August 30, 2011

Indians displayed in "human zoos"

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

By Sara ShahriariIn 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.”

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.

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.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see 19th-Century Cartoons About Indians and Heartsong Lectures and Concert.

Below:  "A group of Iroquois Native Americans pose at an exposition in France c. 1905.


Anonymous said...

Oh, it gets worse. They had this one woman from southern Africa who was shown just because of her large buttocks and labia.

Imperial decadence very quickly gets to almost Roman levels (i.e., slaves kept for entertainment).

Anonymous said...

There is a fashion show in Oklahoma now being exhibited as womens fashions over the centuries from Europe and pre-"Oklahoma Territory", what ever that means, of a few Wild West Shows of the past. Its from an article in the Oklahoman, a largely conservative and pro-Anglo publication that attempts to claim strong cultural European roots of this once forced Indian reserve, it continuously reminds you of just how little it knows, and its readers know, about the lands it claims to be its "native" state.

Anyway, I think much of the "circus" approach backfires on the alleged supremacy of white America when science and the government spends billions to try to understand native cultures only to end up back at square one being racists and ignorant as they were in the beginning.

These "human zoos" consisted of people with sophisticated survival skills, an understanding of the environment, foods, languages, religious practices and medicines whites now adopt and try to claim as their own. Today, you can't seem to keep whites away from indigenous culture, even if they have to re-invent it in the NFL!