Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History

By Katrina M. Phillips

I joke that I blame my dad for this book, but it’s true. I’m a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and our reservation sits along the south shore of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. The neighboring town of Bayfield hosts an apple festival every year, and trips to the festival form an integral element of my childhood. We stopped going after my grandma died, but I got an email from my dad years later as the Apple Fest approached. He insisted that I come home for Apple Fest, even though I was in grad school, and spent weekends doing homework. But home I went, and my mom and I drove toward Bayfield. We stopped at the same orchard we always did, and I found a small book in the orchard store. It was called the Indian Pageant Cook Book, a reproduction of a book first published by the Bayfield Civic League in the 1920s to raise funds for an Indian pageant on our reservation. Neither my mom nor I had ever heard of the pageant, so I bought the book and off we went to Apple Fest.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that cookbook – or the grainy black-and-white photographs of Native performers at the end of the book. I started researching “Indian pageants” and “historical pageants,” and I discovered Indian pageants that had been staged throughout Wisconsin and across the country as early as the 1900s – proving that the one staged at Red Cliff in 1924 and 1925 was anything but an anomaly. Medicine Lodge, Kansas, hosted the first Medicine Lodge Indian Peace Treaty Pageant in 1927, while anthropologist Ella Deloria wrote a pageant for the North Carolina Indians of Robeson County in 1940. The Song of Hiawatha pageant, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, premiered in Pipestone, Minnesota in 1948, and closed in the early 2000s. As Jay Gabler wrote, this pageant was “a living time capsule,” one that had survived the heyday of pageantry as well as “the time when it would occur to anyone that it would be a great idea to dress several dozen European-Americans in headdresses and enact a Native American legend as told to a white New Englander.”

I also discovered that these pageants weren’t necessarily confined to the past. The historical pageants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had given way to a type of theatrical production known as symphonic, or outdoor, dramas. For creator Paul Green, these productions used music, song, dance, and pantomime, among other theatrical styles and conventions, to create a “type of drama in which all elements of theatre art are used to sound together – one for all and all for one, a true democracy.” Green believed in a “real people’s theatre,” one where these productions were written, acted, and produced by and for the people. Green’s The Lost Colony, first staged on Roanoke Island in 1937, would be the first of hundreds of outdoor dramas produced in the United States. The 1963 establishment of the Institute of Outdoor Drama codified the rise of outdoor drama. The IOD (now the Institute of Outdoor Theatre) holds the records of more than 180 dramas that premiered from 1907 to 2010, underscoring not only the historical roots but the contemporary power of this type of theatrical production.

But I still didn’t know how to explain these productions – particularly the ones grounded in some semblance of local or regional Native history – in a historical context. This conflation of historical narratives, nostalgia, Indianness, and tourism reminded me of salvage anthropology and ethnography. These turn-of-the-century practices saw scholars – who fully believed in the notion of the “vanishing Indian” – frantically collecting Native songs, dances, ceremonies, and stories to preserve them for the future. This led me to create the term “salvage tourism,” a theoretical framework that encapsulates the myriad ways American Indian history becomes the foundation of tourism enterprises that aim to salvage regional economies.

Staging Indigeneity examines three productions through the lens of salvage tourism: the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show, produced in conjunction with the Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon since 1916; Unto These Hills, staged on North Carolina’s Qualla Boundary, the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, since 1950; and Tecumseh!, produced in Chillicothe, Ohio since 1973. I analyze the historical roots of each production, tying them to key moments in United States history, alongside their contemporary iterations. Happy Canyon opened amidst national debates over immigration, a time when, as Tom Marsh bluntly writes, white Oregonians wanted a white state. Unto These Hills opened amidst rising Cold War tensions and the Congressional push to terminate Native nations. Tecumseh! opened on the heels of the civil rights movement, at the height of national demonstrations by the American Indian Movement, and on the brink of the nation’s bicentennial.

Salvage tourism in Pendleton in the 1910s doesn’t look exactly like salvage tourism in 1950s Cherokee or 1970s Chillicothe, but that’s the point. Salvage tourism isn’t meant as a static interpretation. These productions emerged in different historical moments, and each production has a different relationship to salvage tourism. As I argue in the book’s conclusion, salvage tourism “allows us to see how and why each production emerged when it did. Amid changes in federal Indian policy and contestations over citizenship and identity, salvage tourism’s use of the imagined, ideal Indian allowed tourist audiences to envision themselves not as tourists but as part of a romanticized past.”

This book took me places I never thought I’d go. I never expected that a trip back to my reservation for the region’s biggest tourism endeavor would end with this book, that I’d walk miles in my cowboy boots through Pendleton, sit backstage at Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre, or find myself in southern Ohio. These productions are a lens for the past and the present, the historic and dramatic. In that spirit, I’ll close with the words of William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts… / Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history.”

Katrina Phillips (Red Cliff Ojibwe) is assistant professor of American Indian history at Macalester College. Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History (UNC Press, 2021) is available here: https://uncpress.org/book/9781469662312/staging-indigeneity/