In 1898, America’s World’s Fair took place in Omaha, Nebraska. Called the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the 1898 fair sought to depict the ‘settling’ of the west, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast. The Indian Congress was a major feature of the fair and a big draw for crowds. Twenty-one tribes participated in the congress, which included sham battles between ‘cowboys and Indians’, parades, displays of Native American tribal culture and most importantly, a living diorama, where tribes camped and ‘lived’ for the duration of the fair as they would have before reservation life stripped them of tradition. Visitors were encouraged to mill-around the living diorama, view and interact with tribal members. The irony of the Indian Congress was that it sought to to document a Native American lifestyle that had been eliminated by the government’s heavy hand in manipulating tribal culture. The following poem appears in my second collection Split the Crow. The poem is not double-spaced but WordPress can’t understand that, apologies.
Indian Exhibit; The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898
The Indian band strikes up Stars and Stripes Forever—
familiar distress signal of circus performers everywhere.
Down the midway waving scalps cut from cow-hide.
The Improved Order of Red Men play friendly
Indians to the white man’s clever cowboy. The sham
battle; a march to the reservation. Wander through the living
diorama, open day and night: this is how they cook
on open fire, this is how they cry.
Three Indians die and one attempts suicide
behind the scenes. This grass house and tipi and windbreak;
the only authentic artifacts says the ethnologist
James Mooney on arrival from Oklahoma
with 106 authentic Kiowa and their ponies.
He carries his grass house like a social studies project.
This lead buffalo, these miniature Indians
holding twigs for arrows. Real sized Indians
brandishing blanks. See
these once formidable enemies
of white man
camped together in a frame—