Inuit Entertainers in the United States: From the Chicago World’s Fair through the Birth of Hollywood, by Jim Zwick

 

Infinity Publishing, $18.95

 

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

 

 

Jim Zwick is clearly something of a maverick.  As a graduate student in the interdisciplinary Social Science program at Syracuse University, he gained prominence through his online publications, and now has an extensive website of his own, boondocks.net, dedicated to “Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935,” which is packed with information on everything from the building of the Panama Canal to the Congo Reform Association.  World’s fairs of that era were filled with shows which emphasized the imperial reach of American power, from “African Villages” to “Indian Congresses”; exactly why Zwick has latched on to the exhibition of Inuit people is not quite clear.  However, as a remarkable example of how much can be accomplished with the aid of online research, his book is an impressive one,  Portions of the book were originally published as a web-essay, along with a serialized version in the Labrador-based journal Them Days; these materials – originally quite extensive – have since been replaced by a smaller site promoting the book.

 

Anyone interested in the history of Inuit on display in the United States, and in the display of native peoples generally, will find Zwick’s book invaluable.  The sheer volume of material he has assembled is impressive, and the book is amply illustrated with pictures from newspaper advertisements, handbills, stereoview cards, and other paper ephemera.  Many of these have been available before via on-line archives, but there’s a significant number of images never before reprinted, and the overall quality of the halftones is excellent.  Indeed, in an era of books-on-demand, I’m impressed by the job of typesetting, layout, and illustration that Infinity has accomplished; while the price -- $18.95 for a paperback – is a bit high, the quality of this book is equal to or better than most conventionally published books.

 

The scope of the book, however, is limited to some degree by the kinds of materials that the new era of computer-assisted research makes readily obtainable.  Certain kinds of ephemeral materials – newspapers, cabinet cards, stereoviews – are readily searched and scanned, while others, such as letters, diaries, and oral histories, are less easy to find, requiring considerable leg-work and luck. Thus, in terms of the way these Inuit displays were packaged, there’s a considerable trove of information, but we learn little of a personal nature about the Inuit themselves, beyond what they were reported to have said in the press at the time.  This leaves many unanswered questions, as to what happened to these people before – and after – their time on the Midway, questions that can’t be addressed with the kind of evidence gathered here.  Nevertheless, within these limits, Zwick paints a detailed and largely accurate account of the exhibitions, giving the reader a wide-ranging overview of the best-known Inuit.  Most prominent among these is the ever-photogenic Nancy Columbia, who, with her mother Esther Enutseak and a group of other Labrador Inuit, became the first real star of these shows, making her for her time “the most famous Inuk in the World,” as Kenn Harper has remarked.

 

Nancy’s career began with her birth at the 1893 “World’s Columbian Exhibition” in Chicago.  Given her surname by Mrs. Potter Palmer, head of the Exhibition’s “Board of Lady Managers,” Nancy was touted in the press as the ‘first Esquimaux child born in America.’  For the next twenty years, with a few brief intervals, Nancy and her mother would tour not only North America but the globe, appearing in shows throughout Europe and even in North Africa.  Zwick documents Nancy and her family extensively, though again there is a sense in which one misses a more personal angle on this close-knit group. Eventually Nancy's mother married John C. Smith, who had taken over the management of the Inuit show from a previous promoter. At that point it became a family business. They later established their own "Eskimo Village" at Fraser's Pier near Santa Monica, California. While there, members of her troupe, including Nancy, appeared in two early “Arctic” motion pictures, filmed in the snows of the Sierras by the Selig Polyscope Company (and since, alas, lost), which provides the book’s end-piece. 

 

Indeed, the story of Nancy and family takes up the bulk of the book, and most other Inuit exhibitions receive relatively short shrift as a result.  This poses a bit of a problem, since the word “entertainer,” while it might in some sense be applied to Esther’s group, fits others less well.  Many other Inuit groups received far shorter shrift, often more or less hoodwinked by their “proprietors” and almost always returned home – if returned at all – without any of the promised trade goods.  A few of these, such as “Prince” Pomiuk and the so-called “Esquimaux Twins,” do get some mention here, but others, such as Unaquthlook, who was sent back from the Pan-American exhibition pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage, are missing.  This is somewhat surprising, given Zwick’s announced interest in seeing these exhibitions as embodiments of imperialist ideology.

 

Nevertheless, Zwick’s book provides an engaging and amply-illustrated narrative of a long series of “Esquimaux” shows from 1893 through to the early 1920’s. As a documentary overview it gives an enticing glimpse of a forgotten world, one in which the midways of world’s fairs were crowded with human exhibitions.  For those interested in the history of these kinds of shows, as well as with popular images of the Inuit, it will be invaluable.