Materializing Community:
The Intersections of Pageantry, Material Culture and Indigeneity in Early 20th-Century New England

Christine N. Reiser
Brown University


Cet article examine des représentations rivales de l’autochtonie, telles qu’elles sont apparues dans la sphère publique aux États-Unis, au début du XXe siècle, et les manières par lesquelles ces représentations ont été utilisées à l’appui des efforts de construction communautaire de différents groupes, autochtones ou non. Il se penche sur la manière dont « l’indianité » nord-américaine s’est matérialisée dans les performances publiques organisées d’un côté par le mouvement de l’American historical pageantry (mouvement de reconstitutions historiques), et de l’autre côté par les communautés autochtones qui collaboraient dans des organisations fraternelles. Même lorsque les reconstitutions historiques dépeignaient les Amérindiens sous l’angle des motifs populaires du primitivisme et de l’anti-modernisme, les groupes autochtones de Nouvelle-Angleterre ont reformulé dans la sphère publique l’imagerie historique les concernant pour démonter leur capacité d’être à la fois des Autochtones et des citoyens modernes. En considérant la performance comme un processus, cet article examine de quelle manière la culture matérielle produit des marqueurs permettant de faire vivre ces performances, en les faisant avancer ou reculer dans le temps, en élargissant les processus de représentation et de construction communautaire qu’elles englobaient auparavant.


This article explores competing representations of indigeneity that emerged publicly in the early 20th-century United States, and the prominent ways these representations were employed in the community-building efforts of both Native and non-Native groups. It focuses on how North American “Indian-ness” was materialized in public performances, organized on one hand by the American Historical Pageantry movement and on the other by Native communities collaborating in fraternal organizations. Even as pageants portrayed Native Americans along popular tropes of primitivism and antimodernism, New England Native American groups re-authored public historical imagery in demonstration of their abilities to be both Indigenous and modern citizens. Emphasizing performance as process, this article considers how material culture are markers that carried the life of these performances backward and forward through time, extending the processes of representation and community-building they encompassed.
“America has never done the Red Man justice. It remains for her in Pageantry to finish him off completely” Virginia Tanner, Pageantmaker (1919), quoted in Glassberg (1990).

1 For the two centuries following the tumultuous end of King Philip’s War in the 1670s to the turn of the 20th century, southern New England Native American communities were continually underacknowledged in public consciousness or historical accounts. Stories of relocation, death, cultural mixing and assimilation fuelled popular narratives on the disappearance and “extinction” of the Native American. Individuals representing the “last of their nation” were portrayed in well-known tropes, their ancestry either heralded or denigrated depending on perceptions of their “full-bloodedness” and purity. The occasionally observed “remnants” of an indigenous group who did still visibly maintain their community interactions and Native American identity were described as anachronisms on the landscape, their disappearance sure, predictable and imminent. In each of these depictions, two common threads prevail: the utter loss of indigenous peoples’ sense of community and the failure of groups and families to share their Indigenous heritage through generations.

2 As the 20th century opened, however, this “long public silence” (McMullen 1996a) in acknowledging the continued presence of Native American people and their history began to erode. This article explores competing representations of indigeneity that emerged publicly in the 1910s to 1930s, and the prominent ways these representations were employed in the community-building efforts of both Native and non-Native groups during a time of perceived social stress. It does so particularly through the lens of how North American “Indianness” was materialized in public performances, organized on one hand by the American Historical Pageantry movement and on the other by Native and non-Native peoples working together in fraternal organizations such as the Indian Council of New England. From pageant ephemera, to monuments, to Nation-specific regalia, material culture are markers that carried the life of these performances backward and forward through time, extending the processes of Native representation and the community-building they encompassed.

3 In early-20th-century America, feelings of “overcivilization” spoke to a dissatisfaction among people about all that was “curiously unreal” with their modern existence (Lears 1981: 4-5). Whereas indicators of “progress” in the late 19th century had seemed to herald a golden era, the “specter of degeneration” which loomed in the realities of 20th century modern life now suggested otherwise (Huhndorf 2001: 66-7). For many, the growing ambivalence toward progress stimulated an “antimodern impulse” that valorized the “primitive” and created a “nostalgia for origins” (Lears 1981: 5; Huhndorf 2001: 14). Seeking a medium for reform, concerned citizens turned to historical imagery and community pageants as a way to inspire closer emulation of past ideals, stronger community cohesion and more unified “Americanness” (Glassberg 1990; Prevots 1990). The pageantry craze that ensued in the 1910s, 1920s and into the 1930s was guided by the premise that a pageant’s journey into the primitive ideals of the past would be inspiration for cooperation in modern reform.

4 The historical journey at the center of pageant narratives relied heavily upon Native American historical imagery. Representations of Native American life served—often very explicitly—as a social critique against the perceived ills of modernity. The portrayals, largely acted by non-Native people, also worked however to reinforce contemporary beliefs in the total conquest and disappearance of Native Americans. Indian-ness, as it was presented in pageants, was best characterized by naturalness, childlike mentality, irrationality, brutality, nobility and staunch communal devotion.1 By configuring indigeneity according to such popular tropes, pageants reified “dichotomies of traditional/modern and Native/non-Native” (Raibmon 2000: 159). If the “community” and “Americanness” that historical pageantry sought to produce was in theory an inclusive conception, it was not so for contemporary Native Americans.

5 After being generally neglected by the American public(s) for decades, Native Americans in southern New England in the 1910s and early 1920s began to observe their history and heritage represented widely in local popular culture, but by and large without recognition of their continued presence, ongoing communities or living traditions. In this larger context of struggle for social redefinition, Native American groups throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut initiated collaborations aimed at increasing their public visibility to both Native and non- Native communities.2 Across the region, they began strengthening intra- and inter-tribal alliances, forming fraternal organizations, and appropriating symbols of Indian-ness, in a conscious construction of public practice and group identity (cf. McMullen 1996a; O’Connell 1993). I focus here on a central aspect of these community efforts: events and public displays organized, or participated in, by southern New England Native groups in the 1920s and 1930s (McMullen 1996a).3 In these endeavors, Native American groups countered the misrepresentations projected in pageantry with their own public performances and historical imagery, through which they self-defined ideas of indigeneity, tradition and community. Such public displays are illustrative of broader strategies in Native American “revitalization” that privileged an increasing awareness of Indian-ness through the materialization of collective performance.4

6 This article explores the intersections of performance, material culture, indigeneity and community-building in these two converging contexts. It considers a series of related broader questions: What are the material dimensions of historical imagery and dramatic display? How does such material culture extend moments of performance backward and forward through time? To what extent does this backward and forward movement contribute to durable processes of community-building? What legacies of representation do such negotiations leave, material or otherwise? From a material culture standpoint, these questions add to the concerns for challenging more limited conceptions of material culture-as-objects by including public performance—the use of material objects in spectacle—as part and parcel of this materiality (cf. Inomata and Coben 2006, Joyce 2005; Meskell 2000). Here, however, what becomes significant is considering the ways this material performance not only reflects a community or group, and its identity, but that the performance is actually generative of that community. Emphasizing these generative qualities—in this context and elsewhere—is not meant to suggest that such processes created community anew (by implication, where none existed previously); rather it highlights the constant processual, and material, nature by which social ties are maintained and strengthened.

7 The proceeding discussion introduces the American historical pageantry movement, and examines the motivations behind pageantry’s prominent inclusion of Native American history and its targeted attitudes toward indigeneity. These representations are situated within the ongoing influences of modernism, anti-modernism and primitivism so as to better understand how these concerns featured in rejuvenating communal sensibilities and “Americanness.” Attention then shifts to the concurrent rise of public cultural efforts among Native Americans and the common features of dramatic display and historical imagery on which these efforts drew. In particular, the discussion centres on the influence of material elements in public display, like the adoption of Pan-Indian symbolism, in portraying indigeneity and in building community. Finally, by specifically examining the intersections of Native public cultural efforts and local pageants it explores challenges to the inclusionary and exclusionary models of community, history and representation being promoted. Refusing to be consigned to the past, New England Native American groups re-authored public historical imagery in demonstration of their abilities to be both Indigenous and modern citizens.

“A Great Festival Of a Community of People, By the Community, and For the Community”5: Community Historical Pageants

8 During the first decades of the 20th century a number of destabilizing factors were perceived to upset “traditional” balances of power and ways of life in the United States. Glorified advances of the late 19th century, including industrial and technological innovation, scientific discovery and urban growth lost their sheen as hard working conditions, ethnic conflict, urban ghettos, poverty, disease and congestion mounted. These features of “modern” life, along with new cultural demographies arising from unprecedented immigration, precipitated a “crisis of values” in modernity and Americanness (cf. Boyer 1978; Higham 1988. Kammen 1991: 285; Lears 1981: 4-5). “This is a generation of change,” residents of Westerly, Rhode Island worried, “Men in their troubled minds seek a solution to these days of economic unrest. They seek more than anything else safety and security.”6 Prompted by these anxieties, concerned citizens sought new means by which to promote progressive reform and community ties. Lighting upon elements of an old tradition, they took inspiration from an idealized past and turned to historical imagery, costuming and community pageantry to help navigate the uncertainties of modern life.

9 Directly tied to other progressive and anti-modern reform efforts, the proliferation of pageants grew by the hundreds in towns and cities across America in the 1910s, 1920s and into the 1930s (Fig. 1). Prevots (1990) suggests that a pageant was “the story of an idea” (4) that was usually themed around such concepts as peace, progress, brotherhood, education or liberty. Enormous productions, they were multiple day affairs in which local and regional performers acted out dramatic episodes from their town’s history and its intersections with larger national themes. The pageant unfolded through a series of scripted scenes, tableaus, interpretive dances, musical interludes and oration. Pageants varied widely in size, typically involving no less than 200 performers and at times as many as 7,000 players, all of whom invested weeks of rehearsal and performance according to Prevots (3). Even in smaller communities, the performances were viewed by anywhere from 2,000 to 80,000 spectators (Glassberg 1990: 1; Prevots 1990).

Fig. 1 Souvenir Program of the Westerle Through the Years Historical Pageant, Westerly, Rhode Island, 1936. Courtesy of Brown University Libraries.

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10 Although the dramatics of pageants offered novel entertainment, it was a belief in the larger message and the transformative qualities of pageants that drove the fervor of their proliferation. Putting the work of Emile Durkheim (1965 [1915]) at the foreground, Inomata and Coben (2006: 23) suggest there is a long tradition of scholarly inquiry into the ways rituals and other cooperative acts bring individuals together and create communal sensibilities through the experience of collective representation and communal emotion. Performance scholars point to the ways “highly conscious acts,” extraordinary events and actors can dramatize and play out the moral and cultural values of a society (Inomata and Coben 2006: 22). Organizers of early-20th-century pageants considered them to be educational and transformative social media that could guide community members away from the ills of modern society as they witnessed the playing out of real American values. In the 1913 Bulletin of the American Historical Pageant Association7 John Collier, later Commissioner of Indian Affairs, lauded pageantry as the forerunner of a “distinctly different and a distinctly higher civic and social life … destined to make the world over during the next century.”

11 These possibilities rested on the belief that public performance was a participatory mode of action which could bring increasingly diverse ethnic and social groups into a common cultural practice, thereby inspiring a renewed—and redefined—sense of Americanness and community. If “progress” and “modernity” were under fire, a stronger sense of nationalism and a righteous pride in American history was essential. Pageants would incorporate as many community members as possible, fostering inclusiveness throughout and after the production process: “[Pageantry] rests on community consciousness and brotherhood,” Collier proclaimed, “It creates them in its turn” (Fig. 2).

12 In contrast to these professed democratic ideals of citizenship and community, however, a closer look at pageant programs, scripts, choreographies, costumes, and photographs point to in very targeted deployments of dramatic display.8 Underscored by powerful social agendas, the use of historical imagery and tradition was not just a rhetorical device. [Public] historical imagery, as Glassberg (1990) has ruminated, holds the power not only to reflect historical modes of thought, but also to shape current consciousness. It may include—or exclude—groups, events and processes from public memory domains. We recognize today the complex ways in which historical imagery powerfully shapes the construction of community identity, collected tradition and social memory discourse, ways that are often unexpected and even subversive. In this instance, the material legacy of pageants offers insight into the ways pageantry delimited new boundaries of who a rightful participant in American society was to be.

Fig. 2 Pageant-planning schematics distributed by the American Pageant Association showing “The Community” as the over-arching entity guiding pageant production; 1914. Courtesy of Brown University Libraries.

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13 In a paper presented in 1914, pageant enthusiast Luther Ely Smith loudly advocated that pageants could break down irrational, artificial barriers between racial groups by creating mutual understanding and acceptance through “playing together, working together” (Prevots 1990: 17).9 The new order that he envisioned to be “free of race and natural apathy,” however, was limited in its inclusion of racial groups. It was largely to be an integrated place for European immigrants only (ibid.). Smith’s ideas were widely echoed. Across pageantry, the scope and aims of progressive reform contexts was not widened to include changing roles for certain ethnic minorities within American society and among America’a citizens. While race and ethnic diversity “loomed large” (Huhndorf 2001: 21; Michaels 1995) in general, in pageants these cultural attributes were typically not represented. Until 1925, for example, African Americans and Asians were generally absent from pageant depictions (Glassberg 1990: 131-132). A stark exception to this reality, however, occurs in the prevalence and importance of representations of Native Americans and their history in nearly every pageant. The motivations for this prominence, and the expressions of indigeneity and Americanness it defined, is where our direction now turns.

[Scene Direction]: “About the Lonely Indian Figure the Lights Close In”10: Representations of Native American in Historical Pageantry

14 While the contributions of many ethnic groups in American history were largely ignored in pageants, Native Americans featured prominently in pageant storylines. Much more than simply driving a historical plot, representations of Native Americans were an important element in achieving pageant objectives. For Americans disenchanted with modernity’s ills, “Indian primitives” seemed to embody all the virtues lost in the modern world (Huhndorf 2001: 6). Portrayals of Native American history and indigeneity were thus configured as foils by which to illustrate the critiques against contemporary life by progressive and anti-modernist reformers. Through these representations, ideas of “authentic” and “correct” Indian-ness were contrived publicly and widely in mass culture. These popular perceptions of indigeneity would be a catalyst for better representation among New England Indigenous groups as the pageantry movement continued.

15 While many people perceived a crack in the facade of progress, for some the doubts about American modernity went even deeper: “the nature of modern life … no longer seemed clearly to demonstrate the superiority of the white race” (Huhndorf 2001: 66-67). As nostalgia of an idealized past and origins grew, it became embodied in Western cultural imagination in notions of the “primitive,” modernity’s “other” (Huhndorf 2001: 14). The appeal to primitivism rested on sentimentalizing “the childhood of the race,” a racially-conceived understanding of the “childlike mentalities” of less-progressed or more ancient groups (Lears 1981: 92, 143-147). Pre-industrial groups like Native Americans were, in terms of social Darwinism, believed to be the evolutionary antecedents of modern groups. Growing interest in Native Americans in the early 20th century was related closely to this dynamic. Primitivism’s adherents “envisioned Native peoples as idealized versions of themselves,” prior to loss of virtue (Huhndorf 2001: 6; Dilworth 1996). By virtue of beliefs that the primitive is inherent in us all, however, one could reflect and act on contemporary ills by studying the primitive and peeling away modern trappings (Stallabrass 1990: 9; Hutchinson 2009).

16 Community historical pageants borrowed heavily on these philosophies. Native groups were presented as “closely knit communities of ideals and civic virtue” to be emulated (Glassberg 1990: 137). Formulaic and prescriptive pageant episodes further portrayed Native Americans in ways that mirrored and contributed to pageantry’s efforts to inspire stronger community cohesion. As in the 1912 Boston pageant, Cave Life to City Life, many pageants depicted history not through the “heroic actions of individuals,” but rather emphasized “progress through community interaction and cooperation” (Prevots 1990: 31). Perceptions of Native Americans as intensely communal fit well into these goals, and as a result pageant depictions of them frequently included images of families hunting, cooking, canoeing, dancing and playing together.

17 Yet Native American groups were also clearly identified as being only a successive stage in the “inevitable evolution” of society (Glassberg 1990: 137). Pageant roles for Native groups relied on typical 19th century stereotypes, particularly in regard to pervasive themes of noble savagery and manifest destiny. Following in traditions of primitivism, which conceived the primitive in an “unmediated relationship with nature” (Stallabrass 1990: 3), Native American characters appeared integral with the natural landscape. The “Early Indian Camp Life” episode of the 1930 pageant in Bristol, Rhode Island gave explicit expression to this relationship as indicated by a quote from the program: “Man learned much from his forerunner, the fleet-footed, stalwart aborigine, who roamed the forests and established his humble habitation wherever Nature provided him sustenance for himself and family.”11

18 Not all depictions of Native Americans and indigeneity were so romanticizing, however. Even when seemingly sympathetic to Native Americans, often the “primary cultural work” of a dramatic, literary or historic representation [was] instead, the “regeneration of racial whiteness and European-American society” (Huhndorf 2001: 3; cf. Green 1988). Scripts and visual imagery were certain to play strongly into themes of brutality, savagery and imbecility, justifying European American relations with Indigenous people, while still continuing to emphasize that inevitable progress, not colonial aggression, accounted for the so-called “vanishing of the Indian.”

19 The myth of cultural extinction present in the storylines of such historical imagery was reified visually by the symbols used to express Indian-ness. Native American groups were not portrayed with felicity to their particular cultures, but instead features of indigeneity were drawn from a general repertoire of perceived characteristics. The influence of pan-Indianism (discussed further below) offered stock symbols that masked local heritage. “Indian Music” used in a Massachusetts pageant, for example, included the regionally inappropriate “Ghost Dance of the Zunis” (Oxnard 1921: 10). The actors portraying these stereotypes further implied the regional disappearance and loss of Native culture. Though pageant organizers highly valued instances where direct descendants could play their ancestors in a performance, they perceived real and imagined difficulties in applying this casting strategy to scenes depicting Indigeneity. In their minds, “few towns, especially in the East, had full-blooded Indians of the proper nation living nearby or local residents willing to identify with their Indian descent” (Glassberg 1990: 114). Consequently, in New England Native American roles were played at times by “genuine Indians” imported from elsewhere for hefty sums (ibid.).

20 Alternatively, a range of local community members took on Native American roles. Huhndorf (2001), Deloria (1998), Mechling (1980) and others have teased out the ways that European American practices of “going native” and “playing Indian” have figured in (re)defining American identities and histories. Pageants offered such opportunities for non-Native peoples to “temporarily don Native costume and emulate Native practices” (Deloria 1998). In particular, local organizations with an interest in Native American lore, including the Boy Scouts and Improved Order of the Red Men, were deemed knowledgeable actors; Italians, African-Americans or other “brown-toned” ethnic groups were considered appropriate visual approximations (Bain 2002).

21 The desire that Native American roles be played by actors who could visually approximate perceived ideas of Native features or phenotype is readily apparent in these casting practices. But the use of material culture as a visible marker of identity could also convey the necessary signal to the audience. The directors of the Anawan Rock Pageant counselled, “Let the committee pick out the talent in church and community and fit the person to the part. This process is veritable yeast for the dough” (Oxnard 1921: 6). What actors could not account for in their own looks could be compensated for through costuming and props. In St. Louis, as many as sixty liters of copper-colored paint were used to costume community members into brown face to be Native people (Glassberg 1990: 179). The patriotic tableau of the 1920 Anawan Rock Pageant in Rehoboth, Massachusetts was remarkable enough to feature all of the aforementioned casting strategies in a single scene (Fig. 3). And the same logic extended to pageant set designs. A camp scene could be easily and inexpensively modelled by “raising a piece of canvas to represent a large rock,” using a “tent with emblems” to mimic a wigwam, and placing at the center of it all, a “flashlight with red glass” to simulate a fire (Oxnard 1921: 7). In this way, while costuming and the use of visual imaging played an important role, it was one largely of symbolic intent; realism was not the goal.

Fig. 3 “Patriotic Tableau of the Pageant;” Note the brown face used to depict Indigenous characters (particularly in the last row), and the Boy Scout troop playing “Young Indian Braves,” likewise in brown face, in the front row. Courtesy of Brown University Libraries.

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22 Through such veneers of authenticity, Native Americans were increasingly represented in the most public ways and on a grand scale in the first decades of the 20th century—but by non-Native peoples and in imagery that played to long-standing stereotypes and myths of disappearance. Popular culture had become a “critical site for staging debates surrounding what—and whose—experiences constituted the nation’s history and identity” (Huhndorf 2001: 22). Native American history was to be a central feature of this history and identity, but only in deliberate ways. Pageants, along with world’s fairs and other venues of public historical culture, appropriated and recast Native history in self-justification of a glorified American history. The “noble virtues” which Native communities at times demonstrated became a part of the legacy of American history that could—ironically—now reinforce “Americanness” (Huhndorf 2001: 5). Further, by erasing the linkages between past and living Native Americans, pageants had effectively consigned contemporary Native people to the historical past. While Native Americans were thus to be central and glorified features of the American past, they were not to be significant participants in its present and future. Instead, the fact that “prehistoric and ancient peoples were considered similar to modern savages” (Stallabrass 1990: 2) underscores the static, essentialized and ahistorical perceptions of Native people. Contemporary Native Americans either existed as their ancestors had—in which case they were primitive anachronisms—or they reflected and expressed modern life, in which case they were culturally moribund. By such views, Native Americans were simultaneously timeless and timed out.

“A Great Day Seems to be Dawning for the Eastern Tribes”12: The Proliferation of Native Communities’ Public Cultural Efforts

23 Public redefinitions of indigeneity, history and community carried important ramifications for action among contemporary New England Native communities. Raibmon (2000: 160) has noted that “colonizing powers routinely attempt to deny marginal peoples their distinct histories and to prevent them from inventing their own local futures.” Instead of stubbing local futures, however, pageantry contributed to the opposite effect. In this larger context of struggle for group representation in America’s history and contemporary society (including important access to citizenship and its resources), Native groups initiated renewed efforts to assert their ongoing presence and to publicly define the nature of Indian-ness.

24 Like those who sponsored pageants, participants in Native public culture efforts emphasized public ceremony, community ritual and visible symbols as a way to build community, particularly publicly recognized communities. Anthropologist Ann McMullen has written widely of expressions of ethnicity and culture among 20th-century New England’s Indigenous peoples, including such expressions within revitalization efforts, fraternal organizations, pan-Indianism and public display in the first half of the century (1994, 1996a, 1996b, 2002, 2004). I explore some of these themes further in their relationships with prevailing popular images, particularly historical pageants, and nuance them through explicit focus on community-building efforts within societal frameworks of “traditional” and “modern.” I focus on Native American events and public displays organized collaboratively by Native and non-Native peoples in the 1920s and 1930s. Not only did such performances contribute significantly to the dynamics of community building, but they were platforms by which Native groups publicly advocated their own versions of indigeneity and living community. Countering the circumscribed, historicizing thrusts of pageantry and primitivism, these events demonstrate the desire, and tension, to balance public expressions of traditional practices with recognition for the struggles Native people face as “modern” actors in the contemporary world. I examine these activities through regional newspaper coverage and through a compilation of notes, newspaper clippings, photographs and correspondence contained in a scrapbook compiled by Thomas Bicknell in the 1920s and now curated by the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Bristol, Rhode Island.

A Race That Should Be Remembered

25 Although historical pageants and popular culture in the 1910s and early 1920s relied on prevalent stereotypes in discussing Native groups, not all people were content to do so. In the 1920s, a number of non-Native anthropologists and historians took an interest in researching New England Native history (McMullen 1996a: 126). In counterpoint effort to the generalized stereotypes that abounded, they dedicated themselves to partnering with Native people to particularize Native representations. In this latter vein, for example, historian Thomas Bicknell took on a campaign to erect 50-100 memorial monuments to the Narragansett in Rhode Island (McMullen 1996a: 126). The erections of memorials were also commemorative in the immediate present as public events (Rubertone 2008). Each was accompanied by a highly orchestrated dedica-tory ceremony replete with souvenir programs, participant processions, orations and even food. These events became public spectacles attended by growing numbers of non-Native audiences and, perhaps more importantly, these were events in which Narragansett, Wampanoag, Niantic and other New England Native communities were increasingly involved in an integral way (Fig. 4).

26 The process of monument planning initiated an important arena in which Native peoples could repeatedly contribute to decisions regarding their public representation. Further, an atmosphere was fostered wherein sentiments of intra- and inter-communities could be strengthened. As Inomata and Coben (2006) have observed, community builds around everyday preparations that both precede and follow performances. Newspaper coverage of the Exeter Hill dedication, for example, specifically mentions the Narragansett tribal members in whose custody the monuments were entrusted for the future.13 Such details demonstrate mundane extensions of performance, but also the lasting materiality that performance can have. Being attentive to these circumstances extended the processes of community building through time, drawing both Native and non-Native people into a process that was more significant than the moment of monument dedication itself.

27 Yet for some observers interested in preserving the integrity of living Native Americans, the historicizing effects of these monument erections and dedications did not pass unnoticed. Expressing a contradictory point of view, a young Mohegan woman, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, proposed a shift in emphasis: I am deeply interested in this memorial to the great Narragansett sachem, but why don’t they do more for the living Narragansetts? ... I think that instead of forty memorials, it would be a fine thing for the people of [Rhode Island] or any state, to help the Indians in some way that would result in a living memorial. There are some to be educated, some need help in their tribal organizations and all kinds of ways to really do good. (Bicknell Scrapbook)14Inspired by these sentiments, Bicknell assembled an “Indian Committee” which in turn conceived a fraternal organization dedicated to the advancement of contemporary Native communities in the region: the “Indian Council of New England” (McMullen 1996a).

28 The Indian Council of New England, and other organizations like it, provided a forum in which Native people of various descent and group affiliations, including Narragansett, Wampanoag, Pequot and Mohegan, could meet in the common cause of fostering cooperation between groups and publicly promoting Native interests in the region (McMullen 1996a). The charter that the council adopted guided public cultural efforts in a generalized strategy that centered on public presentation and the dramatic display of historical imagery. McMullen (1996a: 147) has argued that such public displays became not only the focus of the council’s agenda, but also the focus for New England Natives’ expressions of ethnicity and heritage going forward (ibid.). Much like historical pageants, Native American persistence would be publicized through visual media and performative action. Simultaneously as Native groups represented their communities in ever-widening display, relations among Indigenous communities would strengthen through this public participatory practice.

Fig. 4 Thomas Bicknell with LeRoy Perry (Narragansett) at a 1923 monument dedication. Bicknell Scrapbook, courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

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29 While aided in the 1920s by non-Native sympathizers like Bicknell, the antecedents for a rejuvenation of public Native-specific identity took hold at least two decades prior—if indeed not longer. Newspaper articles from the Providence Journal during 1905-1910 provide accounts of long-held Native ceremonial events in the region—traditions involving dancing, herbal medicine and games. As early as 1908, efforts toward “a sort of revival” appeared publicly in newspapers, including “renewed interest” in annual meetings.15 Some success in these endeavors was evident when an article that appeared in the August 5, 1908 Providence Journal declared: “the efforts of some of the leaders who cherish the traditions of their fathers is said to be bearing the desired fruition.”

30 The overarching sentiment of newspaper coverage between 1900 and 1925, however, was of the continued cultural and demographic decline of Native Americans. As in pageants, the Narragansett were described through a lens and language that played heavily into stereotypes of the primitive, including headline billings of “Peculiar, Primitive, Picturesque.”16 At times, observers readily acknowledged the romanticized stereotypes into which Native communities were cast, but usually only in counter-distinction to mixed-racial and multi-heritage realities. Observers remarked:Again it is curious to see what seems to be a struggle between the character that fiction has seen fit to affix to the traditional Indian, and that different sort of being, care-free and song-singing, that is the more familiar aspect of the dark-skinned people of southern Rhode Island.17The struggle to be, in the public’s eyes, simultaneously “traditional” and “modern,” “Indian” and “American” in light of such racial and cultural heritage was a burden. Participation in fraternal organizations like the Indian Council of New England provided one avenue by which to balance public demonstrations of continuing traditional practices and at the same time call for much-needed reform for contemporary Native American treatment. Like the Historical Pageantry movement, the Indian Council was driven by a progressive agenda that sought to rally its members by summoning a sense of the past in the direction of the future:…too many of our leaders are wrangling over full bloods, half-bloods, etc. instead of lining up on the side of the progressives and non-progressives. We need the progressive Indian today; the silly sentimentalist who would reserve the Indian for the Museum, the shows, etc. has passed. (Wild Pigeon (James Water), Sachem of Montauk, quoting Carlos Montezuma, 1925; as cited in McMullen 1996a: 130)Through such motivations, one of the principal venues for public display, the Narragansetts’ annual August Meeting, was expanded even further into a dramatic display of indigeneity and continuing links to heritage and community. As McMullen (1996a) has argued, in 1925 the structure, content and audience of the August Meeting changed significantly from previous years.18 Of the 1925 annual event, it was written:The word had gone out that for the first time in years the Indians who moved around that old meeting house would be garbed in the brown of tanned skins, resplendent with the bright embroideries and lacings which once characterized their costumes; the women bedecked with the glass jewelry which once was so popular. That for the first time in half a century, perhaps much longer, a Narragansett Indian marriage ceremony was to be performed under the trees around the old meeting house. And that for the first time in years smoke was to curl up to the Great Spirit from council fire and pipe of peace.19Reporting on the 1925 August Meeting, it was noted that nearly 1000 persons, Native and non-Native peoples, came to witness the Narragansett “revive old tribal customs.”20 Photographs (Fig. 5) show Narragansett community members donned in “the full regalia of their tribe” (Bicknell Scrapbook).

Fig. 5 Collection of newspaper clippings with photographs of the 1925 August Meeting. Bicknell Scrapbook, courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum.

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31 The spectacle of the “the most picturesque and largest number of full-blooded Indians present that has attended such a meeting in years” was excitedly lauded by reporters.21 Emphasis here on the “picturesque” image of “traditionally dressed Indians” calls attention to the discursive enacting of identity and community, and its intersections with material culture. Drawing on Turner (1986) and Kertzer (1988), Inomata and Coben point to the ways that cultural performances, and experiences of them, rely on the use of symbols to frame our contexts for emotions and actions (2006: 23). “No organization,” Kertzer persuades, “can exist without associated symbols, which give concrete, sensible forms to community identities” (1988: 15).

32 All the same, the effort to make Native Americans more visible in early-20th-century New England required that recognizably Native communicators be utilized (McMullen 1996a). Specifically, it required capitalization of both Native and non-Native symbols of Indigeneity. To this end, pan-Indian elements that figured prominently in historical pageants and other non-Native portrayals of Indigeneity were taken up as likewise important elements in Native communities’ public cultural efforts. Native communities were encouraged to research local traditions which may have been lost, yet also to simultaneously supplement these practices with the iconography and practices of other Native groups, particularly those groups of the Plains whose traits had come to symbolize Indian-ness in the non-native public (McMullen 1996a). Correspondence indicates that members of the council were encouraged to “adopt tribal dress” so that they might be readily recognized as Indigenous peoples (Bicknell Scrapbook). The photographic history of monument dedication services, ceremonies like the August Meeting and Indian Council meetings reflects this trend, with attendees at early activities, like the Exeter Hill monument dedication in 1923 (Fig. 6), largely absent of pan-Indian symbolism and later events heavily attended by local Native Americans in nation-specific dress (McMullen 1996a: 146) (Fig. 7).

Fig. 6 (top) Exeter Hill Monument Dedication; Note differing forms and use of regalia. Bicknell Scrapbook, courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum.

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Fig. 7 (bottom) Indian Council of New England group photo.

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33 The adornment of regalia (traditional dress), including feather bonnets, tunics, leggings, breech-cloth, moccasins and jewellry, is “the most obvious way” material culture “figures in the public practice of culture” in these efforts (McMullen 1996a: 222). Yet, the popular spread of such pan-Indian elements encompassed much more than simply the adoption of object-traits (McMullen 1996a: 116). Scholars concerned with embodiment and the materiality of clothing have emphasized the important ways that clothing simultaneously translates the intimacy of the body with the expressions and shared practices of a group (Hansen 2004; Loren 2001; Meskell and Joyce 2003). Adornment in this way was a means of both expressing indigeneity and of community building in public cultural efforts—a “reintegration of materiality with sociality” (Miller 2005: 12). Combining local elements of New England Native cultures with pan-Indian elements in public display provided a mechanism by which Native people could propagandistically promote their own versions of history and the notion of being part of the group. These versions of public memory and historical consciousness utilized common symbols and practices from popular culture, but cumulatively and authorially stood in contrast to those put forward in popular expressions like Pageantry.

34 This was not the sum of their endeavors, however. While seeking to particularize what Indianness and “traditional” meant in public perception, New England Indigenous groups also endeavored to raise awareness that they, too, were modern citizens. In the year after the seminal 1925 August Meeting, Narragansett and other New England Native families met at the Providence home of Chief Ousa Mekin, LeRoy C. Perry, for the marriage celebration of his niece. Reflecting both traditional and modern elements, the marriage ceremony was conducted in two parts: a “picturesque” Algonquian ceremony which included practices and imagery common to public events, like smoking the peace pipe and invocation to the Great Spirit, but also a standard Episcopal marriage service.22

35 Thus, publicly demonstrating that they could be both North American Indian and American was important not only on a symbolic level but also carried very real political, economic and social importance. Virtually every public event was used as an opportunity to broadcast the plight of contemporary Native people and to call for reform. A powwow held at the farm of Chief Strong Horses, Alfred A. Perry, in Cranston, Rhode Island in 1927 was marked by a morning of ceremonial games and a barbeque in a birch longhouse. These activities, however, only preceded “the more serious business of the powwow.”23 Chief Ousa Mekin, who, the previous year, had performed the marriage ceremony, delivered a “plea for recognition of the Red Man” that was billed as “the principal feature of the day.” His speech, which touched upon themes of economic inopportunity, education, citizenship, immigration and religion, positioned Native people squarely in larger American society and the issues it confronted. In his words quoted from the September 30, 1927 issue of the Providence Journal:There are 57,000 men in Indian reservations of this country deprived of opportunities in the industrial marts which are afforded immigrants, aliens, who within a few years are naturalized, granted citizenship, and allowed to hold the highest legislative and judicial offices.... We send the word of God and the principles of Christian living and civilization to the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans, the Africans and the Australian bushmen, and yet I tell you there are 20,000 children of our race who are deprived of educational opportunity. Not that our missionary work isn’t good. No, let that continue. But here are real Americans, descendants of ancestors who were cheated and miserably deceived, not allowed to penetrate through that wall which has been erected—that wall of inopportunity.The next day, the newspaper prominently reported “Prophet Perry Declares Red Men Denied Economic Opportunities,” and by the next August Meeting, August 12, 1928, the State Governor, Mayor of Providence, and Mayor of Newport all attended and addressed the attendees.24 Such actions highlight the adroit ways Native communities used public events as more than a showcase for dramatic display, aggrandizing their potential as a venue for action and a platform from which to voice their powerful social critique.

Commemorating the Future: New Authors, New Actors

36 That these efforts had some effect in raising the visibility of Native people among the larger population in the early 20th century is further evidenced in the later histories of historical pageants themselves. The 1930 Historical Pageant of Bristol, Rhode Island notably advertised that the role of King Philip, a prominent 17th century sachem of the Narragansett, would be played by his descendant, contemporary Narragansett Chief Sachem Ousa Mekin (LeRoy C. Perry). The attention drawn repeatedly throughout the program to his participation reflects a changing notion of representational strategies and community building. Pageants of the late 1920s and 1930s grew more concerned with commemorating specific historical anniversaries, more driven by theatricality, more commercially produced, and hyper-concerned for the accuracy of detail in pageant episodes (Kammen 1991: 424-425; Glassberg 1990: 263). In some measure, these changes brought favourable representation practices for Native communities. Hyper-concern for accuracy prompted research into Native American groups at such places as Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Ethnology and the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology (Glassberg 1990). While this moved representations of Native people away from stock stereotypes, the tendency to look for information about Native Americans in museums reinforced a continuing public certainty that such repositories were the only sources for such information. More than ever, it would seem that living, viable Native communities were consigned to be things of the past.

37 At least in southern New England, however, the public revitalization of Native presence would force thoughts in the opposite direction. In 1935, regional newspapers declared groundbreaking news. Following a special report by Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan) to John Collier, now Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the February 17, 1935 issue of the Providence Journal reported: “Submerged for nearly two centuries in an alien culture—and so completely that even their neighbors hardly suspect their existence—the original Indian tribes of New England still survive and have preserved their racial and tribal identities.” Recognizing not only that Native people retained their cultural identities, the reports went on to further validate their “modern” sensibilities as well: “The Narragansett descendants are progressive and engaged in many different lines of work.”25

38 As penchants for realism grew, no longer was it acceptable for actors in “brownface”, or even non-local Native people, to portray regional Native roles. On a more lasting level, these shifts hallmarked changing notions of how to materialize community changes; that is, who needed to be present, and who needed to participate in deployments of historical imagery and dramatic display in order for community building to be effective? For the 1936 John B. Rogers Westerle Through the Years pageant, the cast who performed at Wilcox Park for the tercentenary celebration of Westerly, Rhode Island, included Chief Sachem Ousa Mekin and numerous Narragansett tribal members. The role of Queen Esther [a Narragansett leader], the program proudly detailed, will be played by Mrs. Ada G. Anderson, “a direct descendant of the Ninigret royal family” of the Narragansett. She will be escorted in a tableau scene by “personal body guards … who are also direct descendants of the Ninigrets.”26 Not to be outdone by even this representational adjustment, the Narragansett held their own historical pageant, “Rhode Island and Her Indians from the Great Unwritten Book of the Narragansetts” in July 1936 (McMullen 1996a: 169).

“Some Definite Awakening and Response”27: Conclusion

39 On one level, the use of historical imagery and public display by both pageant organizers and Native groups draws our attention to beliefs in the lastingness of (material) performance. Public events involve preparations, rehearsals, post-reporting and reflection which extend spectacles in time well in advance of, and past, the event itself (Inomata and Coben 2006). Not only do these elements hold the potential to create longer relations and lasting impressions, but a focus on the materiality of this process in particular opens the door for considering how deeply held communal attachments might take seed. Objects, memories and stories that stimulate “sensory recall and affective engagement” are inscribed in the community and become technologies of memory passed down through generations (Nazarea 2006: 330). Community in this conception, then, is a body of knowledge and a perception, both communal and private, which continually has action through material objects and performance.

40 On another level, however, these actions demonstrate that this is not an equal process for all individuals. Far from being neutral, historical imagery “provides categories for understanding experience, delineating what we call traditional and what we call modern” (Glassberg 1990: 1). By evoking such relationships, historical imagery provides the framework for questioning whether “it is possible to maintain tradition and keep up with modernity, to retain the intimacies of community and join in mass society, or whether tradition and modernity, community and society are fundamentally at opposites” (Glassberg 1990: 2). In this instance, the material legacies of historical pageants and Native public cultural events provide a lens into the practiced relations through which public performance redefined ideals of traditional and modern and dictated accordingly who was eligible to participate in American “community.” By examining these performances, the objects encompassed within them and the historical traces that evidence their use, we are enabled sharper insight into the new boundaries of indigeneity and community taking shape.

41 The material dimensions of public performance grants us insight into Native communities’ success in publicly redefining the nature of indigeneity and Indigenous community in the early 20th century. In contrast to the myths of disappearance reified over and again in pageantry, New England Native communities demonstrated that they had for centuries shared their Indigenous heritage down through generations and they did so within vibrant communities. As importantly, they demonstrated the utter fallacy in attempts to assess their persistence along any dichotomous lines of “Indian” and American, traditional and modern. Indigeneity, as they expressed it, comes to be seen not as an identity and heritage that suffers in a modern world, but one that persists along a continuum of past, present and future. The achievement of this agenda through the incorporation and blending of material elements, like pan-Indian symbolism, reflects the dynamic ways in which identities and cultures are actively negotiated in both past and future directions through the exchange and mediation of materiality. This continues to be strikingly relevant for groups today who fight for community recognition and for a say in the social, material, intellectual and political means by which we assess indigeneity and community—a life project that continues for most of the same communities involved in public cultural efforts and the dramatic displays nearly a century ago.

I thank the John Hay Library and the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, particularly Kevin Smith and Rip Gerry, for welcoming access to their collections and for the photographs contained herein. I am grateful for the insightful comments and new directions suggested by an anonymous reviewer.


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1 . Throughout this article the term “Indian-ness” refers to the versions of indigeneity that Indigenous people put forth on their own behalf, as well as the (mostly different) versions of the non-Indigenous community.

2 . The timing of these “revitalization movements”—the “why now”—is not well understood; scholars have variously attributed their rise to an ameliorization in cultural stigmatization, shifts in ethno-racial prejudices, intra-Nation conflict, tourism, or newfound pride (Brasser 1971; Conkey 1978; McMullen 2004).

3 . As discussed further in proceeding sections, anthropologist Ann McMullen has written extensively about the public cultural and other community efforts of New England Native groups over the course of the 20th century, including the emergence of regional pan-Indianism, history of powwows and links to public expressions of ethnicity. Readers are referred to her work for discussion of these themes in a larger, and temporally longer, framework.

4 . While such efforts have often been interpreted through the concept of “revitalization” movements, I do not take up this framework (and language), in recognition of the misconceptions and troubling legacies it can perpetuate about cultural “invention,” identity creation and community genesis.

5 . Words of Lotta Alma Clark, secretary of the American Pageant Association, taken from American Pageant Association Bulletin 9, November 1914, which is housed in the Hay Library Special Collections at Brown University Libraries, Providence, RI.

6 . From the souvenir program of the John B. Rogers production Westerle Through the Years: An Historical Pageant, August 26, 1936. The pageant commemorated the 300th Anniversary of the founding of Westerly, RI.

7 . Bulletin 1, May 1913: 3. Housed in the Hay Library Special Collections at Brown University Libraries, Providence, RI.

8 . Materials drawn from the collections of the John Hay Library, Brown University Libraries, Providence, RI.

9 . Prevots refers to the paper “Municipal Pageants as Destroyers of Prejudice” which was delivered at the Sagamore, MA Sociological Conference in July 1914.

10 . Taken from the program of George Baker’s 1921 pageant The Pilgrim Spirit; A Pageant in Celebration of the Tercentenary of the Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

11 . Taken from page 3 of the official program of the John B. Rogers Historical Pageant of Bristol, RI, September 24-26, 1930. Program is housed at the Hay Library Special Collections, Brown University Libraries, Providence, RI.

12 . Correspondence, Frank G. Speck to Thomas Bicknell, November 12, 1923.

13 . Providence Journal, October 29, 1923.

14 . Gladys Tantaquidgeon’s letter to Mathias Speiss, October 22, 1923.

15 . Providence Journal, August 5, 1908.

16 . Providence Journal, August 14, 1905.

17 . Providence Journal, August 17, 1924.

18 . Although the 1925 August Meeting represented a departure from the past, previous meetings had likewise been attended by, and in some measure, marketed to, a broader public. As described in the Providence Journal on August 17, 1924 (section 5, page 5), “Even in recent years the occasion has been such a gala day that it would draw an attention of 1200 with cooky [sic] stands and refreshment booths reaching along the grass-grown roadway for a couple of hundred yards.”

19 . Providence Journal, August 16, 1925.

20 . Providence Journal, August 10, 1925 and August 16, 1925.

21 . Providence Journal, August 10, 1925.

22 . Providence Journal, November 18, 1926.

23 . Providence Journal, September 30, 1927.

24 . Providence Journal, August 12, 1928.

25 . Providence Journal, February 17, 1935.

26 . From page 23 of J. B. Rogers souvenir program of West-erle Through the Years: An Historical Pageant, August 26, 1936.

27 . American Pageantry Association Bulletin 7, September 1914.