Human Zoo: For Centuries, Indigenous Peoples Were Displayed as Novelties

Sara Shahriari

In 1893 a group of indigenous Aymara Bolivian men traveled to the United States so that they could be put on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. While researching their story, Nancy Egan, a doctoral student in Latin American history at the University of California, San Diego, delved into the history of indigenous people brought to the United States and Europe and put on display in what she calls “human zoos.”

Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull

ICTMN: Indigenous people from all over the world were brought to the United States and Europe and displayed at fairs and circuses during the 1800s and 1900s. Why were these displays so popular?
Egan: Most historians who study these exhibitions agree they were a way of reinforcing or illustrating the racist notions of white supremacy that seemed to be built into the logic of empire and colonialism. Most nations took great care to try and mold the people they put on display into images that justified their own colonial power. In some cases this meant trying to create “savages.” In other cases, they tried to use these displays of human beings to illustrate how the colonial presence was “civilizing” people. These exhibits also played into other forms of popular entertainment. They were a mix of imperial ambition and circus.

You studied a group of indigenous Aymara Bolivians who were brought to New York destined for the Chicago fair, but got stranded in New York. What happened?
These men were brought to the U.S. to be displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but they never made it to Chicago. They attempted to make a living putting on their own musical shows in New York and Philadelphia, but everywhere they went they were basically told that they weren’t exotic enough. After an unsuccessful tour with a circus through Philadelphia, the group was abandoned by their managers and José Santos Mamani, the member of the group dubbed the “giant” by the press, died shortly after they walked back to New York City. The rest of the group eventually found work in fairs and on Coney Island, but could only find work making feather headdresses and performing supposed North American Native American dances for a New York audience. They struggled to make it back to Bolivia, and I’ve only been able to trace them as far as Panama on their return journey.

How was what Mamani and his companions went through similar to the experience of other “imported” indigenous people who came to the United States?
Their story definitely sounds exceptional, but what’s really shocking about the history of these “human zoos” is that it isn’t. One study I read estimated that more than 25,000 indigenous people were brought to fairs around the world between 1880 and 1930. These people struggled under harsh and changing conditions. Many of them had to change their hair, their clothes, their entire appearance to fit the expectations of the organizers and the audiences they were supposed to perform for. Some people were the targets of racist violence while they were on display, while others experienced more subtle forms of violence and were used as subjects of scientific study on racial differences during the exhibition. And, like Mamani, many people died during these exhibitions.

American Indians from the United States were often exhibited alongside indigenous people from other continents. Was the logic behind

Seminole Indians from the Florida Everglades at the New York World's Fair

exhibiting Indigenous Peoples from the United States similar to the logic behind exhibiting Indigenous Peoples from other countries?
The U.S. government resisted allowing official exhibits of North American Indigenous Peoples until after Wounded Knee in 1890, and viewed shows like Buffalo Bill’s [Wild West Show] as either a semi-threatening glorification of Native Americans or a crass, unscientific form of entertainment. The U.S. preferred exhibits that showed Native Americans as passive peoples. For example, in Chicago, the organizers worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to craft exhibits that would supposedly show how beneficial and “civilizing” reservation life and boarding schools were for Native Americans. After occupying the Philippines in 1898, the U.S. created exhibits of Filipinos that included a “civilizing” school that the people on display had to attend. Shows of people from regions the U.S. had not colonized, such as African peoples at the Chicago fair, played up rumors of cannibalism and their threatening nature. The logic behind these exhibits in different countries was directly tied to their imperial and colonial ambitions, and they tried to craft shows that would show people who had been, or would be able to be, colonized, and sell lots of tickets.

Didn’t some Native American leaders fight against exhibits of indigenous people during the 1800s?
One of the most incredible things I found in the archives while researching this work was a series of petitions and letters written from reservations in the U.S. challenging the exhibition of Indigenous Peoples and cultures at the fair. This is a section from a petition from the Creek Territories in 1891 that was signed by more than 100 people expressing the group’s wish to represent themselves through a Native American–directed exhibit at the fair:

“We are almost despairing and it is inevitable that our people trace the cause of that despairing and consequently desperate condition to the very event which with such large expenditures of wealth you are about to celebrate. It is not fitting nor wise that you so celebrate a great event without considering what it meant and still means to a people once great in numbers.… With a Native American or Indian exhibit in the hands of capable men of our own blood, such as are willing and anxious to undertake it, a most interesting and instructive and surely successful feature will be added.”

Another leader, Simon Pokagon, published his Red Man’s Rebuke during the Chicago fair and distributed it to the press and the public-at-large outside of the fairgrounds in Chicago. At every turn, Native American and African American leaders took aim at the racist ideology of the fair, fought these portrayals and argued for the right to self-representation.

A group of Chiracahua Apaches after attending Carlisle Indian school for four months

Traveling to a different country and sharing time and space with a diverse group of people really changed some of the people who were on exhibit. What did you learn about their experiences?

In the security records of the fair in Chicago I found all these frustrated notes from security guards who were trying to prevent the people from different exhibits from socializing with one another. Apparently people from the different exhibits were hanging out and drinking beer with one another after the fair shut down. In another study, one where historians were actually able to interview indigenous women who had been part of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, those women spoke about the relationships they developed with other exhibited women and how they overcame language barriers to share their experiences. I think these stories captivated me because they show the importance of looking at the people who were brought to be exhibited as complete human beings and asking: What did they think about what they saw and experienced? What did they feel about the other people they met? It’s easier to think about these ‘human zoos’ as spaces you look into. Thinking about these men and women socializing and struggling makes me wonder what they thought of these spaces and events as they looked out.

When did “importing” indigenous people to put on display begin to end, and why?
Because the rationale behind these exhibits was so closely tied to the logics of empire, or the exhibition of empire, many of these exhibits began to disappear when the European empires began to decline, but they also began to change form before then. In a historical study of these events, titled Human Zoos, several historians propose that these exhibitions began to emphasize showing cultural differences instead of racial ones by the 1920s. However, some forms of these exhibits continued well into the 20th century, and certainly, using the logic of cultural difference to justify political, economic and military domination has not disappeared.

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veronicahp's picture
Submitted by veronicahp on
From genocide to display and performance. Truly strange, sick, and darkly fascinating. It's the kind of thing that keeps this Native PhD student in grad school, too. Just an FYI, Carlisle founder Richard Pratt protested the Midway vehemently, and had to push very hard to get his students exhibited at Columbia. When he did, their area was all-but ignored. Assimilated Indians aren't as fun to gaze at, apparently. (See Lee Baker's "Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture." Duke U Press, 2010) What I find most inspiring about Egan's research are the available archival resources she uncovered, which I've never seen in the ample World's Fair scholarship! I've never seen anything about the Creek letters or the security guards complaining about those dang intermingling Indians. Better police racial purity to keep the 19th century anthros in business. Hmmm...makes me wonder about the accepted narratives we researchers are buying into. Thanks for this!