From the Desk of David R.M. Beck: What’s in a Name?

David R. M. Beck is a professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana. His new book, Unfair Labor?: American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is available now. 

One problem with American history is the erasure of Native voice and individual Native people in our national narratives of the past. I noticed early in my career that historical texts often failed to name individual Native Americans. Especially if they were not tribal leaders. This is true in both published work, and even in visual and textual archives. I would regularly come across photographs with captions or notes identifying the federal agent, or the missionary, together with unnamed “Indians.” I decided that one small thing I could do to help amplify or correct the historical record is to name people, when I could.

I did this in UnFair Labor? and in previous books.

For example, when I wrote The Struggle for Self Determination, a history of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, I included a photograph of six young women pictured in a sewing class at St. Joseph’s school in Keshena from the Marquette University Archives. The photograph identified only Sister Blase. In collaboration with the Menominee Historic Preservation Department, elders identified and remembered the six Menominee women. I was able to include their names in the book.

I have learned that when history is personal, people connect to it. In that same book I wrote about Menominees who gained logging contracts in 1907, and I listed all 83 names of those with contracts in an endnote. One of their descendants read the endnotes in the book and wrote me for more information about his relative. This told me that names are valuable to include and that someone actually reads my endnotes. I decided to continue to do this in my future works.

When Rosalyn LaPier and I wrote City Indian, we used census material, archival records, and newspaper accounts to identify a significant percentage of the small number of American Indians living in Chicago in the early 20th century. We listed them, with their tribal affiliations when we knew them, in an appendix to the book. People have since come up to us to tell us the stories of their relatives listed in the book.

As I began researching UnFair Labor? I wanted to know who the Indigenous people were who came to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was complicated research. The only way to successfully accomplish such a task is to do it from the start. I began by keeping separate files identifying each individual I came across by their name and tribal affiliation.

One result of this intricate work is an appendix listing hundreds of names of individuals who were part of the fair. It is an invaluable addition to the book. I found people’s names scattered broadly in an almost unimaginable variety of sources, including newspaper articles, correspondence, and official reports and documents.

Sometimes people’s names appeared in the record together. Inuit people who came from Newfoundland were listed on a ship register. Male Carlisle school students who attended the fair were listed in federal records showing the funds they withdrew from their school accounts to pay for the trip. Buffalo Bill Cody’s contracts in the National Archives listed the Lakota people and families from the Pine Ridge reservation who worked for his show just outside of the fairgrounds.

In other cases, one name or a few people’s names showed up in either common or obscure places. Thanks to digitization more newspaper articles are readily available to researchers than there were when I first began in the profession. A small town article might identify a Native person who attended the fair, and then a search of variations of that person’s name would bring more information. A letter from an Indian agent, or a collector in the field, an individual bringing a lawsuit, or someone identified in a visitor’s diary, or a journalist’s human interest story, all added to the breadth of information.

Once I had a name, I tried to learn more about that person. This began to help address the issue of erasure and added depth to the narrative of the book. When I came across names I recognized, I sent this information to my friends in Indian Country. And when possible, I shared copies of the documents, such as letters their relatives had written. In return, I often learned more about my friends’ families.

In some cases, participants at the fair were members of long-time prominent families in their communities who were selected by tribal leaders to represent their communities. In other cases, individuals were activists such as the Potawatomi Simon Pokagon, involved in other work, before, during or after the fair. Knowing these details helped contextualize the story.

I know there are many names of Native people who participated in the 1893 world’s fair that I did not find during my research. I could not find financial records of the girls from Carlisle who attended, for instance. And in fact, shortly after the book was published a colleague sent me a newspaper article about some people not in the appendix. This has happened before with my other books. People in and outside of tribal communities will write me and tell me of a relative or someone they came across in their own research that I missed. But just as often, or even moreso, someone will tell me that they had no idea that so and so from their community was referenced in the records.

People who are named in history help open dialogue about the past. The difficult task of putting the lists together, when researching, is rewarded many times over by the conversations that occur afterward. It also begins the process of overcoming the erasure of Native agency in history.

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