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

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July 2019


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July 2019


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eBook (PDF)

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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 a professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana. He 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."—Curtis M. Hinsley, Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

"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

"David R. M. Beck’s Unfair Labor? significantly extends previous analyses of indigenous presence at the fair by examining every facet of their involvement: as participants, cultural informants, and craftspeople in communities from the Inuit to the Arawak."—Jane Simonsen, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Unfair Labor? offers a significant new exploration of American Indian people in primitivist performance, seen through the physical toil of collection, commodity production, travel, and wage labor. In this well-researched volume, Dave Beck makes a critical contribution to the emergent literature on Native labor, globalization, and the new histories of capitalism, while always centering indigenous people’s efforts to survive, adapt, and thrive.”—Philip J. Deloria, professor of history at Harvard University and author of Indians in Unexpected Places

“David Beck’s rigorously researched and engagingly written book is a long-awaited examination of Native American participation in the 1893 World’s Fair. . . . Unfair Labor?—a fascinating and deeply illuminating analysis of Indigenous labor at the World’s Fair—makes a superb contribution to our understanding of Native life in the late nineteenth century.”—Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk), author of Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums

“Historian David Beck has written a unique book about the nature of work performed by Native Americans in domestic colonial situations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He documents how Native American individuals and families were active players in special events—such as fairs, Wild West shows, and world’s fairs—that theoretically celebrated American history and culture. These men and women did more than simply play a passive marginalized other.”—Nancy Parezo, professor emeritus of American Indian studies and anthropology at the University of Arizona

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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