Indians in Zoos

Been trying to channel the mindset of the scientists of the 19th century as they struggled over the concept of race.

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.”


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in science, science communication and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Indians in Zoos

  1. savageindian says:

    I find it interesting that they would have done anything like that at a worlds fair. We are not Animals, why should we be put on display for all to see an “Indian”, “Savage”, or all of the other names they have given.

    I am Gitxsan, from Hazelton, BC. Canada. Although I live in Tennesse, I do love my culture, but hated the reservation life. I guess it could be because I never grew up on the reservation. I grew up in California, Washington, Oregon then British Columbia. It’s a culture shock for sure living on a reservation if you never have.

    I love being a First Nations person, also an Alaskan Native. I would have denied having done an exhibit for people to come and look at me. I would think it would be demeaning.

    It’s also very awful that Europeans really wanted to “integrate” us into their ways of life. Especially with the force that they inflicted on the children. I will not get into that, but I know you know what I mean.

    Thank-you for your blogs.


  2. Stephen Flinn says:

    Dr. Coleman,

    I used to live across the street from Haskell. In the back of the college, there is a beautiful wetland.

    On the other hand, there is this:
    “Haskell Cemetery is an important symbol to American Indians to never forget the
    attempt made by the US Government to systematically destroy American Indian culture
    through forced assimilation. As such, this cemetery has the potential to become a
    powerful symbol for American Indians to, instead, embrace their cultural ways, and
    strengthen families and communities. It serves as a reminder of the hardships endured
    and overcome. These children were some of the first casualties to fall in the battle for
    Indians to gain control of their education to determine their future.
    Yet, as it stands now, Haskell cemetery appears insignificant. It is not displayed as
    important. It just happens to be there as an unfortunate reminder. There are no signs
    bringing its presence to visitors’ attention. There is no designated parking to visit the
    area. The cemetery sits hidden behind a sewage pump station.
    Hearing the story of how parents not wanting to leave their children and choosing to
    endure the same conditions as the students to be near their children generates
    overwhelming emotion. One can’t help but feel the pain of the parents, whose children
    were pulled from their sides, in some cases at gunpoint, and taken hundreds, even
    thousands of miles away from their homes to live in an institution stripped of their
    traditional cultural ways. Were these children’s lives meaningless, their brief time, from
    six months to nineteen years insignificant? A visitor to Haskell Cemetery today might
    likely think so. Acknowledging that these children died lonely and away from home
    generates passionate desire to embrace values of family, community, and Indian culture.
    Although justice may never be achieved, creating a national memorial at the Haskell
    Cemetery would promote healing and growth by honoring the memories and sacrifices of
    these people.”

    Haskell Cemetery: A Symbol for Healing and Growth
    Stephen A. Colmant, MA, LPC

    Click to access haskellcemetery.pdf


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