The Indian at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition


The Indian at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

The press of the country, in periodicals as well as in the daily papers, has given with more or less pictorial detail accounts of the so-called "Indian Congress" at Omaha, styling it as "by far the most picturesque and distinctive feature of the Exposition." While there is no doubt a certain picturesqueness in this Indian assembly, it is a question whether it presents as true an exhibit of the Indian himself, of his mental capacity, of his claim to be regarded as a man, whose future destiny is irrevocably interwoven with our national life, as can be found and studied in the little unheralded space of fifteen by forty feet in the Government Building at this same Exposition.

Very few persons, even, the most thoughtful and kindly disposed, who visit the "Indian Congress" are able to read the true story of the people beneath, the   [unclear] which meet their gaze. The peculiarities of costume and personal decoration, which once stood for ideas of vital force in aboriginal society, appear but as unmeaning oddities to the curious visitor, while the Indian's mode of living as seen in the encampment, torn from its true environment and divested of its ancient thrift, is made more grim and miserable by being placed within sight of an exhibition of great artistic beauty. It is not easy even in the quiet of the study to unveil the ideals and to discover the controlling forces of, an alien race, but when face to face with the people, when the senses are disturbed by strange and often disagreeable presentments, the task becomes of still greater difficulty taxing to the utmost even the trained student. So many complicated conditions exist at the "Indian Congress" that it becomes impossible for the chance visitor to obtain more than a superficial and misleading picture of the Indian. Judging from the various articles that have appeared in print, it is evident that, while the Indian has given a passing entertainment to the spectator, in the mind of that spectator he has suffered as a man.

One writer says, "It would perhaps be curious to know how things look to a man who is an American of a hundred generations and sees the world from behind copper colored eyelids, but who has a father's love for his children and a statesman's concern for his people." An answer in part at least might be found in the exhibit of the Indian Bureau in the Government Building of the Exposition.

There were two motives which controlled the arrangement of this limited exhibit. One to show the existence of native capacities and powers capable of being educated in their own progressive line; the other, to show the results of the educational system pursued in training the Indian upon our educational lines.

The front of the space, set apart for the Indian Bureau exhibit, facing the center aisle of the Building, was marked at one end of the line by a life size figure of an Indian warrior in native costume. The prowess of the man was the sole safeguard of the tribe and the family, he alone could provide the animal food and the pelts for warm clothing, so that the figure well represented the man's ancient avocations. At the other end of the line stood an Indian mother with baby at her side securely tied on its cradle board. The woman was the center of the home, the inventor of the industries which converted the raw products of the field into articles of use and comfort. Midway between these two figures representing aboriginal life, was the case containing dainty laces made by Indian women under the skillful instruduction of Miss Sybil Carter, with pieces of exquisite "drawn work" from the hands of pupils in the schools of California and the East. Just back of this line stood a case containing an exhibit of basketry to exemplify the ancient aboriginal art of basket weaving and the use of native dyes. The beauty of form and coloring and the skill in manufacture shown in the articles in this case, give ample evidence of the Indian's innate ability to conceive and to create. The delicate lace made under the supervision of Miss Carter manifested this capacity, only in a form more familiar to us and in which we are better able to gauge the capacity amid skill of the Worker than in the less known art of basket making.

The "Cosy Corner," in the space of this exhibit, was adorned by a dado made of native mats, the lounge was decked with a Navaho blanket, and the pottery and plaques which ornamented the brackets and cases were all the handiwork of Indians untaught by our race. How the esthetic abilities manifest in these native products could be cultivated by our methods was evidenced in many ways by the drawing, carving, and handiwork of the Indian pupils, which. filled several large cases.

Pernaps the most conspicuous example of artistic training were the studies in oil by Angel DeCora, a former student of Hampton and now a student with Howard Pyle. These pictures not only revealed a native feeling for color, but show ability to convey the character and sentiment of the subject. This was notable in the study of the interior of a deserted Mandan Lodge,—the arrangement of the few properties the subject made possible, only some posts and logs, the receding landscape seen through the wrecked walls, and the sheer bit, of blue sky with the bright light of today filling the ancient smoke hole, was all effectively managed so as to convey the story of the scene.

The methods pursued in the different Government training schools were well set forth in the general exhibit, Sloyd, Manual training, Blacksmithing, Harness and Carpenter work, Sewing, Tailoring. Shoe-making, Tinning, and Iron work were all admirably represented. Photographs not only showed the ample buildings provided for the schools, but pictured the girls in the laundry, and in the sewing room, the boys in the shops,and the printing room; pupils in and out of school studying and playing; and the men of the Crow tribe digging the great irrigating ditches on their reservation in Montana. Hampton's method of keeping in touch with her returned pupils was fully detailed, and so was the "outing system" of Carlisle. Diagrams and tables setting forth the average ability and success of pupils in the school, and afterward when facing the problem of self-support, turned a light upon the life and struggles of the Indian such as is not thrown upon our own young men and women, who oftener fail, under more favoring conditions, than do these half fledged children of the native race.

In the "Cosy corner" was a table whereon lay records, printed and pictorial, of the work of education for the Indian. The chairs about this table were always occupied by interested inspectors of these records, which not only told what the Government was doing, but showed how the people were responding and striving for themselves.

There was something else concerning this exhibit which should not be ignored. I refer to the visits of Indians themselves. While I was in Omaha I met scores of them, from different parts of the country, to whom this little space seemed to possess a magnetic power. Most of the younger visitors had been former pupils at Hampton, Carlisle, Genoa, Haskell, Chemawa, Chilocco or other schools. They came often, sometimes accompanied by their wives, former school girls, and little children. The interest in the exhibit was delightful to watch as they picked out among the photographs their particular school room, or some remembered friend or teacher. Their bright faces, their neat and thrifty appearance often formed a sharp contrast to that of other visitors who strayed by with only harsh words for Indians in general.

Talking with these young Indian men and women and with the older men who some times companioned them, they all bore testimony to the need and the helpfulness of the schools. One and all recognized that the past life of the Indian was a closed book, and that the future prosperity of the people lay with the white race and not apart from it. That struggles and difficulties confronted them, no one doubted, but that they might be overcome all were hopeful. Listening to these representatives of the Indian race, one felt the importance, of keeping the book of the past closed, that the past, fraught with deep lessons to the student of mankind, but filled with misunderstandings and tragedies in which two races have had their share, might cease to be an obstacle in the path of the rising generation which must be citizens with us under one flag.