Saturday, July 26, 2014

Cincinnati Sioux and Botanical Garden

1896, Sicangu Lakota Sioux
at the Cincinnati Zoo
"Just four years shy of the 20th century, the Cincinnati Zoo kept one hundred Sioux Native Americans in a mock village at the zoo for three months."
That was the sentence I read. It sounded horrifying. I was intrigued by this (new to me) historical curiosity in Cincinnati, but something didn't sit right. Did the victors in this land grab display Sioux Indians alongside wild zoo animals for people to gape at? I believe I saw this in a Twilight Zone episode. A Google search showed that same sentence repeated in many places, but more information was hard to come by. A forgotten atrocity perhaps? A zoo cover-up? Could it be true? Well no not really. It's not as deplorable as I thought but the story I found is still interesting.

1895, Cree family at the Cincinnati Zoo
By the late 1890s, the American Indians were a defeated enemy. They were forbidden to practice their traditions while living on squalid reservations dependent on meager government handouts. In most US states Indians were not even considered American citizens until the 1924 Citizenship Act. Oddly, a sense of nostalgia had been sweeping the nation for the "old west". Out of this longing was born the Wild West Shows. These were romanticized outdoor demonstrations that toured not only the US but the entire world. They had phony gunfights, mock Indian attacks and all the other sorts of things you would expect to see. They even hired authentic American Indians as "actors" in these plays. The legendary Sioux Chief Sitting Bull toured in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the 1880s. They were not forced to, but let's get real. Given the choice of rotting on a poverty-stricken reservation vs getting paid to see the world, which would you choose? I'm sure there wasn't a lot of work for unemployed Indians back then. Letters and articles from that period gave a sense that Indians didn't see themselves as victims and were trying to make the best of a bad situation. They seemed to enjoy performing and showing off their skills. It was far better than "rez" life and maybe some good could come of it.

Sicangu Lakota Sioux 
resting up between acts
So back to the Cincinnati Zoo. In 1895 a band of Cree Indians from Montana were abandoned by a Wild West showman in Bellevue KY near Cincinnati. It's not as if Indians in the 1890s could just hop the next expensive train home. Whites still saw Indians as "savages". The last Woodland Indian tribe, the Wyandot left Ohio in 1843. Custer's Last Stand happened 20 years earlier and the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred just a few years earlier in 1890. With the Wild West nostalgia fad was going strong, the zoo officials invited the Cree to camp on the zoo grounds for two months and live like historical Indians. A pretty easy gig considering how they were Indians and had all their stuff with them. It was a big hit and boosted zoo attendance. The Cree made $25,000 which funded their trip back home. Later in 1896, the zoo invited a group of the Sicangu Lakota Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to camp as well as put on reenactments like the Wild West Shows. The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved. 89 Sioux came to Cincinnati by train with their tee-pees, horses and other gear and put on two shows a day for spectators from June 6th to September 20th, 1896. Along with horseback exhibitions and stagecoach attacks, they re-enacted the massacre of Wounded Knee and the battle of Little Big Horn. Children earned $5 per month, female adults $15, male adults $25 and Chiefs earned up to $50 per month. No small sum at a time when the average US adult male earned just a dollar a day. Unfortunately, the Sioux encampment and show didn't financially do as well as they hoped. There was much rainy weather that summer along with competition from other traveling Wild West Shows.

1896, Some of the Sicangu Lakota Sioux
at the Cincinnati Zoo
So it looks like the zoo wanted to help out the Cree and make some money themselves in the process. Then they attempted to repeat it with the Sioux. Everyone was happy. That doesn't sound so bad I guess. It is difficult for us in this modern age not to look at history through our 21st-century values. In those days this was considered a cultural program. These shows did have some detractors on both sides though. Some felt this interfered with "civilizing" the Indian which was the official policy in those days. Others felt this exploited them and exposed Indians to the bad elements of white society and reinforced negative stereotypes. Lakota Sioux Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe opposed the Wild West Shows and found them degrading and fraudulent. A participant, Pawnee Young Chief saw it as a way to make money and help those at home. It turns out that long before Hollywood Westerns gave us Indian stereotypes and bad history, these shows were doing it first. For example, mock attacks on Cincinnati's Fort Washington were re-enacted with the Indians in full regalia, war bonnets and all. The problem is, Indians never attacked Fort Washington. Woodland Indians didn't dress like that either. In fact, except for an occasional traveler, a Plains Indian never saw Cincinnati until the 1890s and they got there on a train.
 Blokaciqa or Little Stallion
AKA Arthur Belt, corresponded
with Meyer and other Cincinnatians
for many years
John Goetz Jr. , President of the Cincinnati Zoological Society justified the deal (in 1890s terms) saying "the presentation of wild people is in line with zoology, and so, when we exhibit Indians...or any wild or strange people now in existence, we are simply keeping within our province as a zoological institution." In short, he and many others felt it had educational value even if it was a bit off base. I still wonder if the Cree or Sioux fantasized about being more realistic and turning on those gawking white audiences just for old times sake? One last stand. Who could blame them? No one knows what went on in their hearts but sources show they struck up many friendships while they were in Cincinnati that lasted after they went back home. One such friendship several Indians made was with Cincinnati photographer and artist Enno Meyer. He corresponded with his new Indian friends for years afterward, exchanging notes and gifts. Letters still exist from Good Voice Eagle to Meyer where he inquires about coming back for more shows. Unfortunately, by 1898 the zoo was having a financial crisis and could not afford to do so.
Draw your own conclusions but I feel that as usual the truth is in the middle somewhere and given the situation, none of this sounds as bad as I thought. These were human exhibitions but the conditions were not as bad as a dreadful and tragic the human zoos I'd read about. The participants had a choice, but just barely.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden: From Past to Present by David Ehrlinger 
Images of America: The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden by Joy W. Kraft
Cincinnati's Wild West: The 1896 Rosebud Sioux Encampment by Susan Labry Meyn*
*Many thanks to Dr. Mark Fischer from the College of Mt St Joseph for supplying me with a copy of this PDF. 
Enduring Encounters: Cincinnatians and American Indians To 1900 by Susan Labry Meyn
Photos by Enno Meyer (1874-1947)