Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
From the first moment that europeans learned about Indigenous peoples, they have come up with rationalization after rationalization for invading their homes, disrupting their societies, and exploiting them with no limits. Any of these reationalizations rank as insidious, but among the worst are those masquerading under the label of being "humane," a term now more often invoked in the context of treating and killing animals. The OED documents a somewhat less used meaning of "humane," describing it as referring to a branch of learning "intended to have a civilizing or refining effect on people." If we bring these ideas together, they seem quite uncontroversial and harmless. Acting in a manner that minimizes pain to other beings and encourages people to act in a more civilized and refined way seems quite reasonable if we don't press it too hard. If we don't try to find out what constitutes civilized and refined behaviour, and manage not to bump into any of the evidence for the persistent stereotype of the "Indian" who is stoic and can't feel pain among settlers. Even non-Indigenous people who decry most attacks on Indigenous peoples as unjustified begin to lose their sense of conviction as soon as someone claims enforced cultural change is meant to help them survive in the modern world, is meant to be a humane and helpful thing. Having accepted without question the assumption that Indigenous peoples are somehow locked into the past and must be prised out of amber and propelled into the present, the pseudo-logic of the claim sneaks easily by. Among the "humane" practices engaged in by united states and european promoters was the so-called "human zoo."
Human zoos are still a going concern today, although they have been cleaned up considerably and relabelled for present consumption. We usually encounter them now in the form of "cultural demonstration" exhibits that are part of world fairs and large-scale sport events like the olympics or panam games. Nowadays the participants are willing performers aware that they are creating a simulacrum to whet or satisfy outsider curiosity – the former if they hope to encourage tourism back home, the latter if they hope to discourage it. Or rather, I should say that to the best of my knowledge, today most performers are willing, choose to take part, and do not find themselves in conditions indicating that they are in fact prisoners or otherwise required to perform in certain ways regardless of their own views or cultural mores. The proportion of willing and well-treated performers was far different in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when human zoos were very much part of constructing "whiteness" and producing a version of the ancient roman "triumph" in which representatives of defeated peoples were displayed as living trophies of roman power.
Photograph of Lakota on tour in germany with the circus sarrasani, 1928. Original in the u.s. department of the interior archives, NARA-285597, scan via wikimedia commons
, both in the public domain.
Indigenous peoples from the americas were great favourites in the original forms of the human zoo, especially in the self-styled "wild west show." Among the best known of the wild west shows was that run by William Cody, and its run spanned the rise and decline of the human zoo in its second phase. It is a good example of the basic set up after reforms to end such practices as kidnapping people who would be forced to perform for or at least show themselves to gawking crowds. After the reforms, recruiting performers entailed persuading them and arranging their acceptance and signing of formalized contracts. Yet depending on their circumstances, they could be little better off than their predecessors who had been kidnapped and kept in cages or otherwise imprisoned for use as entertainment or "scientific study." Promoters found that missionary and government demands that they display "reformed" or "civilized" Indigenous people unhelpful, because they did not draw the crowds. People would not pay to see others dressed similar to themselves and demonstrating such "civilized" traits as christian conversion, ability to read and write, and conformity with sex role stereotypes. They wanted to see the other, not what could be considered ersatz versions of themselves. So the promoters searched for Indigenous peoples who kept closer to their own ways, or could be persuaded to put on those older ways for the crowd. The more exotic and dramatic, the better, as far as the promoters were concerned.
This could work out surprisingly well at times, as in the case of the Indigenous people recruited to perform at the columbia world's fair. The Indigenous participants all signed on to do the work, including a group of Kwakwakawakw led by George Hunt, who collaborated for many years with Franz Boas. As Paige Raibmon explains in her book Authentic Indians, the Indigenous performers very much managed the content and nature of their performances. They also saw fit to slip out of the fair grounds at night to sightsee and at times even do such scandalous things as have a beer. Yet things could also go terribly wrong, as Abraham Ulrikab discovered in 1880-1881, when he and seven other Inuit from labrador agreed to take part in Johan Jacobsen's travelling expedition.
Overall the whole trip sounded like a wonderful and potentially very profitable adventure. Other Inuit had already taken part in such travelling shows, returning apparently rich with a range of widely admired experiences gathered during their time away. By all accounts the pay was good, the Inuit would have an opportunity to travel europe and other places they might never otherwise have an opportunity to explore. Abraham Ulrikab's interest in the experience included these things, as well as a desire to gather sufficient money to pay off debts inherited from his father. Ulrikab and his family were baptized and practising christians, and the other Inuit were not. This suggests that as de facto leader of the group, Ulrikab was not inclined to reject unconverted compatriots out of hand, instead focussing on bringing together a group large enough to fill out Jacobsen's request for about a dozen Inuit for his show. In any case, Ulrikab knew how to read and write, and he kept a diary of the trip, which was translated, transcribed and published while the original found its way into an archive.
So far it is not clear why Jacobsen behaved towards the Inuit crew as he did, apart from invoking racism. He failed to have them vaccinated against smallpox, and turned quickly to physical punishment to "discipline" the younger Inuit. He trotted them off to be measured by scientists, then on a tour through germany, part of the present day czech republic, and finally paris. In the course of the trip, the Inuit were mobbed if they tried to move around outside of their enclosed performance space, soon finding themselves unable to do much touring on their own account. Worse yet, the Inuit soon fell ill with smallpox, and one by one died of the disease. Jacobsen ultimately had their bodies taken to Paris, where in time further measurement and curation of their skeletons in the muséum national d'histoire naturelle. Their bones remain in france to this day.