tribe. Due to out-marriage, their numbers had dwindled to about 140. Before the trip to D.C. Bradby met with Virginia's governor, and presented him a peace pipe.35 He asked for and received a document certifying that the tribe had a reservation and recognition from the commonwealth of Virginia as holding title to the land. According to the Indian Chieftain of Vinita in the Indian Territory, he hoped to "induce a limited number of young and strong full-blood Indians of good character to settle on the Pamunkey reservation in Virginia and marry Pamunkey maidens." They would be offered good homestead land in exchange. His efforts do not seem to have been successful; when Frank Speck visited the Pamunkeys in 1919 he found ninety people on the reservation and some thirty others living nearby.36

     The Pamunkeys, like other southeastern tribes, struggled to maintain an identity in a Jim Crow state. They had to constantly prove to the outside world that they were distinct from both their black and white neighbors, walking a perilous tightrope. Sometimes this meant adopting an "Indian" imagery that the white population found acceptable.37 They were further challenged by their declining numbers. Bradby, like Pokagon, was a visitor to the fair, not a performer or laborer. Viewed together, their efforts in Chicago in 1893 representing their tribes' interests provide a small window into the legal, political and cultural conditions and challenges faced by Indians in this era of intense assault upon their communities.

     Some American Indians who performed and worked at the fair also did so because their work provided them with opportunities to carry forward cultural activities that were under attack, and in some cases even banned, in their homelands. Linda McNenly writes, "When government assimilation policies forbade ceremonies and dances on reservations, patriotic events, holidays, fairs and Wild West shows provided a context in which warrior songs and dances could hide in plain sight. . .  While Wild West shows were celebrating white society's ultimate victory, Native performers may well have been singing about their own bravery and victories."38

     Even before the fair opened, Henry Standing Bear, of the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota, along with several allies protested the roles that it became increasingly evident that Indians would play. Interestingly, he wanted the fair to focus on the assimilation efforts that Indians themselves were making. In an 1891 letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morgan, he proposed that the federal government should pay for tribal elders ("old chiefs") to attend the fair in order to see the value of civilizing influences on Indians. The Columbian Exposition would provide "a grand opportunity to show them why you have taken from them their hunting land and why you are trying to take away from them their paints, feathers and blankets, and make them give up their dances of every kind," he wrote.

     But Standing Bear also wanted the public to see Indians as real people, not stereotypes. He told the commissioner, "they want to come as men and not like cattles driving to a show. Before the public they want to bring some impression that they are men and respectable, If they should come to the Fair. . . . They do not wish Buffalo-Bills or some government scout or any other that party [sic] who will missrepresent [sic] our race."39

     Putnam also made forceful statements in opposition to wild west representations of Indians, which in part is why Buffalo Bill was forced to lease space off of the official fairgrounds for his show. Standing Bear and friends of his wrote to Putnam in 1892 supporting his position:

     "In the name of the Nations of the Indian Territory; of the Dakotah Indian Nation; of the Six Nation Indians of New York; and of the Latin-Indian Nations of the North and South, permit us to extend you the assurance of our appreciation of your public announcement, that in the reunion of the Nations of the earth at the World's Columbian Exposition, the perpetration of any Wild West show at the expense of the dignity and interest of the Indian Nations will, by you, be neither encouraged nor countenanced."40

     In late 1892 Emma Sickels reported that an Indian uprising would occur because of dissatisfaction with the Indian exhibits, but the Office of Indian Affairs denied this and no other evidence of it exists.41 Clearly, though, some Indians were upset with their portrayal at the fair, and Simon Pokagon's articulate rebuke conveyed the disappointment that many tribal members felt. For them, the fair provided a missed opportunity to shape public perceptions of American Indians in the contemporary context.

     Other groups of Indians hoped to have their own exhibits at the fair. These included the "five civilized tribes" (Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole) of Indian Territory (which would later be incorporated into Oklahoma), who asked to have their own display.42 A brass band consisting of members of the Santee Sioux tribe of Nebraska asked to be brought to the fair to perform.43 Both groups were denied permission by the fair's organizers. The Osage tribe of Oklahoma paid the way for thirty students from the Osage Boarding School to be part of the U.S. government education exhibit.44

     These groups and others hoped to participate in the fair on their own terms, to show the world that they were not prehistoric peoples or wild west show caricatures. They wanted the fair's visitors to know that they were very much a part of the modern world. Very few succeeded. They had varying motivations and goals. Though their statements and efforts proved largely ineffectual, they nonetheless signify strong opposition to the representations that would permeate the fairgrounds.


     The competition for representation of Indians was won by several parties – including Putnam, Cody, the United States Indian Service and the Smithsonian – but not by Indians themselves. Indians were viewed at the fair, and would be for a long time into the future, in various binary forms: romantic or savage; primitive or progressive; backward or educated. American Indians walked a fine line in terms of their representation, and individual attitudes and actions varied among Indians. Some were willing to do whatever it took to make a living. Some simply hoped for fun and adventure. Some used the imagery they donned as a method to perpetuate cultural practices that were banned at home in this era of forced assimilation. And others took the opportunity to use their public appearances as a platform to advocate for change.

     Indians were not viewed by outsiders on their own terms, striving to make their way in the modern world while maintaining traditional values. The Indians who spoke out against the ways in which they were represented at the fair garnered a modicum of attention, but the representations identifying Indians as scientific specimens, as assimilating into modern white society, and as romantic or savage remembrances of the past controlled the narrative of Indians at the fair. These four images would continue to misrepresent Indians in the American mind. And they would continue to be the images which Indians would fight to change for generations to come.

     The experiences of American Indians at the 1893 world's fair can be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. Many of the fair's visitors were newly immigrated to the United States and had their first experience observing Indians at the fair. Indians themselves largely viewed the American visitors, whether new to the country or not, simply as Americans. Students ought to consider the variety of goals of American Indians in terms of their own representation, the goals of the various groups representing Indians to the larger public, and the ways in which students think that the public perceived Indians. All of these questions can be raised in relation to the shift in American society from a rural to an increasingly industrial nation. The United States was on the verge of becoming the foremost world power. It is worth questioning how the nation reconciled its past with its future, and the people that were consigned to its past (American Indians) with the reality of their place in the rapidly changing world.

David R. M. Beck is professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana, in Missoula. He is co-author with Rosalyn R. LaPier of City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893–1934 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), and author of several books on American Indian history. His current book project focuses on American Indians who worked at and for the World's Columbian Exposition. Research funding that supported this article was provided by Humanities Montana and various University of Montana funds and offices. He can be reached at


1 Carl Smith, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2006), 19.

2 Chicago Day, October 9, drew the largest crowd at 716,881 – more than double the attendance of any other day at the fair. William E. Cameron, ed., History of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Columbian History Company, 1893), 343.

3 See, for example, Chapter 2 of Rosalyn R. LaPier and David R. M. Beck, City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893–1934 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015); Raymond D. Fogelson, "The Red Man in the White City," in David Hurst Thomas, ed. Columbian Consequences, The Spanish Borderlands in Pan-American Perspective, vol. 3 (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 7390; Ira Jacknis, "Northwest Coast Indian Culture and the World's Columbian Exposition," in David Hurst Thomas, ed. Columbian Consequences, The Spanish Borderlands in Pan-American Perspective, vol. 3. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 91118;" Robert W. Rydell, All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 3871; L. G. Moses, "Indians on the Midway: Wild West Shows and the Indian Bureau at World's Fairs, 18931904," South Dakota History 21 no.3 (1991), 20529.

4 J. B. Campbell, ed., Campbell's Illustrated History of the World's Columbian Exposition In Two Volumes (Chicago: J. B. Campbell, 1894), vol. 1, 291.

5 Putnam to Antonio, an Apache, May 13, 1892, Folder A, Box 31, HUG 1717.2.12, Papers of Frederic Ward Putnam, Harvard University Archives (hereafter FWP Papers HUA).

6 Putnam to Commissioner of Indian Affairs D. M. Browning, May 16, 1893, Folder World's Columbian Exposition, Indians, etc., Box 34, HUG 1717.2.13, FWP Papers HUA.

7 Putnam referred to "prehistoric," a term created in 1851 in studies of Scotland, as "that most useful word." Frederic Ward Putnam, "A Problem in American Anthropology," Science 243 (August 25, 1899), 227.

8 Otis T. Mason, "Report on the Department of Ethnology in the U. S. National Museum, 1891," Folder Dept. of Ethnology Annual Report 189091; Otis T. Mason, "Report on the Department of Ethnology in the U. S. National Museum, 1892," Folder Dept. of Ethnology Annual Report 189192, both in Box 3 Department of Ethnology Annual Reports 1881 to 1894_1895, SIA RU 000158, Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). For a list of the eighty Smithsonian display sets, some with more than one individual featured, and including tribe, along with descriptions of clothing and objects in the displays, see C. Bergmann, "List of Figures and Costumes," MS 7217, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

9 Jacknis, "Northwest Coast," 9596.

10 However, the two exhibits were not as close together as Morgan had initially hoped. Moses, "Indians on the Midway," 21314.

11 Morgan to Supt. Indian School, February 11, 1893, Volume 8, Part 1, 387, Correspondence Miscellaneous Division, Letters Sent (LS) 18701908, Entry 96, Record Group (RG) 75, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC (NARA-DC).

12 Morgan to Secretary of the Interior, February 10, 1892, Folder Feb. 10, 1892, Letters Received, RG 48, NARA-College Park, Maryland (CPM).

13 Moses, "Indians on the Midway," 21012; Mary E. Chase Diary entry, May 27, 1893, The Newberry Library.

14 Dedicatory and Opening Ceremonies of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Stone, Kastler & Painter, 1893), 246.

15 Minutes of September 12, 1893, Council of Administration Minutes, Volume 50, World's Columbian Exposition records, Chicago History Museum Research Center.

16 Lee D. Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 1012; Mary E. Chase Diary entry, May 30, 1893, The Newberry Library.

17 George A. Dorsey, "Man and His Works," The Youth's Companion World's Fair Number (1893), 27.

18 "Interior Department Exhibit," The World's Columbian Exposition Illustrated 2:12 (February 1893), 273. "Squaw" was a term commonly applied to American Indian women. It is, however, a derogatory term no longer in common use.

19 Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005); Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000); Vine Deloria, Jr., "The Indians," in Brooklyn Museum of Art, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West (Philadelphia: The Brooklyn Museum [Distributed by University of Pittsburgh Press], 1981), 4556; Moses, "Indians on the Midway;" Sam Maddra, "American Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West," in Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, Gilles Boëtsch, Éric Deroo, Sandrine Lemaire and Charles Forsdick, trans. Teresa Bridgeman, Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); Linda Scarangella McNenly, Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); Don Russell, The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960); Henry Blackman Sell and Victor Weybright, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West (Basin WY: Big Horn Books for Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1979); Nellie Snyder Yost, Buffalo Bill: His Family, Friends, Fame, Failures, and Fortunes (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1979) are just some examples.

20 The contracts with the Lakota individuals who worked for Cody are located in Entry 91, Letters Received (LR) 1891:11979, RG 75, NARA-DC.

21 Moses, "Indians on the Midway," 2067.

22 LaPier and Beck, City Indian, 12.

23 Rydell, All the World's a Fair, 97.

24 See for examples, July 10, 1893, No. 10, back page; Courtship, September 4, 1893, No. 18, back page; cartoon of "Zulu" and little Girl, October 16, 1893, No. 24, 278; "Puck's Au Revoir," October 30, 1893, No. 26, 3067.

25 William E. Cameron, The World's Fair, Being a Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition. (Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago: Home Library Publishing Company, 1893), 647.

26 "Before Colon Came, Primitive Life Among the North American Indians," Chicago Inter Ocean, July 9, 1893, 20. The Penobscots sent a representative to the Maine Legislature, with a mid-twentieth century hiatus, until 2015 when the tribe discontinued the practice: Kevin Miller, "Tribal Representatives withdraw from Maine Legislature as rift with state grows," Portland Press Herald, posted May 26 updated May 27, 2015. Accessed online by the author June 29, 2015.

27 "Simple as Children, Indians from British Columbia Arrive at Jackson Park," Chicago Times, April 16, 1893, Box 1, HUG 1717.15, FWP Papers HUA.

28 "Strange Races of Primitive Men, Professor Putnam's Exhibit of Ethnology That Includes Red People Living in a State of Nature," New York Herald, April 30, 1893, Box 1, HUG 1717.15, FWP Papers HUA; "Famous Indians Arrive," Chicago Inter Ocean, June 29, 1893, 7.

29 Pratt to Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, May 21, 1913, in John William Larner, ed., The Papers of Carlos Montezuma, M.D., including the Papers of Maria Keller Montezuma Moore and the Papers of Joseph W. Latimer (Wilmington DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1974), reel 3. Also quoted in LaPier and Beck, City Indian, 22.

30 Photographs of the World's Fair (Chicago: The Werner Company, 1894), 347.

31 Cornelia Steketee Hulst, Indian Sketches, Pere Marquette and the Last of the Pottawatomie Chiefs (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1918), 9395; Charles S. Winslow, ed., Indians of the Chicago Region, (Chicago: Soderlund Printing Service, 1946), 1213; Chief [Simon] Pokagon, "The Red Man's Rebuke," (Hartford, Michigan: C.H. Engle, 1893); Chief [Simon] Pokagon, "The Red Man's Greeting," (Hartford, Michigan: C.H. Engle, 1893).

32 For a more complete description of this see LaPier and Beck, City Indian, 2529.

33 Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 20910; Hauptman, Between Two Fires, 75; "Pamunkey Indians and the World's Fair," letter to editor from Terrill Bradley, August 3, [1893], newspaper not identified, Box 2, HUG 1717.15, FWP Papers HUA.

34 "Pamunkey Indians and the World's Fair;" Rountree, Pocahontas's People, 210.

35 "Powhatan and Pocahontas," Indian Chieftan, Vinita, Indian Territory, July 20, 1893, 2; "The Pamunkey Indians," Alexandria Gazette, July 7, 1893, 2; "To Prevent Extinction, Pamunkies of Virginia Will Invite Other Indians to their Reserve," Arizona Republican, July 14, 1893, 1; "Chief Bradley [sic] Coming West, Special Mission to the Fair of a Leading Pamunkey Indian," Chicago Tribune July 17, 1893, 2; news item, The Progress (Shreveport LA), July 29, 1893, 3, reprinted in San Saba County News, August 4, 1893, 3 and partially reprinted in Iowa Postal Card, August 4, 1893, 6.

36 Rountree, Pocahontas's People, 215.

37 Rountree, Pocahontas's People, 21012.

38 McNenly, Native Performers in Wild West Shows, 82.

39 Standing Bear to Morgan, January 15, 1891, Folder S (2) E. Sickels, Box 33 P-Z, World's Columbian Correspondence A-Z, HUG 1717.2.12, FWP Papers HUA.

40 Honoré J. Jaxon, Secretary of the Metis National Council, Mato Nazin Cinca (Henry Standing Bear), Representative of the Dakotah Chiefs at Pine Ridge, and Manuel S. Molano, South American Secretary on the Ind. Rec. Com. to Putnam, February 15, 1892, Folder J, Box 32 D-O, World's Columbian Correspondence A-Z, HUG 1717.2.12, FWP Papers HUA.

41 "Miss Sickle's [sic] Statement Discredited." Decatur Daily Republican, November 4, 1892, 1.

42 Director General Davis to Edwin Willits, August 18, 1891, LR 1891:30682; Morgan to Davis, June 6, 1892, Volume 7, p. 2:73, Correspondence Miscellaneous Division, Letters Sent, 18701908, both in RG 75, NARA-DC.

43 Daniel Dorchester, Superintendent of Indian Schools, Redfield SD to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, July 6, 1891, enclosing petition from Santee Sioux Indians, LR 1891:24311; S. Draper, Attorney, to Senator Charles Manderson, February 22, 1892,LR 1892:12255; Newspaper article, "The Santee Indian Band, A Musician's Estimate of the Only Pure American Banh [sic] in the World." n.d. (ca. 1888?), reporting on a letter to the Lancaster PA New Era; "The Santee Band," Sioux City Journal, October 6, 1888. Both in LR 1892:12255, all in RG 75, NARA-DC.

44 Osage Council authorization of $1,800 to support children from the Osage Boarding School to attend the World's Fair. October 4, 1893, LR 1893:36996, RG 75, NARA-DC.

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