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  • The Incoherencies of Empire:The "Imperial" Image of the Indian at the Omaha World's Fairs of 1898-99
  • Bonnie M. Miller (bio)

The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1898, celebrated U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War with a weeklong Peace Jubilee. Attending was General Nelson A. Miles, Commander of the war's Puerto Rican campaigns and also an accomplished "Indian fighter." His record included subduing Sitting Bull in 1876, defeating Crazy Horse at the Battle of Wolf Mountains in 1877, and capturing Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé that same year. In 1886 at Skeleton Canyon, Miles captured Chiricahua Apache leader, Geronimo. Held prisoner at Fort Sill in 1898, Geronimo agreed to participate in the "Indian Congress" at the Omaha fair (See Figure 1), and his reunion with Miles in front of the crowd at the fair's sham Indian battle became one of its most publicized moments. Newspapers nation-wide circulated the Omaha Bee's account:

At yesterday afternoon's battle General Miles and the members of his staff occupied front seats in the reserved section. . . . Geronimo looked up into the thousands of faces, apparently trying to locate a familiar one. . . . Suddenly he turned his eyes toward the place where General Miles was sitting. . . . He brushed aside the crowd with his hands and was soon at the side of General Miles. Mustering the best English at his command, he extended his hand and exclaimed: "Now general, I am glad [End Page 39] to see you." The general reached for the extended hand, but suddenly it was withdrawn and instantly Geronimo clasped the white warrior in his embrace and hugged him as affectionately as would a father who had not seen his son for years.1

Press and official fair texts framed this encounter as evidence of reconciliation, with a notorious warrior gesturing his consent to his fate in an act of paternalistic deference. Struck by the scene, one fair visitor claimed that "a new realization of what 'peace' means to this country was attained by those who saw the meeting of the once fanatical foe to civilization and the commanding general of a victorious army."2

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Figure 1.

Portrait of Geronimo at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898. Copyrighted by official fair photographer, Frank A. Rinehart, but likely taken by his assistant, Adolph Muhr. (From the collections of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, [LC-USZC2-6298]).

The making of this imperial spectacle suggests an important correlation between representations of Indians and the imperial debates of the Spanish-American War. The alleged closure of the frontier and the defeat of the Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890, largely conceived of as the last of the significant Indian wars, renewed authority in the romanticized image of the "noble" Indian destined to "vanish," literally or culturally. At the same time, political, diplomatic, and economic policy-making was increasingly directed outside American borders, culminating in the decisions to intervene in Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain in 1898, annex Hawai'i, and acquire Spain's remaining colonies: Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines. The world's fair became an important site for this imperial vision to take shape in the American cultural imagination and reach a broad audience.

The two most prominent late-nineteenth-century American fairs, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, showcased visions of architectural grandeur, technology, and the arts to millions of fairgoers. These expositions fed the rise of mass tourism and consumerism, enticing visitors with exotic amusements including glimpses of "strange" peoples. The emergence of the idea of ethnographic villages at world's fairs began at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and later expanded in Chicago. The importance of these displays in the evolution of European and American expositions [End Page 40] points to a wider colonial project that positioned the United States beside the imperial regimes of Great Britain and France and in opposition to native societies.

Historians of the Omaha Exposition have argued that fair organizers shaped the "Indian Congress" in the context of the imperial debates arising...


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