American Indians at Chicago's Columbian Exposition


The Exposition occurred at a key moment in the nation’s history: It was planned as part of a celebration of four hundred years of “progress” since Columbus’s arrival in the “New World” and was designed to showcase advances in technology, science, government, the arts, and human relations since 1492. But, in early 1893, a financial panic threw the United States into an industrial depression more serious than any the country had ever before experienced. Banks closed, jobs disappeared, suffering increased, and doubts about the inevitable march of “progress” swept the country. Yet the Fair went on.

The Columbian Exposition, a huge extravaganza that covered 664 acres on the lake shore, offered the public an escape from the harsh realities of the day and provided all manner of reassurances about the forward march of the industrial age. President Cleveland opened the fair to a crowd of 200,000 people and he likened the new power of electricity that was about to energize all of the exposition’s machinery—and would awaken forces that would transform society! [Talk about spin!!!…But the spin did not stop there…]

The official goals of the Exposition were overtly nationalistic: Its promoters hoped to provide stability in the face of great change, to encourage American unity, to celebrate technology and commerce (“progress”), and to encourage popular education. These themes were echoed in later World’s Fairs held in Chicago and New York in the 1930s, and continue today in those most permanent of American fairs, Disneyland and DisneyWorld. In some ways, though, the Columbian Exposition dwarfed them all.

It marked the first celebration of Columbus Day as a national holiday, the debut of the Pledge of Allegiance (without the words “Under God”—which were not added until after WWII), its hastily-constructed “White City” inspired L. Frank Baum to write about the Emerald City of Oz, and Dvorak composed the New World Symphony in celebration of the Exposition.
For our purposes, the Columbian Exposition is most important because it reveals interesting tensions between three different types of representation of American Indians: Anthropological Representations, Assimilationist Representations, and the Mythical Representations of the Wild West shows.

Another good article on this subject is Ray Fogelson’s “The Red Man in the White City”, published in Native Chicago (2002).


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