(Exactly ten years ago this week I turned in my last graduate seminar paper, for a class on late 19th and early 20th century American literature taught by the magnificent Nancy Bentley. The paper was about the 1904 World’s Fair and Geronimo, a figure I’ve been thinking about deeply since Sunday night. Because of the strange resonances between the historical Geronimo and the code name for Osama Bin Laden, I’ve posted that paper here, hoping it helps others to contextualize Geronimo, and to acknowledge his own voice.)[blackbirdpie id=”65397976142585856″] [heading]”A Very Kind and Peaceful People”:
Geronimo and the World’s Fair[/heading] [quote]St. Louis had an “Exposition” in 1904. Of course, Geronimo was there, was becoming a permanent exposition exhibit, basking in hero-worship, selling postcards, bows and arrows, putting money in his pockets.[/quote]
– The son of Indian agent John P. Clum, in the latter’s biography, Apache Agent[1. Woodworth Clum, Apache Agent: The Story of John P. Clum (1936; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 291.]
Nearly twenty years after he had surrendered for the last time and became a permanent prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, instead of a renegade Indian whose name struck terror in the hearts of Americans and Mexicans alike across the Southwest, the Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo attended, or rather, appeared at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—the event commemorated “the greatest peaceable acquisition of territory the world has known”[2. This ironic claim, considering the genocide that followed the United States’ takeover of the territory, was made by James W. Buel, Louisiana and the Fair: An Exposition of the World, Its People and Their Achievements, vol. 1, 10 vols. (Saint Louis: World’s Progress Publishing Company, 1904), p. 7.]—the Fair devoted a number of exhibits to traditional Native American culture, including an “Apache Village” that had been constructed along the midway.
There under the strict supervision of the War Department was Geronimo, nestled between a stall of Pueblo women pounding corn and a group of Indian pottery makers. Here the seventy-five-year-old war chief sat in his own booth, making bows and arrows and selling signed photographs of himself for as much as two dollars apiece.[3. Angie Debo, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), pp. 410-412.] Two interpretations of Geronimo’s participation in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition have long prevailed. On the one hand, Geronimo is derided as a self-serving scoundrel, “basking in hero-worship,” whose fame, or more appropriately, whose infamy had been earned at the expense of the blood of dozens of American settlers and soldiers. This is the view Woodworth Clum adopts in Apache Agent, the biography he writes of his father, who was once the acting governor of the New Mexico Territory and an Indian agent who had negotiated with the Apaches.
On the other hand, Geronimo is celebrated as a hero, a noble warrior from a lost age, one who has successfully and with dignity (and business acumen) assimilated into American society. It is fascinating that while both of these views presume some form of agency on Geronimo’s part, they take for granted that Geronimo is present at the Fair as an attraction, a crowd-pleasing museum piece. Neither of these views take into account what that museum piece himself might have thought about his experiences at the Exposition. What happens when the attraction talks back? What happens when one exhibit walks among other exhibits and comments upon them? What happens when Geronimo the fiend and Geronimo the hero give way to Geronimo the spectator? In the brief essay that follows I hope to tentatively answer these questions by setting in dialogue with each other two collections of texts: the first, what was written about Native American exhibits at the St. Louis World’s Fair and other spectacles like it by the events’ organizers and contemporary journalists and visitors; and the second, Geronimo’s own life story, taken down in 1906, in which he offers his account of what he did and what he saw at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
Native Americans on display
The display of Native Americans as exotic curiosities or specimens of a disappearing culture was of course nothing new by the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair. A half century earlier P. T. Barnum was one of the first “curators” of such displays. In his Struggles and Triumphs Barnum remembers one exhibit of American Indians from the “far West” that demonstrates his consummate showmanship, in which he transforms a group of Indian chiefs into museum pieces supposedly without their even realizing it. Capitalizing on the language barrier between the chiefs and himself, Barnum “convinces” the Indians that visitors to his American Museum in New York are there to honor the Indians. The chiefs appear to be pleased with this news and they welcome the endless, seemingly adoring crowds who come to pay them “respect.” The success of the exhibit depends upon the Indians remaining ignorant—or at least acting ignorant—of the museum’s true function. “If they suspected that your Museum was a place where people paid for entering,” the Indian’s interpreter tells Barnum, “you could not keep them a moment after the discovery”[4. P. T. Barnum, Struggles and triumphs; or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P. T. Barnum (Buffalo: Courier Company, 1882), p. 214.]—a claim that heightened the audience’s sense of witnessing savagery from a position of safety.
The language barrier worked to Barnum’s advantage especially when he introduced one Kiowa chief, Yellow Bear, to the audience. Smiling and genially patting Yellow Bear on the shoulder, Barnum “pretended to be complimenting him to the audience” when he was in fact saying the opposite:
[Yellow Bear] has killed, no doubt, scores of white persons, and he is probably the meanest, black-hearted rascal that lives in the far West. […] If the blood-thirsty little villain understood what I was saying, he would kill me in a moment; but as he thinks I am complimenting him, I can safely state the truth to you, that he is a lying, thieving, treacherous, murderous monster. He has tortured to death poor, unprotected women, murdered their husbands, brained their helpless little ones; and he would gladly do the same to you or to me, if he though he could escape punishment.[5. Ibid., pp. 215-216.]
The incongruity of Barnum’s inflammatory words and his affectionate manner creates a humorous effect for his readers, if not for those in attendance at the museum, and establishes a pattern to how Native American “savages” would be described to the masses for generations to come.
Though the problem of translation is one with which Geronimo would have to contend, in more subtle ways, when he told his own life story, later exhibits of American Indians did not depend upon gross misrepresentations of which those being represented were supposedly unaware. Instead, the exhibits relied on the ready complicity of Native Americans. Spectacles like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and his competitors, which were immensely popular from the 1880s through the 1920s, actively sought out willing Native Americans, including Geronimo. And many of the traits Barnum attributed to Yellow Bear—lying, thieving, treachery—were said of Geronimo as well. After the 1904 World’s Fair Geronimo briefly joined Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (again, with the permission of the U. S. government, since he was still technically a prisoner of war). Geronimo’s act, never mind that Apaches were not buffalo hunters like the Plains Indians, was to shoot a buffalo from a moving automobile. In a move reminiscent of Barnum, Pawnee Bill billed Geronimo for this performance as “The Worst Indian That Ever Lived.”[6. Paul Reddin, Wild West Shows (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), pp. 153, 161.]
And Geronimo went along with the billing. By 1904, the Apache warrior was a seasoned showman and knew how to sell himself (or how to avail himself to be sold by others). He had appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, and even earlier he was paraded at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska.[7. Ibid., p. 161.] This expo was Geronimo’s debut, so to speak, his first time appearing in public as an attraction. Like the other Native Americans showcased in the exposition’s “Congress of American Indians,” Geronimo was subject to the crowd’s immense curiosity. According to Overland Monthly magazine, the “Congress of American Indians” was organized with a very specific goal in mind:
to present the different Indian tribes and their primitive modes of living; to reproduce their old games and dances; compare the varied and characteristic style of dress; illustrate their strange customs; recall their almost forgotten traditions; prove their skill in bead embroidery, basket-weaving, and pottery; and most important of all, to afford a comparison of the various tribes and a study of their characteristic and tribal traits.[8. Mary Alice Harriman, “The Congress of American Aborigines at the Omaha Exposition,” Overland Monthly 33 (1898), p. 506.]
The American Indians are specimens whose function is to “illustrate” strange customs yet enable distinctions to be made between the different tribes. In other words, the Indian is static, reified, deserving not so much of respect as scholarship. These representatives of a “fast-dying race,” stereotypically associated with “primitive” crafts like embroidery and pottery, are made all the more striking when juxtaposed against the modern architectural and engineering feats displayed at the exposition. “The Indian,” declared Overland Monthly, “will always be a fascinating object.”[9. Ibid., p. 507.] Indeed, nearly every page of the report in Overland Monthly is accompanied by a photograph of a notable Native American, often deliberately posing for the camera. On the first page is a portrait of the aged Geronimo, shot by the official photographer of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition and Indian Congress, F. A. Rinehart. Described as having a “deeply wrinkled face, scarred and seamed with seventy years of treachery and cunning,” Geronimo stands as a nostalgic reminder of the Apache wars two decades earlier, a nostalgia that further reduces the Indian into an object, a memento.[10. Ibid., p. 510.]
Paul Greenhalgh argues in Ephemeral Vistas, his study of late nineteenth and early twentieth century expositions and world’s fairs, that this process of objectification depended upon a blurring between entertainment and education:
Between 1889 & 1914, the exhibitions [the expositions and world’s fairs] became a human showcase, when people from all over the world were brought to sites in order to be seen by others for their gratification and education. […] Through this twenty-five year period it would be no exaggeration to say that as items of display, objects were seen to be less interesting than human beings, and through the medium of display, human beings were transformed into objects.[11. Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas: A History of the Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), p. 82.]
Surely Greenhalgh had in mind, among other examples, the representation of Native Americans as they appeared at the Omaha Exposition of 1898 and the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Evidence abounds that “human beings were transformed into objects” at both events. According to David R. Francis, the former governor of Missouri and chairman of the St. Louis Exposition’s executive committee, Geronimo “illustrated at once a native type and an aboriginal personage of interest alike to special students and passing throngs of visitors.”[12. David R. Francis, The Universal Exposition of 1904 (St. Louis: Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, 1913), p. 529.] Geronimo, according to this formulation, is a “type,” which scholars and tourists alike can find interest in, providing the turn-of-the-century equivalent of edutainment.
Perhaps “edutainment” is too light a word, for it glosses over the complex power relations at work in Native American exhibitions. Linking the open displays of Native Americans in expositions like St. Louis with the more insidious Foucauldian panopticons that structured modern prisons, the historian Jo Ann Woodsum reasons, “As in the panopticon, the person(s) on display are under constant surveillance and therefore participate in their own discipline before the omnipresent gaze of the colonial eye.” Woodsum concludes that “Americans could gaze on their vanquished enemies [the Indians] with a twofold purpose. First, to acknowledge their triumph over a terrible obstacle on the road to progress. Second, as a way of reconciling the bloody nature of that triumph of empire with the foundation of the country as a democratic republic.”[13. Jo Ann Woodsum, “‘Living Signs of Themselves’: A Research Note on the Politics and Practice of Exhibiting Native Americans in the United States at the Turn of the Century,” UCLA Historical Journal 13 (1993), pp. 114-118.] The displays, Woodsum suggests, patch over an enormous ideological rift in American history. Indeed, there is a redemptive element to the fair, but in the case of Geronimo, I would argue, what is redeemed is not the nation, but the native. “Here,” Francis writes in The Universal Exposition of 1904, the official account of the St. Louis event, “the once bloody warrior Geronimo completed his own mental transformation from savage to citizen and for the first time sought to assume both the rights and the responsibilities of the high stage.”[14. Francis, p. 529.] The exposition was nothing less than the means through which Geronimo, whose name was once invoked as a kind of bogeyman, became the paragon of citizenship.[15. Consider what one pioneer’s granddaughter recalls: “When my mother was growing up, people said to their children, ‘If you don’t behave, Geronimo will get you.’” Quoted in C. L. Sonnichsen, “From Savage to Saint: A New Image for Geronimo,” Journal of Arizona History 27 (1986), p. 8.]
Samuel M. McCowan, the superintendent of the Chilocco Indian Training School in Oklahoma who became the director of the St. Louis Indian exhibits, had wished to present examples of Indian industry from tribes as diverse as Navajo, Pueblo, Apache, and Sioux. These Native Americans who sold their “native” crafts—pottery, beads, baskets, blankets, buckskins, silver jewelry—stood in sharp contrast to Geronimo, who sat in his booth signing photographs and hawking souvenirs (like the buttons taken from his coat, of which he had a curiously large supply).[16. Debo, pp. 400-405.] McCowan initially had felt that Geronimo was “no more than a blatant blackguard, living on a false reputation,” but he arranged for the Chiricahua Apache to visit the fair anyway, since his presence would guarantee a large crowd for the more educational aspects of the Indian exhibit.[17. Robert A. Trennert, “A Resurrection of Native Arts and Crafts: The St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904,” Missouri Historical Review 87 (1993), pp. 286-288.] As Geronimo’s time at the Fair came to a close, however, even McCowan changed his mind about Geronimo. McCowan almost gushes as he reports back to the army captain responsible for guarding the Apache warrior in Oklahoma:
He really has endeared himself to whites and Indians alike. With one or two exceptions, when he was not feeling well, he was gentle, kind and courteous. I did not think I could ever speak so kindly of the old fellow whom I have always regarded as an incarnate fiend. I am very glad to return him to you in as sound and healthy condition as when you brought him here.[18. Debo, p. 415.]
Geronimo, redeemed through his budding civility (not to mention his newfound interest in capitalism), impressed McCowan just as he impressed so many other visitors. As one Arizona visitor to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition remarked, Geronimo “had been tamed and looked alright.”[19. Robert A. Trennert, “Fairs, Expositions, and the Changing Image of Southwestern Indians, 1876-1904,” New Mexico Historical Review 62 (1987), p. 146.] Two decades earlier that same visitor from the Southwest might have been clamoring for Geronimo’s hanging. These changes in attitude of those around him are the virtues of converting “from savage to citizen.”
Geronimo the Reader and Spectator
[quote]When people first came to the World’s Fair they did nothing but parade up and down the streets. When they got tired of this they would visit the shows. There were many strange things in these shows.[/quote]
– Geronimo, describing his experience at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair [20. Geronimo and S. M. Barrett, Geronimo: His Own Story, ed. Frederick Turner (1906; New York: Meridian-Penguin, 1996), p. 156.]
But what did Geronimo think about all this? We can begin to hazard some guesses because Geronimo told us in the most subtle of ways. In 1905, back in custody at Fort Sills, Geronimo agreed to tell S. M. Barrett, a school superintendent from a nearby town, his life story. “Each day,” Barrett recalls, “he had in mind what he would tell and told it in a very clear, brief manner. […] Whenever his fancy led him, there he told whatever he wished to tell and no more.” Geronimo controlled what was said, how it was said, and when it was said. When asked a question after the first interview session, Geronimo simply responded, “Write what I have spoken.”[21. Ibid., p. 41.] Refusing to speak if a stenographer was present, Geronimo crafted an autobiography which is the legacy of an oral tradition. Doubly so—since he told his story to an interpreter, Asa Daklugie, who then told it to Barrett, at which point the story was put down in writing. Geronimo speaks, but someone else writes.[21. The relationship between Geronimo’s orality and literacy would make for a very interesting case study. Geronimo was illiterate, yet there was one word which Geronimo could write: his signature, a line of clumsy block letters G-E-R-O-N-I-M-O, which he autographed his photographs with.] The manuscript was then submitted for approval to the War Department, whose Secretary had found that “there are a number of passages which, from the departmental point of view, are decidedly objectionable.”[22. Geronimo and Barrett, p. 45.] It was only after President Roosevelt approved the manuscript in 1906 that this “autobiography” was published as Geronimo’s Story of His Life (it has since been reissued as Geronimo: His Own Story).
Rarely has Geronimo’s Own Story been treated as a literary text. More often it has been read as a historical document, or as Barrett phrases it in his preface, “an authentic record of the private life of the Apache Indians.”[23. Ibid., p. 1.] One notable exception is John Robert Leo’s “Riding Geronimo’s Cadillac: His Own Story and the Circumstancing of Text.” Written in the late seventies in the heady days of American deconstructionism, the article is quite concerned with the construction of meaning through the aporia in the text. In one rather—and now, predicable—Derridean move, for example, Leo announces that “Geronimo is he whose meaning always is emerging.”[24. John Robert Leo, “Riding Geronimo’s Cadillac: His Own Story and the Circumstancing of Text,” Journal of American Culture 1 (1978), p. 820.] While what Leo means by this statement of différance is too complicated to trace out here, I do want to emphasize Leo’s point that despite the translations, transcribing, and censorship that His Own Story underwent, “a residue of Geronimo’s way of seeing comes through the repressive imprint of white textual authority.”[25. Ibid., p. 824.] In other words, Geronimo circumvents a repressive ideological textual apparatus in order to convey a reading of the dominant white culture that goes against the grain—what Stuart Hall calls an “oppositional reading,” a reading that “detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference.”[26. Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding,” The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 103.] Geronimo begins the chapter of His Own Story called “At the World’s Fair,” with just such an encoding:
When I was at first asked to attend the St. Louis World’s Fair I did not wish to go. Later, when I was told that I would receive good attention and protection, and that the President of the United States said that it would be all right, I consented.[27. Geronimo and Barrett, p. 155.]
What Geronimo does not say is that he did not wish to go because the government was only willing to pay $1 per day for appearing at the exposition, while a commercial promoter had offered Geronimo $100 per month. Once the government made it clear that Geronimo could only leave his compound at Fort Sill under the War Department’s terms, he acquiesced.[28. Trennert, “Native Arts and Crafts,” pp. 287-288; Debo, p. 410.] Or, as he phrased it, in way that puts the power back in his hands, “I consented.” Of course, Geronimo would receive “good attention and protection” during his trip—in other words, close supervision by government guards.
What allows Geronimo to decode the fair, revealing some of its absurdities and paradoxes and then re-encode his reading in an understated narrative that we ourselves must decode is his appreciation of the power of the printed word, a lesson learned during his warrior days of the 1880s. Geronimo demonstrates this awareness in a transcript of his March 25, 1886 parley with General Crook:
I do not want you [General Crook] to believe any bad papers about me. I want the papers sent you to tell the truth about me, because I want to do what is right. Very often there are stories put in the newspapers that I am to be hanged. I don’t want that any more. When a man tries to do right, such stories out not to be put in the newspapers. […] Don’t believe any bad talk you hear about me. The agents and the interpreter hear that somebody has done wrong, and they blame it all on me. Don’t believe what they say. […] I think I am a good man, but in the papers all over the world they say I am a bad man.”[29. Britton Davis, The Truth About Geronimo, ed. M. M. Quaife (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929), pp. 202-203.]
Geronimo brought this understanding that “bad papers” tell “bad talk” to bear as he told Barrett his thoughts about his six months at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where, when he was not selling photographs and buttons or, as he did every Sunday, roping buffalo for delighted audiences in a Wild West show, he would himself venture to the shows. “There were,” Geronimo decided, “many strange things in these shows.”[30. Geronimo and Barrett, p. 156.] What follows in the rest of the chapter is the exhibition object par excellence, whom audiences come to gawk at, speaking about what he finds strange, what he finds alien about the fair. And Geronimo does so in such an understated way, focusing on seemingly unrelated shows, that we might wonder what underlying sentiments the old Apache hoped to convey in this narrative.
Of all the “many strange things” at the World’s Fair, of all the marvels and exhibits—the Exposition power plant, the Swiss chalet, the arc lighting, the hot air balloon races, the automobile showcase—what does Geronimo remember, or at least tell Barrett about? Most telling is that Geronimo recounts a number of acts which involve dissimulation. Watching two Turks brandishing scimitars in a sham battle, he “expected both to be wounded or perhaps killed, but neither one was harmed.” In another show a “strange-looking negro” sat bound in a chair, his hands tied behind his back. In a moment, the escape artist was free. Geronimo tells Barrett that “I do not understand how this was done. It was certainly a miraculous power, because no man could have released himself by his own efforts.” In the same vein, Geronimo witnesses a magic show, in which a variation of the classic trick of sawing a woman in half is performed. “I heard the sword cut through the woman’s body,” Geronimo recalls, “and the manager himself said she was dead; but when the cloth was lifted from the basket she stepped out, smiled, and walked off the stage.” The magic for Geronimo, as he tells it, lies not in the illusion that a woman’s body was sliced in half, but in how she healed. “I would like to know how she was so quickly healed,” Geronimo asks, “and why the wounds did not kill her.”[31. Geronimo and Barrett, p. 156.]
Men who fiercely fight and are not injured. A man who escapes the inescapable. A woman whose mortal wound disappears. I would venture that Geronimo is not simply dictating a chronological account of his wanderings through the midway, but is consciously, strategically constructing a discourse on power and the evasion of its effects. Perhaps Geronimo sees in the black escape artist who wrests himself free with “a miraculous power” a version of his own struggle against the repressive white world
A visit to a glassmaker likewise turns into a meditation on deception, authority, and control:
I had always thought that these things [glassware] were made by hand, but they are not. The man had a curious little instrument, and whenever he would blow through this into a little blaze the glass would take any shape he wanted it to. I am not sure, but I think that if I had this kind of an instrument I could make whatever I wished. There seems to be a charm about it. But I suppose it is very difficult to get these little instruments, or other people would have them.[32. Ibid., p. 160.]
Here Geronimo imagines what it would be like to “make whatever I wished,” a tantalizing power for one whose land and family were torn away from him a quarter of a century earlier. Geronimo recognizes the impossibility of such wishing, though, hinting that if such powers were readily available no one would want for anything. What it is that makes possessing “these little instruments” of power so very difficult is left unsaid—a striking silence in the text.
The conclusion of the chapter in His Own Story devoted to the World’s Fair is particularly stirring—and particularly coded. Geronimo, at the fair as a representative of one group of anthropological specimens, mentions an encounter with another group of anthropological specimens, “some little brown people” that United States troops had “captured recently on some islands far away from here.” These were Iggorrotes from the Philippines, about whom Geronimo had “heard that the President sent them to the Fair so they could learn some manners, and when they went home teach their people how to dress and how to behave.”[33. Ibid.] On the surface Geronimo appears to distance himself from these “brown people,” disavowing any similarities between his situation and theirs. But this is to ignore Geronimo’s next remark, in which he implicitly places himself in the same subject position as the Filipinos:
I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned much of the white people. They are a very kind and peaceful people.[32. Ibid., pp. 161-162.]
Just as the Iggorrotes were to learn how to dress and behave by observing whites, so too did Geronimo learn from the whites. I would argue that this closing passage is laced with irony. What exactly did Geronimo learn of the white people? Not of their technology, their engineering, their art—all on display at the Exposition—nor how to dress and how to behave. Rather, he learned of the mechanisms of power, of deception, of a feigned aggression which is merely a mask for real violence. Geronimo concludes that “had this [Exposition] been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often.”[33. Ibid., p. 162.] Surely this is an allusion to Geronimo’s earlier days, when he did have to defend himself against Mexicans, but also, unspoken here, against whites, who deceived Geronimo and his Apache band time and time again with their false promises and broken treaties.[34. I have not the space to present a detailed history of the Apache Wars and the various treaties and negotiations which pushed Geronimo and his tribe into a reservation system, but suffice it to say, that Geronimo himself covers this history earlier in His Own Story, especially pages 119-131, which makes Geronimo’s conclusion all that much more ironic.] A “very kind and peaceful people”? Hardly, if one adopts an oppositional reading, as Geronimo dryly does.
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Harriman, Mary Alice. “The Congress of American Aborigines at the Omaha Exposition.” Overland Monthly 33 (1898): 505-512.
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Sonnichsen, C. L. “From Savage to Saint: A New Image for Geronimo.” Journal of Arizona History 27 (1986): 5-34.
Trennert, Robert A. “Fairs, Expositions, and the Changing Image of Southwestern Indians, 1876-1904.” New Mexico Historical Review 62 (1987): 127-150.
—. “A Resurrection of Native Arts and Crafts: The St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904.” Missouri Historical Review 87 (1993): 274-292.
Woodsum, Jo Ann. “‘Living Signs of Themselves’: A Research Note on the Politics and Practice of Exhibiting Native Americans in the United States at the Turn of the Century.” UCLA Historical Journal 13 (1993): 110-129.