Chicago World Fair: Celebrating American Indian Culture or Erasing It?

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The World’s Columbian Exhibition, better known as the Chicago World Fair, in 1893 is often lauded as a premier exhibit of innovation and culture. However, the fair presented a stark contrast between what exhibition organizers deemed the civilized white culture and the uncivilized “Other”.

The Carlisle students served as an example to the American public of the “civilized” American Indian. (“Snatches from Comments of Various Prominent Papers on the Visit of the Carlisle School to the World’s Fair in October” in Ely Samuel Parker Scrapbooks, Vol 12, edited by Ely Samuel Parker. Accessed February 15, 2018.)

Ely Samuel Parker, collector of articles in the scrapbook (War Department, Office of the Chief Signal Caller. Col. Ely S. Parker, 1860-1865, National Archives at College Park)

Ely Samuel Parker, a Seneca-born American Indian and Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President Grant,1 included in his scrapbook collection quotes on the Carlisle School’s visit and performance at the World Fair. The Carlisle School, located in Pennsylvania, was a boarding school dedicated to erasing any semblance of Native American culture: language, clothing, hairstyle, and behavior, by taking young Native Americans away from their homes and families on the reservation. As the school’s founder, General Richard Pratt, famously said, the school sought to “kill the Indian, save the man”.1

The arrival of the students, as noted in Parker’s newspaper clippings, served as a stark contrast to the Native Americans in the Midway Plaisance. While in class, we discussed how the World’s Fair gave Native Americans in the Midway Plaisance more of an opportunity to present their culture, music, and dance from their own perspective, the Carlisle students demonstrate how the dominant American culture tried to stamp out Native American culture and treat it as “Other”. The newspaper clippings in Parker’s scrapbook serve as an example of how Americans believed that Native Americans could be civilized. They celebrate what they believed to be accomplished civilization. The article notes that the Carlisle School band of 32 instruments and choir, dressed in uniform, closed their performance with the playing of the American National Anthem at the time, “America” or “My Country Tis of Thee”.Leaving behind the drums and shakers as heard in the Native American music in class, the students picked up trumpets and trombones.Newspapers celebrated what they deemed a triumphant display of American Indian civilization. A passage from the Dubois, Pennsylvania Courier noted, “That it will be of use in showing us…that they are not outside the pale of civilizing influence, is also certain”.1

Members of the Carlisle School band in their uniforms. The school’s band served to erase Native American musical traditions and force the American/European musical tradition as a way of assimilating young Native Americans into the dominant American society (Choate, John N. “Carlisle School Band Members 1879”, 1879. National Anthropological Archive. Smithsonian Institution, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.).

Although some musicians tried to preserve or appropriate Native American music in the late 20th century, the Carlisle School’s performance at the World Fair demonstrates the dominant culture’s determination to stamp out what they considered the “savagery” of Native American culture, including music.

 

“A Biography of Ely S. Parker.” Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society. AccessedFebruary 19, 2018. http://www.galenahistory.org/researching/bio-sketches-of-famous-galenians/biography-of-ely-s-parker/.

 

King, C. Richard, “Indian Education” in Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon J. Bronner, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2017, eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=325

“Snatches from Comments of Various Prominent Papers on the Visit of the Carlisle School to the World’s Fair in October” in Ely Samuel Parker Scrapbooks, Vol 12, edited by Ely Samuel Parker. Accessed February 15, 2018,

Blest Be the Tie That Binds: Connecting Races with Music

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The World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, of 1893 served as a turning point for America in many ways. The fair brought almost 1/3 of the country to see a Chicago reborn out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, a shining White City representing the beautiful, though definitely idealized, America. As the world came to see the fair, many dignitaries and VIPs also visited.

Quinn Chapel, Chicago, IL.

In his mid-70s, the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of these VIPs. His visit to Chicago elicited a reception in his honor at the Quinn Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The program welcomed men and women of all races to celebrate and honor the achievements of the Hon. Mr. Douglass by presenting on topics like “Why our ministers love him,” “From a business standpoint,” “The mothers of the race,” etc. Between the presentations and speeches (many notably by African American speakers), the assembly joined in the singing of songs and hymns.

The reception’s organizers knew the power of music to connect people. Hymns especially unite the Christian faith together, reminding how similar people really are, no matter the color of their skin or their eyes, or the amount of money they have (“Amazing Grace” immediately comes to mind). One of the hymns sung at the event strikes me as especially poignant, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” by Rev. John Fawcett, the pastor at a small church in Wainsgate, England, in the 18th century:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

I can only imagine the power of that moment, races coming together to sing a message of unity and hope, praying for the future of love and friendship to come soon and free all from toil and pain. As modern-day musicians, we must remember that the ability of music to proclaim messages calling for social change makes it the responsibility of musicians to write about, compose, and trumpet messages like this one. Sometimes we need a reminder, for as Frederick Douglass, calling for the end of lynch law, said in his final remarks, “What [Americans] needed was a higher Christianity, one that is not ashamed of any of God’s children.” We still need that higher Christianity today.


“The Douglass Reception: An Exceptional Affair in Many Respects–Something of the Programme and Certain Participants.” Cleveland Gazette. December 9, 1893. http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:EANX&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=12DB0E0CC3A99F40&svc_dat=HistArchive:ahnpdoc&req_dat=102FE1F6CA316FA2.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, 2401 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/il0843.sheet.00006a/ (accessed April 7, 2015).