Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 2005, pp. 67-86.
Nebraska's Indian population exploded in the summer of 1898, but it was not due to natural increase. More than 500 Indians representing twenty-three tribes came to Omaha as part of the United States Indian Bureau's exhibit at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. During their three-month stay at the world's fair, Indians engaged in dancing, feasting, visiting, and earned money performing sham battles. In doing so they demonstrated not only the vibrancy and resilience of Native American cultures, but also the ineffectiveness of the government's assimilation policy. The Indian Bureau spent $40,000 for the Indian Congress (as this gathering of Native peoples came to be known} to show the public how education was "civilizing" Native Americans. Instead, the Bureau sponsored an enormous intertribal powwow and Wild West show that directly contradicted its own policies. Three factors-bureaucratic error, Indian resistance, and Indian agent accommodation-combined to produce an exhibit at Omaha that left the Indian Bureau red-faced and Christian reformers seething.
In this essay I want to demonstrate that Indians not only negotiated the terms on which they came to Omaha but also played a major role.in determining what activities they would participate in once they arrived.1 Rather than view the Indian Congress as an example of the imperialist and racist tendencies of the United States at the turn of the century as have some scholars, I have chosen to adopt a less pessimistic view of the encampment.2 Certainly exhibit organizers had their own colonialist ideas about how Native peoples should be portrayed to the American public at Omaha. However, Indians who attended the exposition created their own program of events that defied the notion that they were either subservient or assimilated.
The intertribal Grass dances that took place on the grounds throughout the summer, for instance, demonstrated that Indians were willing to compromise on decisions regarding where dances were held and who could participate in them in order to ensure their survival. Such concessions support historian Clyde Ellis's observation that the Grass dance, or Omaha dance, became more secular in form and meaning in the late nineteenth century as warrior societies waned in importance.3 And as Paige Raibmon suggests in her study of Kwakwaka'wakw Indian dances at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, such compromises represented not the "commercialized corruption of traditional practices" but rather cultural resilience in the face of the colonial policies of the federal government.4