American Indians—like Asians and Africans—were seen as separate races for decades.
Such views served political systems well, delegating American Indians to a separate class that needed civilizing to adjust to Western ways.
Being viewed as a separate race justified everything from boarding schools to land acts.
One historian—Robert Bieder—writes that the “separate races” viewpoint slowly gave way to Charles Darwin’s treatise of a single human race. Bieder says that by the 1860s the notion of separate races “collapsed under the devastating weight of new research.”
My quest leads me to examine how notions of science are deployed in biopolitical decisions about American Indians. And because I have a vested interest in Indian issues, I welcomed the news that scientists abandoned multi-race theories.
But lay folks continued to embrace the idea of separate races, particularly the superior race of European settlers in North America.
Although Bieder claims that, by the 1860s, the idea of multiple human races was passé, society has taken a long time to catch up.
Evidence? The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis presented exhibits of indigenous peoples in a format called the Human Zoo.
Turns out that Apache warrior Geronimo participated in the exhibit, according to Wikipedia. The famous leader “was on display in a teepee” and signed autographs for fair- goers.
The display was officially called the Ethnology Exhibit, and Bieder defines ethnology as the study of human races.
In an odd twist of timing, today I came across a news article in a 1904 issue of The American Leader, the newspaper from the Haskell School—an educational institution in Kansas for American Indians.
The article encourages Haskell teachers to attend the World’s Fair, where they can see “man’s achievements as set forth here from the standpoint of race” and thus help teachers “in their work of training the Indian child to develop his own possibilities [in] the transition from his former ways of living and looking at life.”