Unfair Labor? American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition by David R. M. Beck
In 1893, Chicago hosted a world’s fair that firmly anchored Gilded Age America to the Gibraltar of white supremacy. Racialized exhibits filled the White City, as the main part of the World’s Columbian Exposition was commonly called because its palatial buildings were painted white. Racialized exhibits also formed the heart and soul of the Midway Plaisance, the fair’s entertainment and outdoor museum strip where many people of color, including Native Americans, were exhibited as exotic “others” if not outright “savages.” Leading ethnologists from Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution lent their authority to these exhibits, popularizing the young discipline of anthropology as a result. Unfair Labor is an important addition to the scholarly literature about the 1893 fair and about popular representations of Indigenous people, insisting that Native Americans and, by extension, other Indigenous performers at the fair were “both exploited . . . and active agents at the same time” (p. 200).
To make his case, David Beck begins his book with an overview of how Native Americans became involved with the fair at a crisis moment for many Native Americans in the wake of the wars on the Upper Plains and the Wounded Knee Massacre. What did Native Americans have to gain from participating in the exposition? In the second section of his book, Beck, echoing the work of Lester George Moses on wild west shows, makes clear that Native Americans could make badly needed money by becoming involved in the fair, in this case by joining the ranks of other “collectors,” including anthropologists, in providing the fair with exhibit material. Also, at a time of tremendous pressure to leave their own cultures behind, Native Americans sought to use the exposition to sustain their languages and cultural practices. Then, in perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis, Beck turns his attention to the work of Native Americans at the fair, examining their labor as builders of and performers in exhibits that ranged from commercial shows along the Midway to the model Indian School located near the Anthropology Building.
What Beck offers is a carefully nuanced description of multiple strategies and tactics developed by various Native Americans at the fair to address the manifest horrors confronting them at the dawn of the twentieth century. This was a fair where their music was routinely dismissed as “noise,” where their privacy was virtually non-existent, and where their individual identities were routinely ignored. In an appendix, Beck provides a detailed list of the names of Native Americans who [End Page 183] worked in different capacities at the fair and contrasts their salaries with one another as well as with selected white employees, including anthropologists. Beck also notes the number of Indigenous people who wanted to be part of the fair, to showcase their cultures, and be represented on their own terms. But, as the author points out: “Despite [anthropologist Frederic Ward] Putnam’s hopes and promises, the fair kept out seemingly even more Native people than it brought in” (p. 191).
For historians, what will make this a compelling book is Beck’s effort to wrestle with the issues of exploitation and agency at the fair. There is no doubt that Native Americans were exploited; there is also no doubt that many Native Americans tried to shape the way they were represented to the American public. Some protested their treatment through petitions. Some, like the Innuits, hired attorneys to help them sue concessionaires for breaches of contract. It would be wrong, then, to think of the fair solely in terms of peine forte et dure. Its weight could be crushing, and its stereotypes certainly added insult to injury. But, like wild west shows, the fair opened avenues for self-expression and resistance.
With respect to the oppressive conditions at the fair, the author might have broadened his analysis and addressed in greater detail the fair’s disease environment (America’s last major smallpox epidemic got started at the fair and killed some three thousand people in Chicago). And, in terms of agency, the author might have given more attention to what Native Americans took home with them from the fair. Exactly how memories—and souvenirs—from the fair informed reservation cultures would have been fascinating—and daunting—to explore. But these are minor criticisms and, to be fair, Unfair Labor is the most thorough analysis we have of Native Americans’ involvement with the 1893 fair. It deserves to be read in conjunction with Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox’s Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology (Nebraska, 2016). Together, these books help us understand the importance of contested cultural representations for the period following the Civil War that historians increasingly think about in terms of the Greater Reconstruction. [End Page 184]
ROBERT W. RYDELL is a professor of history at Montana State University and has written extensively about world’s fairs and “human zoos.”