Katrina Phillips is a professor in Macalester’s History Department, and an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She researches and teaches about American Indian history, the role of the mythic Western frontier in American pop culture, and an unusual phenomenon she’s been studying for her first book: the twentieth-century explosion of so-called “Indian pageants” across the country. Macalester Today sat down with Phillips to learn more.

How did you find out about these Indian pageants?

I grew up near Bayfield, Wisconsin, and in grad school I went back to visit and was in a store where I found something called The Indian Pageant Cookbook. It was a reproduction of a book published in 1924, in conjunction with this huge Indian pageant staged in Bayfield, actually on the Red Cliff Reservation there. I thought, “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. This has to be the only time this has happened.” But when I got home, I started researching, and it turned out that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was an explosion of them across the country. The 1950s was the heyday, but there are some still running today.

What happens in one of these pageants?
Are they like plays?

One of the pageants I’ve been to, which they’ve done in Pendleton, Oregon, since the 1910s, is called the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show. It’s performed outdoors in this enormous arena, where there’s a stage with a backdrop of tipis, and there are people on stage acting out scenes to tell the story of the region’s history. They added narration to it relatively recently, but nobody has any speaking lines, and there aren’t necessarily distinct characters, except for people like Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. The show begins with the Indians who lived in the region—mostly the Cayuse, the Umatilla, and the Walla Walla—and runs through the Treaty of 1855, where they ceded 6.5 million acres of land and moved to a reservation; that first half is the Indian pageant part of it. Then they do this giant set change, and suddenly you’re in a frontier town, and the second half of the show is literally a slapstick vaudeville Wild West show. It’s kind of surreal.

Why are they important?

I argue in my book that they matter because the towns and local businesses that created them did so as a way to try to stimulate tourism and to revive their regional economies. What’s also important in a lot of these productions is that you’re seeing this history reenacted where it actually happened. That can create this sense of authenticity, even when the balance between historical accuracy and entertainment might be off.

Why do you think people go see them?

There’s always been a kind of fascination with Indians among non-Native people. Philip Deloria, one of the biggest names in Native studies, takes it all the way back to the Boston Tea Party, when the rebelling colonists dressed up as Indians. He argues that by adopting particular characteristics of indigeneity, Americans were trying to set themselves apart from Europeans. Interestingly, early in American history, tourism to places like Niagara Falls or hot springs was another way early Americans distinguished themselves. Instead of going to see centuries-old buildings, you went to see mountains.

As for the pageants that I’ve studied, I think a lot of what attracts people today is really more of a historical fascination—not necessarily with Indians, at least not as we currently exist, but with the ideal, romanticized Indian instead. With a lot of these productions, the depictions are very much the “noble Indian.” And I don’t begrudge them or judge the people going. But it is really fascinating for me, as a Native person, to see how the ideas of indigeneity become transformed and performed.

In the syllabus for your “Imagining the American West” course, you argue that the mythic West is central to America’s identity. Will you unpack that?

It goes back in some ways to this idea of wilderness. Early Americans came to view anything outside of the city as a place to be feared, but also to be conquered. From there you get explorers like Daniel Boone and the idea of the western frontier, as well as a lot of conflicts and contestation: settlers with this preconceived notion of the wilderness were continually moving westward, but of course, there were all these Native nations already there. That gives rise to this idea—famously espoused in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 lecture and essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History—that the frontier is what makes Americans American. It creates this origin myth that still has staying power today.

What’s it like teaching such American-focused courses at an international-minded place like Mac?

It’s been cool for me, having students who grew up overseas or studied abroad, learning how the American West relates to people across the world. For example, a lot of people in Germany are really interested in Native Americans and powwows, and I have a student this semester looking at a similar phenomenon in the Czech Republic. The mythic West reaches places I might not have considered before. And few students come into my classroom with much knowledge of American Indian history. I don’t mean that as a slight against them; indigenous history is just really under-taught. At the same time, it has also been amazing to have so many students who are willing to look at this component of American history, which is intriguing but also troubling for them. A lot of them start to question their previous history classes.

What do you hope students will take away from your courses?

When indigenous history is taught in other levels of education, it’s usually just really depressing—like, “Let’s talk about the Trail of Tears!” I try to find a way to balance my classes: to teach the horrific parts of this history, while showing my students the power of continued indigenous resistance. Because even my presence in the classroom is an act of resistance. I want my students to understand what’s happened in history, but I don’t want them to come away with just a sense of pity. I want them to see the agency and the resistance and the survival. And I want them to come out of my classroom with more knowledge about indigenous history—and the tools to help share it.


April 24 2019

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