________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006


Inuit Entertainers in the United States: From the Chicago World’s Fair Through the Birth of Hollywood. 

Jim Zwick.
West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity, 2006.
205 pp., pbk., $18.95 (US).
ISBN 0-7414-3488-1.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

*** /4  


The Eskimo Village at St. Louis expanded upon the theatrical nature of the exhibits developed for the 1900 World's Fair in Paris and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. It was located on the Pike, the midway or amusement section of the Fair, and its exterior was once again designed to look like a mountain of ice. The interior was an elaborate multilevel stage with a faux-Arctic landscape drawn on white canvas. There was a winding trail up a "snow" hill for dog sled demonstrations, a miniature lake for kayak exhibits, and tents and white plaster igloos to represent both summer and winter habitats. It was far from an accurate representation of life in Labrador but it was entertainment on a grand scale. ..New features added by Dick Craine included a stuffed polar bear, a miniature hunter's cabin, a tame bear named Mac that pulled a dog sled, and a bicycle fitted with a saddle that was pulled by a dog team.

Inuit Entertainment in the United States tells the story of Labrador Inuit who were sent to the United States between 1892 and 1914. First shown at the Chicago World's Fair in 1892, they became so popular that they were regular attractions at other fairs and expositions both in the United States and abroad until 1914. One chapter, out of eight, is about the experiences of Inuit twins from Alaska. It is a fascinating story. Because the Inuit were naïve to the ways of the white man's world, they were taken advantage of and frequently exploited. One Dime Museum advertisement included in the book, for example, is headed "The Monster Novelty-Esquimaux Village," and, under a drawing of four men, the Inuit are described as the "Most Peculiar Race On Earth."  

     Such publicity was not uncommon. The Inuit, simply because they were different, were considered freaks and often shown in midways along with such popular wonders as "Enoch, the Man-Fish," "Turtle Boy" and "The Bearded Queen." As such, their naiveté was abused, and they were often mistreated. Their differences were illustrated in post cards, pamphlets, and books which were sold at fairs. Visitors were also encouraged to pay the Inuit for any photographs that were taken. In addition, to stress their "uniqueness", the Inuit were encouraged to behave as they would at home and produce ivory carvings and needlework for sale. 

     A central figure in the seven chapters on the Labrador Inuit is Columbia, often introduced as "the only Eskimo born in the United States." The daughter of 15-year-old Esther, her experience/career as an oddity/entertainer, was remarkable. Exploited as were most of the Inuit at fairs and expositions, she was very talented and eventually wrote and stared in the first Hollywood movie with Inuit actors. The Way of the Eskimo was produced in 1901, eleven years before the more famous, Nanook of the North, often described as the first Inuit film. 

     Author Jim Zwick has impressive literary credentials. The editor of Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War, he has also written about the history of U.S. imperialism. In addition, he developed an educational website, BoondocksNet.com, on U.S. cultural and political history and has been a consultant for documentary films. In Inuit Entertainers in the United States, he has produced a well researched and factual book written at a level appropriate for high school students. It could be used as a text in the United States but is more suitable for recreational reading in Canada.  

     Zwick relates many unusual facts about the Labrador and Alaskan Inuit brought to the United States and displayed as cultural oddities. One of the most unusual concerns the health problems many of them encountered. It was widely believed that the reason they succumbed to serious illnesses, when others did not, was because of the change in climate when they came to the States. To rectify this, on one occasion, Inuit performers were housed in a cold storage plant. Since arctic air was believed to be free from disease as a result of the extreme cold, such a decision, while sounding absurd today, was well intentioned at the time.  

     Inuit Entertainers in the United States is well illustrated throughout with many black and white photographs, drawings, and pictures of advertisements for Inuit shows and films. These are functional, but many of the photographs are too small and detailed to be of much use. Those of small groups of individuals are generally clear and do a good job of showing the Inuit, as visitors to the fairs and expositions saw them, in their " traditional clothing and habitat." In addition, the book has an index, an extensive bibliography with newspaper, magazine, book, and film references. Other useful teaching aids include a chronology of the time period covered in the book and detailed chapter notes. 


Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher, lives in North Bay, ON.  

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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