In the Flesh in the Museum

Representations of Indians in American Natural History Museums

Preface: The recent posts on Ota Benga and the popular museum reminded me of an essay I had wanted to post last year when Kerim posted about the Bavarian village in display in Africa. I had prepared it for posting last year, but for some reason never did. The essay deals with the display of living people, and particularly native North and South Americans, in ethnographic/educational contexts — not the sideshow, but the museum and the culture fair.

“There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” writes Danielle LaVaque-Manty (2000: 71) “And there aren‘t any other kinds of people.” The particular Museum of Natural History LaVaque-Manty is speaking of is the Ruthven Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan, but she could easily be describing any number of natural history museums throughout the United States—the American Museum of Natural history in New York City, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley, the Field Museum in Chicago, and so on. Since their respective inceptions, mostly in the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the American natural history museum has played a privileged role in the presentation and representation of American Indians1 to an American public largely defined in ambiguous counterpoint to the savage mannequins held at bay behind the plate glass of the museum display. Whether cast as the noble Redman sadly disappearing before the onslaught of civilization or as the savage heathen to be forcibly converted or eliminated entirely, the removal or disappearance of American Indians was a necessary prerequisite to the occupation by white settlers of the American land. The museum became, oft times literally so, the last refuge of the “wild” Indian, at the same time that the possession of the Indian in the museum came to stand for exactly the possession of the land that made the “wild” Indian an anachronism, an echo of a time not before the settlers came, but of a time entirely removed from the history of America, a time when America was, indeed, an entirely different and new world.

This paper deals with the presentation of Indians in the American museum. Where LaVaque-Manty is speaking figuratively, though—of the representation of Indians through their artifacts, relics, and bones—this paper deals literally with the presentation of living Indians in American museum settings. The most famous of these awkward denizens of the museum was Ishi, “the last wild Indian” (Kroeber 1961) who, from 1911 until his death in 1916, lived and worked in the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology under the auspices of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. But Ishi was only the most famous of a number of Indians put on display in museums and museum-like setting. Kroeber’s teacher and mentor, Franz Boas, had exhibited a dozen Kwakiutl in the “ethnographic zoo” he supervised at the Columbian Exposition two decades before, and Kroeber himself had studied the Eskimos housed, at Boas’ request, in the American Museum of Natural History in from 1897-1898. Indians were displayed at dozens of World Fairs and Expositions, many times in exhibitions sponsored and curated by the Smithsonian.

This history must necessarily be situated in relationship to the wider context of museum display, a context which includes not just the living but also the dead and the (apparently) lifelike, such as the Indians of mannequins and dioramas, and which includes not just the museum but also the museum-like, the Expositions and traveling show which aim to sugar coat science with a veneer of entertainment and spectacle (or should that be to sugar-coat entertainment and spectacle with a veneer of science?). The final aim is towards grasping the essential objectification, the “waxworkification”, that lies at the heart of the ethnographic display and that captures the Indian as an object of display in the American museum. As a final examination of the ways in which this history continues to shape museum practices (both those of curators and of visitors), and ways in which this history can be, and is, subverted, I will briefly examine the recent exhibition/performance piece Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992) presented at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian (among other places), in which two Mexican artists performed the part of newly-discovered Indians while locked in a gilded cage on display in the Museum’s rotunda. This piece highlights some of the ambiguities and ambivalences inherited by the museum space, which Indians—suddenly empowered by the passage of the Indian Gaming Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among other factors—must deal with in constructing their own self-representations.

The display of Indians has a long history, dating back to the first Indians taken by Columbus to present to Queen Isabella as a proof of the wealth to be found in the New World, conveniently wedding display as a function of curiosity with display as a function of the then-emerging slave trade. From the first European contact with the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere onward, Indians had been exhibited in royal courts, traveling shows, circuses, and world fairs and expositions. In the United States of the 19th and, to a somewhat lesser extent, 20th centuries, the Indian became a symbol of the American land brought to heel by the expansion and dominance of the “civilized” Anglo-Americans—a symbolism brought to life and enacted for a self-congratulatory American public in virtually all of the world fairs and expositions hosted by American cities. But it was not until the second half of the 19th century, with the rise of the natural history museum as a function of national interest, that the spectacle and entertainment value of living Indians was wed to scientific interest and presented as a primarily educational tool for the edification of the nascent American public.

Inspired by the success of ethnographic exhibits at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, both the Smithsonian and the Peabody Museum at Harvard contributed ethnographically-oriented exhibitions to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At the Paris Exhibition, 182 Asians and Africans, representatives of France’s overseas colonial holdings, had been installed in simulated villages, at least partially with the intent of “quell[ing] French anxieties over the government’s policies of empire” (Rydell 1984: 56). Inspired by the French exhibits, Otis T. Mason, Curator of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, and Frederic Ward Putnam, head of the Peabody Museum’s Department of American Archaeology and Ethnology, resolved to perform a similar feat in Chicago, improving on the French original by representing a wider portion of the world’s diversity, and by incorporating these representations into a narrative schema which would illustrate, in the words of one of Putnam’s assistants, “the advancement of evolution of man” (Harlan Ingersoll Smith, in Rydell 1984: 57).

The centerpiece of the two museums’ efforts was the Anthropology Building, in which Putnam “reproduced” a model of Yucatan ruins and a Southwestern cliff dwelling, both archaeological exhibits. Outside of the building were built several ethnographic exhibits, featuring live natives performing “traditional” dances and rituals, as well as carrying out such day-to-day activities as were possible under the watchful eyes of the Exposition’s visitors. Most notable among these displays was the group of Kwakiutl Indians from Fort Rupert in British Columbia, who inhabited a Queen Charlotte Island village which had been disassembled, shipped to Chicago, and reassembled on the site (Hinsley 1991: 349). The Kwakiutl exhibit had been arranged by the German émigré and future “father of American Anthropologist” Franz Boas, then still unable to find a permanent position in the United States, after several years of museum experience in Germany followed by several fieldtrips among first the Eskimo and then the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest. Through his friend and best informant, the half-Tlingit George Hunt, Boas had secured the cooperation of the 14 Kwakiutl, who lived in Chicago for the 6 months of the Exposition.

The Kwakiutl space was directly in front of the Leather and Shoe Trades Building, forcing Boas to hang white sheets behind the Indian performers to screen the Kwakiutl from their surroundings. This “framing” was emblematic of ambiguities that surfaced throughout the show, as native realities rubbed up against nationalist and racist expectations. These tensions are encapsulated in the example of the Samoan contingency, who took advantage of the lengthy cross-Pacific journey to cut their hair and adopt American garb. They were greeted with horror by the manager in charge of their exhibit at the Exposition, who quickly “put a halt to the ‘civilizing process’” (Rydell 1984: 67) and within a short while it was reported that “the Samoans [were] making a heroic and laudable effort to resume their natural state of barbarism” (Daily Inter Ocean, 14 June 1893, in Rydell 1984: 67). Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”, the attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of a tribe’s pre-contact culture before its adherents disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilization—and the nationalist leanings of the Exposition’s directors, who wanted the ethnographic exhibitions to form a sort of “baseline” against which the modernity of Anglo-America could be measured. Ironically, in their quest for greater authenticity, the anthropologists of the Bureau of Ethnology and the Peabody often ended up inventing native culture for the natives themselves. R.H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School, later recalled of the Chicago exposition that “In some cases the ethnologists… had to show the Indians how to build and dress because none of the present generation in such tribes knew” (In Rydell 1984: 252 n. 51). The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

Although similar exhibits formed part of other such fairs and expos over the course of the next century, the Columbian Exposition stands out as particularly important for a number of reasons: it was the first of its kind in America, setting the stage for later such shows; it established Franz Boas’ reputation as a curator and exhibitor, allowing him to form relationships with Mason and Putnam that would prove crucial for the later development of anthropology as both a museum and an academic discipline; and, most directly, the collections assembled for the Columbian Exposition became the core of the new Field Museum. At the close of the Exposition, Boas was hired as the interim curator to supervise the transfer and installation of the Exposition exhibits to the Field. After political considerations led to Boas’ replacement at the Field Museum, Putnam used his influence to secure positions at the American Museum of Natural History, and then Columbia University, for Boas (Stocking 1968: 281). It was at the American Museum that the next scenario recounted here would unfold.

Boas’ interest in Eskimos dates to his graduate work in Physics and Geography while he was still in Germany. Interested in the perception of the physical world by people whose lives and livelihood were dependant on those perceptions, Boas designed a field expedition to study Eskimo understandings of their environment, culminating in a trip to Baffinland in 1883 (Stocking 1968: 133-160). Although his ethnographic interests came to rest with the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, Boas continued to refer to his Eskimo material sporadically throughout his career. Along with the Kwakiutl exhibit at the Columbian Exposition, Boas had also arranged for a number of Labrador Eskimos to be displayed. At the American Museum, this interest was continued, with Boas writing to the explorer Robert Peary suggesting that on his next expedition, he bring back a middle-aged Eskimo from the north of Greenland, if possible (Thomas 2000: 80). Two years later, in 1897, Peary arrived in New York with 6 Eskimos among his cargo, including the 6-year old boy Minik, son of one of the Eskimos. For two days, 30,000 visitors paid twenty-five cents a head to view the Eskimos aboard Peary’s ship, until more permanent accommodations could be arranged at the American Museum, first in the basement and then in an office on the 6th floor (81).

Within 8 months, four of Peary’s Eskimos, as they were called in the popular press, were dead of tuberculosis, including Minik’s father. One of the Eskimo’s returned to Greenland; Minik remained in New York (though under what conditions is unclear from the scant literature on this affair). Boas, embittered by his experience at the Columbian Exposition (where he described his role as “circus impresario” [67]), declared that the Eskimos’ presence at the Museum would serve scientific purposes only—not exhibition. Preoccupied by the planning and execution of the Jesup Expedition, which would provide the bulk of the material on the cultures of the Pacific Northwest that still make up a sizable amount of the Museum’s permanent exhibition, Boas had little time to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Museum’s new residents. This responsibility he turned over to his most promising student, Alfred Kroeber, who, after learning the Eskimo language, produced three important monographs on Eskimo culture and folklore. The Eskimos’ eight-month residence at the American Museum proved itself eminently worthwhile—for the anthropologists, at least—and would have been somewhat unexceptional except for a rather grisly coda.

8 years later, a newspaper article revealed that Minik’s father, Qisuk, had in fact not been buried, as Minik had believed, but in fact had been autopsied, his brain removed and preserved, his body macerated and reduced, and his bones deposited in the Museum’s collection. Aleš Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist at the museum, had in fact published an article on the anatomy of Qisuk’s brain (1901). A press scandal erupted when Minik asked for, and was refused, the return the bones for burial. Although there is no evidence, aside from the most likely exaggerated journalistic accounts of the day, that Qisuk’s bones were ever put on public display, their presence as part of the Museum’s collection—as objects of study—raises important questions about the nature of scientific study in museums which are still being debated to this day. More to the point, the museum as a site for a specific and exclusive display of bones for scientific research points to not only a division between public and elite education, but also highlights the particular “mortuary effect” of the museum—what I have called in my introduction to this paper the “waxworkification” of living cultures.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that “Human displays teeter-totter on a kind of semiotic seesaw, equipoised between the animate and inanimate, the living and the dead. The semiotic complexity of exhibits of people, particularly those of an ethnographic character, may be seen in reciprocities between exhibiting the dead as if they are alive and the living as if they are dead, reciprocities that hold as well for the art of the undertaker as they do the art of the museum preparatory” (1991: 398). Especially in the creation of waxworks are the roles of undertaker and museum preparatory so clearly intertwined. Rooted historically in Madame Tussaud’s energetic re-creation in wax of the faces and personages of the French Revolution from their death masks, waxworks have always existed on the brink of Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s “semiotic seesaw”, at once rendering the dead heroes and villains of the past lifelike and embalming the living celebrities of their day in the wax of the reliquary and the mortuary (Warner 1995). Wax itself, as a medium of reproduction, more closely resembles dead, not living, flesh; this, coupled with the tendency of museum displays to render their ethnographic subjects “in the act”—that is, in a frozen moment of motion, as in a photograph—combined to produce a “ghastly impression” the Boas objected to in ethnographic display (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991: 401).

The use of bones in museum collections and exhibitions reflects, and even exaggerates, the tensions of the waxwork display, for if waxworks make their subjects appear dead, the human remains which make up natural history museum collections actually are dead, often (as in the case of Qisuk) the remains of people known personally to the staff. While most bones are reserved for scientific research—and many lie forgotten and uncatalogued in the vastness of the larger collections—bones are also put on display, either articulated as skeletons or laid out in some semblance of their order while living. As with waxworks, bones used in display are often posed in “lifelike” stances and/or surrounded with the accouterments of living members of their culture. Even setting aside the moral and political aspects of the use of human remains by museums, the fact that the bones and other body parts of dead Indians, preserved in museums, are continuously referred to in order to investigate, catalogue, and understand their living descendants again has the effect of transposing our understandings into the past—“freezing” Indians into a static, fixed, and effectively dead state.

Among the effectively dead were counted, until 1911, California’s Yahi Indians, believed extinct since the time of the Civil War (Kroeber 1976: 342). In August of that year, a “wild man” emerged from the California forest near Oroville, where he was captured and taken to be held in the jailhouse. Kroeber, then working at the University of California where he was in charge of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, dispatched an assistant to Oroville who determined that the Indian was the last living member of the Yahi, the southernmost branch of the Central Californian Yana Indians. After 48 hours of communications between Oroville, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, it was decided to release the Indian into Kroeber’s care at the Museum of Anthropology, where, pressed by the media to produce some name to call this “Wild Man of Oroville”, Kroeber christened him “Ishi”, the Yahi word for “man”. Ishi lived at the Museum for the next 4 ½ years, until his death in 1915 of tuberculosis (Kroeber 1961).

Unlike Qisuk and the other Eskimos, Ishi became a regular attraction at the Museum of Anthropology, displaying before crowds of onlookers his native skills, particularly flint-knapping, fletchery, and archery. He was also given a paying job at the Museum, as a janitor, allowing him a small degree of independence, although he never learned more than a few hundred words of English, and had few close friends beside Kroeber and two of his colleagues at the University. Ishi became an invaluable informant on a virtually unknown culture, his history of isolation proving well-enough to Kroeber to establish his version of Yahi culture as “pure”, “authentic”, and “untainted” by Western civilization (although today we might ask how “untouched” Ishi’s culture, marked by a 40-year fugitivism as they fled from White settlers and military forces, could have really been). Within days of Ishi’s arrival at the museum, Kroeber was besieged with requests from traveling show organizers, circus hucksters, and storefront vaudevilles to loan Ishi out for display, all of which Kroeber, ever the man of science, refused.

In the course of Ishi’s stay at the Museum, he and Kroeber became especially close, although Kroeber was often distracted by his professional responsibilities and by the lingering illness and eventual death of his first wife. At the time of Ishi’s death, Kroeber was in Europe, though he was in constant communication with Ishi and the Museum and medical staff responsible for him. Despite Kroeber’s insistence on a “Christian burial” for his friend, without an autopsy or dissection as had been performed on Qisuk during Kroeber’s early career, a simple autopsy was performed and Ishi’s brain was removed. As well, a death mask was cast, and then Ishi’s remains (apart from the brain) were cremated.

In an ironic twist akin to the fate of Qisuk’s remains, Ishi’s brain, which Kroeber found waiting for him upon his return to San Francisco, was sent to Aleš Hrdlicka, then at the Smithsonian, where it was added to the National Museum’s collection, where it remained, forgotten, until 1999, when it was located by investigators concerned to repatriate Ishi’s remains for burial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Although neither Hrdlicka nor anyone else had studied the brain as had been done with Qisuk’s, it was still ostensible available for scientific study, along with the nearly 200 other brains preserved at the Smithsonian—an important reminder a the end of the 20th century of the foundations of the American natural history museum in the racist and nationalist science of the 19th.

Gerald Vizenor writes of Ishi that he “lived alone with one name, loose change and a business suit in a corner of an institution, the perfect tribal ornament. The anthropologists at the museumscape declared his private time a public venture; the survivor was collared for a place in an academic diorama…” (1990: 84). Vizenor’s depiction sees Ishi as frozen in time and space—the “museumscape”—for the benefit and academic pleasure of his benefactors. Ishi’s “last of the wild Indians” status made him a living fossil, a representative of a past with no place in the present, even as it stood before the museum’s visitors with “loose change and a business suit”. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett writes of this sort of display in terms of “genre error”: “one man’s life is another man’s spectacle” (407), adding that:

Exhibitions institutionalize this error by producing the quotidian as spectacle; they do this by building the role of the observer into the structure of events that, left to their own devices, are not subject to formal viewing (407).

Like those of Boas’ Kwakiutl at the Columbian Exposition, Ishi’s performances were more than simply out of context, they were transformed from daily life—subjective, natural, taken-for-granted, experienced—into spectacle—objects for scientific scrutiny and popular enjoyment, cultural, thrown into question, performed. This transformation of the quotidian into the exotic is ultimately and inevitably charged with sexuality—a fact which Vizenor recognizes in his prescription of “striptease” as a counter to the “waxworkification” of Indians such as Ishi, a stripping away or rather a working through of the regalia of display, with all its ambiguities, to reach at last the final contradictory moment of revelation. Following Roland Barthes, he writes that “at the final moment of nakedness a ‘woman is desexualized’” (83), the idea of sex collapsing into the everyday reality of human physical being. Further, in dancing the striptease, the actor becomes an agent, taking control of and casting away the accouterments of someone else’s “civilization”. The striptease exaggerates the display but, at the final moment, there is nothing more to see.

A kind of striptease took place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, among other places, in 1992, when two Mexican performance artists, Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco, presented a piece entitled The Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (Karp et al. 1996: 266-7). Dressed in an eclectic blend of tribal masks and headgear, punk leather, facepaint, and business casual, Fusco and Gomez-Peña portrayed members of a Caribbean tribe whose existence had gone undiscovered by the West, although they had long observed the West and plundered its ships, while disguised as English pirates. Installing themselves in a golden cage in the rotunda of the National Museum, the two artists worked on computers, ate bananas and drank Coca-Cola, and posed for photos with tourists, simultaneously embracing the stereotypes of the native on display and mocking the supposed educational and scientific pretensions of museums and their visitors. Audience reactions varied widely, ranging from utter disbelief to outrage. According to Ivan Karp, a curator at the National Museum at the time:

Visitors insisted that what they saw was authentic; viewers’ comments were mostly positive, but one kept insisting that this was actually a hidden video show, and wanted to know when he was going to be on TV. One anthropology professor was going to call her students up and insist that they come down to the museum. A Cherokee woman left the museum outraged before reading the chronology. Many other visitors liked the piece, but did not want to be reminded, particularly Black visitors, of issues of slavery. They and many Native American visitors appeared to like the concept but were disturbed by the reality (266).

The varied responses to Fusco and Gomez-Peña’s performance indicate the range of possibilities—some empowering, some dangerously reductive—inherent in Vizenor’s striptease. By drawing attention to the ambiguities built into the museum display of bodies, the artists highlighted the unequal power relationships that have always shaped museums’ attempts to portray cultures—a relationship akin to slavery, a relationship that always tends to represent living peoples as relics of a disappeared past, a relationship that, like the golden cage, looks good from the outside (“the concept”), until one finds oneself actually in it (“the reality”). Natural history museums have long relied on their power as institutions—a power constructed from scientific authority, museum architecture, civic sanction, and the funds of a bourgeois elite—to resolve those ambiguities in favor of the museum. It remains to be seen whether the museum itself is not too overdetermined by its own history to allow the post-modern tricksterism of the striptease to “unfreeze” the Indian from the waxwork stillness of the diorama.

This question is especially relevant for the present-day, as more and more tribes, making use of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and similar legislation throughout the United States and Canada, get involved in their own representations. Indians act as advisors to the Smithsonian and other institutions, contributing their own stories, artwork, and presence to projects like the soon-to-be-opened National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington Mall. Others use the new wealth made available to them by Indian Gaming and other business ventures to create their own museums, such as the $200 million Mashantuckett Pequot Museum in Connecticut (Thomas 2000: 205-6). Still others, after wrangling with museums over repatriation, have built museums to house and protect their cultural patrimonies, as in the U’mista Cultural Centre on Vancouver Island (Clifford 1997: 107-145). These efforts at self-representation must necessarily grapple with a museum history that has already constructed Indian cultures and bodies as, in the words of Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Bodies of Ethnography” (1991), a history that, from its beginning, has used Indians as a foil for the accomplishments of Western civilization. To be successful, then, the Indian striptease must do more than simply cast off the images of White domination; it must reconfigure the terms of display altogether, transform the mortuary effect of the museum—in effect, transform the museum itself—or risk becoming yet another spectacle.

1. Terminology is a tricky matter when dealing with America’s indigenous peoples. The term “Native American”, beloved of politically-correct white liberals (like myself…), is seen by many of the people it aims to describe as empty of meaning—most Americans these days are native-born. Plus, it ties indigenous peoples to a particular national formation foreign to their ancestors’ identities: America. Many Canadians use the term “First People” or similar phrases, which have not been adopted in the US. Most of the literature, both academic and popular, indigenous and otherwise, uses “Indian” self-consciously, as the preferred yet problematic term. Note also that Eskimos (Inuit) and Aleuts are generally not included under the rubric of “Indian”, though I do so here. [BACK]

Work Cited
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Hrdlicka, A.

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1976 [1925]. Handbook of the Indians of California. New York: Dover Publications.

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2000. There Are Indians in the Museum of Natural History. wicazo sa review 15(1):71-89.

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2000. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books. (nb Advance Unedited Proof; Actual page numbers may be different in final copy).

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