Archive for November 4th, 2010

Ireland and the American Indians

4 November 2010

By Juliana Adelman

Every once in a while the historian experiences a series of coincidences which makes her take a second look at something and maybe file it under ‘interesting lead to pursue in future’.  While reading through the minute books of the Dublin Zoological Society I came across a tantilizing reference to the visitation of a tribe of American Indians to the gardens in the 1840s.  I assumed it was another example of the distasteful nineteenth-century practice of human displays: public exhibitions of ‘savages’ from all continents were popular attractions and sometimes they were placed alongside animal exhibits.  Soon after, I came across an article on the visiting Indians in a Dublin newspaper.  The coverage surprised me.  There was certainly an element of condescension and titilation, but the Indians were treated as a mixture of visiting foreign dignitaries and actors. Far from the seedy sideshow in native flesh that I had imagined.  The tribe was described as making a visit to the zoological gardens, rather than being on display there, and all the gate receipts for the day were donated to them.  Hmmm, so much for a historian’s assumptions.

I didn’t think much more of it until a few months later I was reading William Cronon’s book Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the great west (heartily recommended).  Cronon referred repeatedly to George Catlin’s doomed campaigns to save both American Indian tribes and buffalo habitats in the west.  Catlin, one of America’s early environmental campaigners, documented the demise of the buffalo in the face of expanding American cattle grazing. Catlin sounded familiar. Read more