The pictures are striking and iconic, but the story behind them is far from black and white. Here, we profile 19th-century photographer Frank Rinehart’s remarkable portrayal of Native Americans.
The 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska, modelled itself on the exuberant Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, right down to the Venetian lagoon with its swan boats, encircled by stately plaster architecture. However, the star attraction was the Indian Congress, a three-month gathering of around 500 members of 30 tribes, including the Apache leader Geronimo, then a prisoner of war at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill.
It was intended, the organisers stated, to exhibit “the life, native industries, and ethnic traits of as many of the aboriginal American tribes as possible”. Yet the mock battles staged at the 5,000-seat grandstand only contributed to tropes and stereotypes.
Omaha’s world’s fair celebrated the development of the American West, a federally enforced progress that had displaced, killed and forcibly assimilated indigenous people. Exhibited as living displays at the exposition, they were presented as if on the brink of disappearance.
As souvenirs, visitors could buy a red hardcover photography book, emblazoned with the title ‘Rinehart’s Indians’, an embossed spear, a shield and a feathered headdress. Inside, the book’s introduction proclaimed:
“The camera of Mr Rinehart… was ever busy recording scenes and securing types of these interesting people, who with their savage finery are rapidly passing away. In a remarkably short time education and civilization will stamp out the feathers, beads and paint – the sign language and dancing – and the Indian of the past will live but in memory and pictures.”