Unfair Labor?


Unfair Labor?

American Indians and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago

David R. M. Beck

330 pages
32 photographs, 10 illustrations, 5 maps, 2 tables, 1 appendix, index


July 2019


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June 2023


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eBook (EPUB)
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July 2019


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July 2019


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About the Book

Unfair Labor? is the first book to explore the economic impact of Native Americans who participated in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. By the late nineteenth century, tribal economic systems across the Americas were decimated, and tribal members were desperate to find ways to support their families and control their own labor. As U.S. federal policies stymied economic development in tribal communities, individual Indians found creative new ways to make a living by participating in the cash economy. Before and during the exposition, American Indians played an astonishingly broad role in both the creation and the collection of materials for the fair, and in a variety of jobs on and off the fairgrounds.

While anthropologists portrayed Indians as a remembrance of the past, the hundreds of Native Americans who participated were carving out new economic pathways. Once the fair opened, Indians from tribes across the United States, as well as other indigenous people, flocked to Chicago. Although they were brought in to serve as displays to fairgoers, they had other motives as well. Once in Chicago they worked to exploit circumstances to their best advantage. Some succeeded; others did not.

Unfair Labor? breaks new ground by telling the stories of individual laborers at the fair, uncovering the roles that Indians played in the changing economic conditions of tribal peoples, and redefining their place in the American socioeconomic landscape.

Author Bio

David R. M. Beck is an award-winning historian and a professor in the University of Illinois Department of History. He was previously a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana for more than two decades. Beck is the author of several books, including The Struggle for Self Determination: History of the Menominee Indians since 1854 (Nebraska, 2005) and is the coauthor with Rosalyn LaPier of City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893–1934 (Nebraska, 2015).


“Beck has given us a master class in historical research and interpretation. Drawing on an impressive array of previously unseen sources . . . he has assembled a picture of Indian-white interactions that, while notably unequal, nonetheless display Native American agency and determination in numerous directions. . . . Beck has done signal service in exposing the grounded reality of Indian-white economic relations at the height of the Gilded Age. It is not a pretty picture.”—Curtis M. Hinsley,  Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

"This is an important and deeply researched contribution and recommended reading for social and labor historians as well as those in Native history."—Julie Guard, Great Plains Research

"This book will be of interest to specialists in the field of Native American studies. There is no other in-depth study of the Native Americans in this significant fair, and some labor historians will welcome the consideration of the commodification of labor in these tribes and its limits. It is a fresh way of thinking about this moment."—Rosemary Feurer, Nebraska History

"Beck details the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that Indigenous people brought to Chicago—and took home—in the 1890s."—Katrina Phillips, Western Historical Quarterly

"This is a revealing glimpse into such pioneers of American anthropology as Frederic Putnam, Franz Boas, and James Mooney. Undergraduate seminars will be well served with this volume as required reading, and even interested general readers will find it informative."—J.H. O’Donnell, Choice

"Unfair Labor? is an important contribution to indigenous labor history, as well as to the history of world’s fairs."—Abigail Markwyn, Journal of American Ethnic History

"Unfair Labor is the most thorough analysis we have of Native Americans’ involvement with the 1893 fair."—Robert W. Rydell, Journal of Arizona History

"Unfair Labor? is captivating, well researched, and clearly written. It would be an excellent resource for a variety of upper-secondary and college-level history and American studies courses that cover labor, capitalism, material culture, public history, American Indians, or social forces, to name a few. The book would be a welcome addition to both public and academic libraries alike."—Julie Hawks, Journal of American Culture

“Beck, a seasoned historian with a reputation for lucid prose, is modeling . . . a scholarly generosity that tacitly acknowledges how historical knowledge is built, distributed, absorbed, and remade. A meaningful addition to Beck’s body of work and the University of Nebraska Press’s noteworthy catalogue of Native American and Indigenous studies titles, Unfair Labor? demystifies, nuances, and legitimizes American Indians’ participation in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.”—Meredith Conti, Theatre History Studies

"Unfair Labor? is a carefully organized, argued, and focused contribution to Indigenous labor history. Beck takes good advantage of the vast archival resources related to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition to generate a wide-angle snapshot of Indigenous people's efforts to navigate the ethnographic and performative income opportunities that arose under late nineteenth-century colonialism's sustained assimilationist assault."—Paige Raibmon, Native American and Indigenous Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part 1. Overview: American Indians and Ethnology at the Fair
1. Fair Representation?
2. Evolution of the American Indian Displays at the Fair
Part 2. Before the Fair: Making Money at Home
3. Native People Collecting for the Fair
4. The Department of Ethnology Collecting for the Fair
5. Government Agencies Collecting for the Fair
Part 3. During the Fair: Working in Chicago
6. Working the Anthropological and Education Displays
7. Working the Commercial Displays
8. Those Left Out
Afterword/Afterward: American Indians and Their New World

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