cover image

Unfair Labor?

American Indians and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago

David R. M. Beck

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Imprint: University of Nebraska Press
Published: 07/2019
Pages: 330
Subject: Social Science
eBook ISBN: 9781496214843


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.  


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).


"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