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  • Territorial Whiteness on Display:Nathaniel Emerson's Hawai'i Exhibit at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909
  • Travis D. Hancock (bio)

On 1 June 1909 the doors of the US Government Building opened and America walked in to look upon itself. This was not in Washington, DC, but Washington state, on the grounds of what would later become the University of Washington's "Red Square."1 Many among the initial swarm to enter that domed, Pantheon-esque building were Seattle locals, eager to see how their city had done in putting together its first world fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE). Throughout the summer, no less than 125,000 others came from the eastern states, many taking the Great Northern Railway, opened in 1889, that connected the Pacific Northwest to Chicago.2 Then, on 25 August, the exposition's official "Hawaii Day," there came a small influx of new Americans from that even more distant land to the west, that tropical outpost of the country's fledgling empire.3

Ducking into the building and out of that summer day's rain was a tall, lean man with a white mustache, who came with the express purpose of finding himself, Dr. Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915), represented somewhere in the display. As Emerson wrote that night from Seattle's new Perry Hotel to his wife Sarah in Honolulu, amid a festive ramble through the expo: [End Page 1]

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Figure 1.

Postcard from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE) of 1909, featuring the domed US Government Building (left) and adjacent Hawaiian Building. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition Postcard Collection. PH Coll 777.

I next went across, very naturally, to the US building, in which is the Smithsonian exhibit. One of my first thoughts was the collection I sold to them, which I found honorably styled the "Emerson Exhibit"—the hula kii (marionettes) large (or rather) small as life; the big, big hula drum; the fishhooks, the poi pounders, the ko'i palaoa (stone adzes), the tapa baskets, the familiar ahuula (feather cape) of dyed chicken feathers, etc. etc. the dear old canoe that once adorned the piano. Everything was there all set forth in glass cases.

It was an absolute coup. For Emerson was no Franz Boas; he had no anthropological training or institutional support. He was a surgeon for the Honolulu Police Department, a thrice-wounded Civil War veteran, and a "Mission Boy," a son of the first white missionaries to settle in Hawai'i. He grew up on a rural homestead out in Waialua, O'ahu, geographically removed from the Euro-American world.4 Yet he had singlehandedly delivered the ethnological exhibit on the "Peoples of the Hawaiian Islands" to this national stage. And there, when he looked it all up and down, and managed to look past the catalog text for a prayer to "a fish god" that was "sadly marred in the printing," [End Page 2] his most "critical soul" found more than five hundred Pacific pieces "honorably styled."5

But why—some viewers may have wondered—did the display include object 496, a stumpy section of telegraph cable made in the United States? To be sure, the object was not entirely irrelevant; it was part of the first underwater cable to connect Honolulu and San Francisco in 1902, which led to the 1903 extension to Midway, Guåhan, and the Philippines.6 Still, it was not representative of Kanaka Maoli culture.7 Nor would it go on to enter the Smithsonian's ethnology collection with the pieces immediately surrounding it. This leaves the possibilities that Emerson either found the cable irresistibly interesting or thought its inclusion was justified by its deeper, and presumably welcome, imperial connotations. If viewed as a kind of scabbed-off fragment of the informational umbilical cord between the US and its overseas territories, the cable played well into the Smithsonian's goal at the AYPE to "impart a knowledge of our national history, especially that of Alaska, Hawaii and the Philippine Islands, and that part of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains."8 Whatever his exact reasons...