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  • Indians at the Corn Palaces:Race and Reception at Two Midwestern Festival Buildings
  • Travis E. Nygard (bio) and Pamela H. Simpson (bio)

In the late nineteenth century, fall harvest festivals took a peculiarly spectacular form in a number of Midwestern cities. Huge grain palaces, constructed of wood but covered inside and out with mosaics made from ears of corn and various colored grasses, became the centerpieces for the celebrations.1 Sioux City, Iowa, built five corn palaces between 1887 and 1891 (Figure 1). When floods prevented Sioux City from carrying out plans for another in 1892, Mitchell, South Dakota, took on the idea and, with a few interruptions, has had a corn palace ever since (Figure 2). Cities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas had their own versions as well. The extraordinary effort expended to erect these buildings required the cooperation of an entire community. In Sioux City, for example, they were used for less than a month and then reconstructed or reclad the next year. Because they reflected the agendas of numerous constituencies, the palaces allow the modern scholar to explore how identities shaped the buildings and also how the buildings helped to shape those identities. This is particularly true in terms of race. A close look at the Sioux City and Mitchell corn palaces clearly demonstrates that these are places where Native Americans and Euro-Americans came together to negotiate their places in society. Two time periods offer an informative contrast. The first was the late nineteenth century, when the phenomenon was new and, although instigated by white people, involved Native Americans as subjects and participants. The second was in the mid-twentieth century, when the Mitchell Corn Palace was reinterpreted by a Native American artist.

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Figure 1.

The 1887 Sioux City, Iowa, Corn Palace, from Frank Leslie's Weekly, October 8, 1887, 125. Authors' collection.

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Figure 2.

Mitchell, South Dakota, 1892 Corn Palace under construction. Courtesy of Mitchell Area Historical Society.

[End Page 35]

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Figure 3.

Dead He Lay There in the Sunset, M. L. Kirk illustration of the death of Mondamin and the birth of corn for Longfellow's The Story of Hiawatha (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co, 1910), 22. Author's collection.

Understanding buildings in terms of identity is a tall order. After all, "identity" is a multifaceted concept, the very thing that makes it powerful. Historians Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper recently analyzed how scholars use the term, noting its paradoxical aspects. Identity can refer to self-labeling, self-understanding, membership in a group, feelings of belonging, categorization by others, empathetic connections with others, motivations for social change, sameness with or difference from others, a core essence, something deeply ingrained, or something superficial. Furthermore, identities can be either static or fluid.2 How, then, does identity relate to the corn palaces? To answer this question, we will focus on a symbolic reading of the iconography of the buildings, especially as it appeared in its decorative panels, as well as on the performative events that took place there. As is typical of community-based construction, the corn palaces were contested spaces. Both Indians and white people, with varying degrees of agreement, informed the meanings that these buildings held. How they should be constructed, what imagery should adorn them, and whose values should be celebrated are key issues with which the communities wrestled when first erecting the buildings, and they continue to be debated today.

Spatially, the corn palaces were simple. They were fundamentally festival centers designed for maximum flexibility. The interiors were large open spaces that usually centered on a concert hall and stage with side aisles, balconies, and a second floor for exhibition areas. The present-day Mitchell Corn Palace is similar; it serves as a municipal auditorium, a basketball arena, and a stage to host high school proms, conventions, and sporting events. The buildings were also decidedly urban, usually located in the heart of the commercial center of the town; the purpose of the corn festivals was to draw visitors, investors, and new settlers to the community. The architectural form, as...


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