The Spectacle of the Fair

With their boastful broadcasting of American dominance, the international expositions of the 1900s helped characterize the spirit of the Gilded Age. These popular “world’s fair” exhibitions conjure up vivid images of past industry, trade, and innovation. Looking beyond their elaborate Ferris wheels and crystal palaces, though, we uncover an alarming feature of American history – the human zoo.

About a century ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see Indigenous people “on display” at international expositions. In an effort to incorporate anthropology into the fair, officials showcased native groups as products of scientific discovery and sources of entertainment. By exoticizing “the other,” these exhibitions worked to praise and justify settler actions and institutions. We can look at St. Louis, Missouri and its 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (LPE) to further explore this narrative of Western supremacy.  Named after Thomas Jefferson's monumental purchase of French territory, the fair highlighted the achievements of the United States as a rising global force. It also exemplified how such installations perpetuate harmful dynamics of power between Indigenous groups and settlers through biopolitics.

To illustrate American progress in the social sciences, the LPE funded the creation of an anthropological and ethnological exhibition. This exhibition would display human evolution and racial disparities through a limited, exoticized visual portrayal of Indigenous people.  Under WJ McGee, who oversaw the construction of these “anthropological colonies,” non-Europeans from all over the world were gathered to entertain, shock and educate the American public. (1) McGee and other officials underwent a selection process that relied heavily on social Darwinist theory. (2) They believed measurements of bodily and facial components could quantify and uphold claims to racial superiority. When classified according to this false evolutionary spectrum, Indigenous bodies were marked as inferior because of their differing physical features.  This reinforced the notion that certain groups of people were “behind” in the evolutionary timeline.  

Such allegedly scientific confirmations of inferiority have grave implications for historically marginalized Indigenous groups.  When Indigenous people are seen as relics of the past, they are not fully recognized for who they are or what they have endured. As Scott Lauria Morgensen observes in Settler Homonationalism, narratives of “Native absence or disappearance thus precisely do not erase Native people but produce particular forms of knowledge about Native people, as already or inevitably gone.” (3) Morgensen then urges for these tales of Indigenous disappearance to also be understood as ones of settlement. (4) The treatment of Indigenous groups displays a sequence of injustices that confirm the need for this modified perspective. In the past, Indigenous people were removed for the purpose of settler expansion. As a result, many remain in isolation to this day.  Settlers then rely on Indigenous history to provide them with a sense of tradition. However, this reliance is rarely supplemented with any desire to bare responsibility for past actions against these groups. Public perception of Indigenous people is regulated to aid the American cultural narrative. The result is a strategically fashioned idea of the United States as existing in an untainted present state. This produces a notion of endless growth and opportunity, leaving behind stories of past genocide that nonetheless continue to burden Indigenous groups.

Despite the fact that Indigenous people still exist, settlers always regard their cultures, ideas, and practices as being part of the past. In Playing Indian, author Philip J. Deloria reflects on the use of anthropology and “found identities” in American culture. (5) He notes how native persons are treated more like artifacts and antiques to be studied than human beings free to move and free to exist. The “Disappearing Indian narrative” thus embeds itself into the narrative of American culture in order to justify colonialist ideas.


The international exhibitions worked not just for the conceptual othering of Indigenous people, but also for the physical. Pushed to the outer portions of the LPE, the anthropological expositions were kept in isolation and obfuscated from the rest of the fair. In order to view those on display, fair-goers had to seek out their “colonies.” In that process, they created a certain level of expectations prior to ever interacting with the groups. Furthermore, the curators of the anthropological section worked to create a built evolutionary order to the anthropological colonies. The Indigenous people were organized into an anachronistic spectrum of progress and modernity. This allowed fair-goers to follow a path of progress towards Western civilization, and exit with an affirmation of White American superiority. The LPE also constrained native people to the parameters of their village-worlds as the Indigenous tribes were designated to a particular place on the spectrum. While settlers had the ability to transcend through the past and into the present, native people were stuck in a temporal limbo.

The construction of the anthropological colonies also reinforced false ideas of Indigenous architecture, technology, and lifestyles. Officials attempted to force Indigenous tribes to perform their daily lives in ways that didn’t reflect reality but instead reinforced false stereotypes. Certain tribes were forced to live in huts that were atypical of their regions and cultures because they were thought to be more authentic than the constructions they built for themselves. In one instance, when African pygmies constructed lumber shelters, McGee had them rebuilt a “more savage” version of their home. (6). McGee and the other officials refused to acknowledge the adaptability and knowledge that existed among Indigenous people, causing them real harm. Weather changes, inadequate shelters, and the introduction of disease led to the deaths of many. (7) The resultant limited reaction to the deaths of Indigenous people demonstrates how entrenched necro-politic is in American culture. Though Indigenous persons were capable of providing better shelters for themselves, they were not allowed to because it challenged settler knowledge and threatened the perceived authenticity of the exposition.  


While Native Americans were able to leave if they refused to participate in the performative aspects of the exposition, many Indigenous people who had arrived internationally could not.  The enlisted groups were exploited through forced performances, isolation, and decreased autonomy. They were also largely unfairly compensated for their participation. McGee contracted many of the Indigenous people through an agreement wherein they would be able to sell their crafts at the fair instead of receiving any wages.

Overall, attempts by anthropological officials to control perceptions of Indigenous people were largely successful. However, Indigenous groups also found ways to challenge settlers and resist marginalization. Under invasive surveillance, they dealt with the rubbernecking of settlers visiting their exhibitions through pranks, role inversion, language adoption, dignity, and routine. (8) Through such forms of daily resistance, Indigenous groups attempted to assert their own “visual sovereignty.” This is the “creative practice of self-representation that engages and deconstructs white-generated representations.” (9)  In some cases, native celebrities were able to leverage their status in American society to receive considerably better wages. Geronimo, for example, was “allowed to come and go as he pleased,” but even then, he did not have “complete freedom.” (10)

Groups such as the “Red Africans” (11) satirized Western perceptions and customs in order to establish themselves independently of the exhibition’s context.  However, the fair-goers did not recognize the acts as parodies. Crowds gathered and applauded when they mockingly tied shredded sacks around their waists (to resemble Western clothing) and organized a weekly “orchestra” consisting of whistling noises and water buckets. (12).

Visual sovereignty, when properly invoked, can empower groups as recognized producers of their own knowledge and power. During the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, resistance through visual sovereignty helped Indigenous people go about their daily lives under strict scrutiny. However, it did little in ways of deconstructing stereotypical narratives. The “Red Africans,” who were popular for their supposed “savageness,” provoked in visitors a sense of superiority. Even in cases where Indigenous populations adopted aspects of Western language and culture, they were still not widely accepted as modernized or equal.


In many ways, assimilation was a double-edged sword for the Indigenous groups at the fair. On one hand, their ability to adapt to the West seemed to support McGee’s and other anthropologists’ claims of social Darwinism. They argued that the native’s ability demonstrated the Westernization is the only means through which civilization and civility can be reached. On the other hand, fair-goers were often disappointed in seeing the assimilation of the Indigenous groups. Mbuti Pygmies exchanged their traditional clothing for Western khakis, crowds complained that they Pygmies lost their “personal charm” (13). Geronimo reportedly disappointed visitors because he “refused to comply with requests for war whoops or other stereotyped behaviors visitors expected of him,” (14) His refusal to be a stereotype called into question his identity and authenticity as a Native American. While people began to doubt the image of Geronimo that the fair advertised, their perceptions of Indigenous people at large remained unchanged.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition demonstrates the ways in which American culture simultaneously reveres and hates indigeneity. On one hand, there is an underlying desire to study Indigenous people and to understand their complex backgrounds. Yet, there is also a desire to regulate and remove them from public space in order to distance current settlers from memories of colonization. Indigenous literature scholar Tasha Hubbard argues that denial not only works to ignore the histories that created the present, but it also seeks to limit conversations of “culpability.” (15) The Louisiana Purchase Exposition is one of many such attempts by settlers to justify the past and promote a narrative of American greatness, all without discussing colonization and genocide.

Today, there is a cultural amnesia that afflicts much of American society. Even the most well-intentioned progressives fall victim to it by failing to acknowledge the many faces of Indigenous oppression. Like so many other aspects of American history, human exhibitions are removed from the American narrative. The images they provoke provide avenues to analyze and address existing inequality, threatening social dynamics and forcing us to reassess our current positions. But ignoring these events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Necropolitics continues to regulate bodies across the United States. There is a need for settlers and the state to not only acknowledge historical oppression but also to find new ways of incorporating different identities into the American narrative.




  1. Parezo, Nancy J., and Don D. Fowler. Anthropology Goes to the Fair The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. N.p.: Univ of Nebraska Pr, 2009. Print., 195.

  2. Ibid., 53.

  3. Scott Lauria Morgensen, “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities” in Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 116.

  4. Ibid., 117.

  5. Deloria, Philip Joseph. Playing Indian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale U, 2007. Print., 183.

  6. Parezo, Nancy J., and Don D. Fowler. Anthropology Goes to the Fair The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. N.p.: Univ of Nebraska Pr, 2009. Print., 206.

  7. Ibid., 293.

  8. Ibid., 271.

  9. Teves, Stephanie Nohelani. "A Critical Reading of Aloha and Visual Sovereignty in Ke Kulana He Māhū" in International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies Volume 7, Number 1, 2014., 9.

  10. Parezo, Nancy J., and Don D. Fowler. Anthropology Goes to the Fair The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. N.p.: Univ of Nebraska Pr, 2009. Print., 113.

  11. Ibid., 200.

  12. Ibid., 208.

  13. Ibid., 205.

  14. Ibid., 114.

  15. Tasha Hubbard, “Buffalo Genocide in the Nineteenth-Century North America: ‘Kill, Skin, and Sell” in Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, pp. 292-305., 8