My senior thesis probes the apparently paradoxical celebration of Native Americans against the backdrop of the ongoing suppression of their cultures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using the history of conflicts involving broken treaties with Indian nations as a lens for understanding this paradox, I argue that such public amusements as World’s Fairs and Wild West shows extended the Euro-American logic of conquest that, since the colonial period, had invoked ideas of “ignoble savagery” as justifications for duplicitous dealings with native peoples. In contrast to the persistence of indigenous traditions in the present, the organizers of the fairs celebrated a “noble savage” defined either by progress toward “civilization” or by disappearance into a fictionalized noble past. Given these standards of “nobility,” the representation of a supposedly vanished people became a right of conquest.
Much of my analysis deals with commentary on Native Americans in official publications from the World’s Fairs of Philadelphia (1876), Chicago (1893), and St. Louis (1904), including guidebooks, promotional weeklies, and souvenir books. Between Penn’s libraries and online repositories, many of these sources were readily available to me. With financial assistance provided by the Mary L. and Matthew S. Santirocco College Alumni Society Undergraduate Research Grant, I was able to visit the archives at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia to gain insights into perspectives I could not readily access otherwise—those of academics who helped to organize Native American displays for World’s Fairs. I focused on the former Penn Museum director Stewart Culin (whose papers are in Brooklyn) and the famed anthropologist Franz Boas (whose ethnographic notes and correspondence are in Philadelphia), both of whom worked under Frederic Ward Putnam at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
I found much in these men’s unpublished writings that validated my hypothesis—references to the extinction of native cultures, a particular interest in vanished or vanishing traditions, and justifications of the importance of studying Native Americans in terms of the disappearance of their lifeways. By framing their work in this way, Culin, Boas, and other academics not only demonstrated how they could establish themselves as authorities on the representation of cultures that ostensibly could not represent themselves, but also signaled that vanished peoples had a certain “nobility” that made them worth studying. What I was surprised to find were moments of candidness in which these scholars, with a far greater appreciation of indigenous cultures than ordinary entertainers, described Native American societies of their own times in disparaging ways, both in relation to the vanished past and in absolute moral terms. It seems, therefore, that academics often thought much like their lay contemporaries and lent intellectual legitimacy to civiizational narratives that, today, we would condemn. Having uncovered such unexpected details, I can say without a doubt that my archival research will enrich my thesis, and the skills I developed in sorting through voluminous material to extract meaningful evidence will prove invaluable as I continue to pursue history in my academic career.