The Pavilion

Indigenous Resistance at World's Fairs

Expo ’67, with its real-life First Nations hostesses and giant flashy tepee wasn’t the first time a global exposition had featured Indigenous peoples. In fact, considering the long history of world’s fairs and a settler colonial penchant for putting Indigenous peoples on display, the Indians of Canada Pavilion was business as usual. What was also business as usual, though this may not be as obvious when you first look at it, is that the Department of Indian Affairs [DIA] in Canada spent most of its time in the preparation for, and during the presentation of the Pavilion afraid of how much control the Indigenous peoples involved had over the presentation of their image.

And to show that to you, we’re going to take you back to a fair over seventy years before Expo, to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where the DIA ran into similar troubles having its version of Indigeneity on display, unchallenged.

Now, at first glance, what might make the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo different from earlier world’s fairs--if we were to follow the historical narrative of “Indigenous exploitation at the fair” that many scholars have identified-- is that instead of a passive and entertaining indigeneity on display, those who visited the pavilion were forced to see their colonialism reflected back on themselves—from “Indians” that were certainly not confined to a safe and distant past.

While this pushback was certainly more visible to settlers than it would have been in the nineteenth century, the kind of narrative resistance that we see occurring at Expo ‘67’s Indians of Canada Pavilion is actually part of a long history of Indigenous resistance at world’s fairs.

Expo’s Indians of Canada Pavilion was also not the first time the Department of Indian Affairs had had a hand in ensuring an Indigenous spectacle at one of these events. Following their debut at the 1889 St. Louis World’s Fair, ‘live exhibitions’ of Indigenous people for settler consumption became a norm in international expositions in the years to follow.

Usually, these displays were divided into two camps: the first, usually organized by anthropologists were designed to put what were viewed as “vanishing” Indigenous cultural performances on display. The second, and this was the kind of installation the DIA often had a hand in, was to demonstrate the “civilization” programs states had targeting Indigenous people and cultures.

At these exhibits, one would see demonstrations of Indigenous people performing “modern industrial” tasks, meant to show that assimilation was possible. For the DIA, this image was crucial to showing off Canada’s respectability and resourcefulness to the rest of the world. Historian Paige Raibmon explains that:

Establishing its status as civilized was important to Canada, a new country in need of immigrants and investment capital. World’s fairs, like smaller national-scale events, were obvious opportunities to promote the settlement of frontier lands. Canadian officials thus strove to represent their country as a progressive society that had domesticated the land and the more than 50,000 Aboriginal people who had been ‘Confederated’ along with the North-West Territories and British Columbia in 1870 and 1871, respectively. Officials geared their message toward national as well as international audiences. On an international scale, they hoped to attract a much-needed influx of people and funds, while nationally they strove to convince current residents of their own prosperity.

In order to “confederate” Indigenous people, Canada had to assimilate them. And one of its most notorious, and harmful assimilation tools was its Residential School system. To show just how good it was at “rehabilitating” Indigenous people, at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the DIA pulled a “rotating” group of children incarcerated at Residential Schools to sit and “operate machinery to demonstrate industrial schooling”. Similarly, the DIA’s hand in the Indians of Canada Pavilion meant that the exhibit included a section about Indigenous people working “modern” jobs. Myra Rutherdale and Jim Miller describe it as follows:

In an area near the end of the pathway through the pavilion visitors were assured that First Nations in Canada were winning ‘the struggle of the Indian to accept a modern technological society.’ A display of photographs that showed First Nations people in a variety of modern work situations was accompanied by text that read: “Our people have succeeded in many kinds of work-- as hunters and trappers, fishers and farmers, craftsmen, tradesmen, merchants, doctors, lawyers, judges…”

As you see when you listen to The Pavilion, the Department of Indian Affairs, despite getting input from First Nations communities across the country, had a hard time relinquishing control of the planning of the Indians of Canada Pavilion, and often stepped in to keep First Nations organizers from doing everything they wanted... Especially if it was going to make them look bad.

While the publicity that the Indians of Canada Pavilion received in 1967 was certainly unlike what would have been possible during the world’s fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canada’s anxieties about Indigenous peoples giving them a bad name is very much the same as it had been seventy years before. And like the scramble for control that we see in the 1960s, Canada had never really been able to completely dictate what Indigenous peoples from within their borders could do.

The Chicago Exposition remains a key comparison point, here. Because while the DIA attempted to showcase its allegedly “successful” assimilation programs by putting Indigenous children on display, it could never quite control its image as a benevolent Indian uplifter.

Why? Because there was always that first type of Indigenous display to contend with. The anthropological display. And this is where the story of the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the challenge they posed to a Canadian-controlled image in 1893, pulls two world’s fairs, from very different time periods, together in close contrast.

World’s fairs meant great publicity for countries, but they also presented opportunities for anthropologists to gather support for their research. In 1893 one of the field’s biggest projects was preserving the cultures of what they referred to as ‘vanishing Indians.’ Euro-American and Euro-Canadian settlers specifically believed that Indigenous peoples, as a ‘conquered race’ were an antiquated people, rapidly fading from existence. As a way to both mark how far these so-called modern states had come since their founding, and in turn, in a scramble to capture snapshots of peoples anthropologists were sure would not last much longer, put performances of Indigenous cultures on display.

These performances may not have reflected what Indigenous cultures actually were; more often than not they were designed to fulfill settler fantasies of images of “Indians” that they had conjured themselves. That’s what the Kwakwaka’wakw—whose territory sits in what is known as Vancouver Island —were brought to Chicago to do. Star anthropologists Frederic Putnam and Franz Boas brought a group of Kwakwaka’wakw from their homes to “give the old peace and festival dances in costume” for white spectators, who could count themselves lucky to have witnessed a culture on its way out.

Knowing that presenting a kind of Indigeneity that Canada could not control “had the potential to undermine Canada’s peaceful, civilized façade,” the Department of Indian Affairs actually attempted to block Kwakwaka’wakw from coming to Chicago with Putnam and Boas. According to Paige Raibmon, the Department “had tried to dissuade the Kwakwaka’wakw from ever leaving Vancouver Island.” Raibmon argues that while the Kwakwaka’wakw display was “a manifestation of colonial displacement,” the Kwakwaka’wakw in attendance were also able to practice parts of their potlatch culture in Chicago, and not only were they doing that, but they were getting paid for it.

This was especially infuriating to DIA representatives; the potlatch had been illegal in Canada for over a decade. In 1885, Canada amended its Indian Act to ban the potlatch, which “was one of the most important ceremonies for coastal First Nations in the west, and marked important occasions as well as served a crucial role in the distribution of wealth.” Seeing the Kwakwaka’wakw not only break settler laws, but benefit from breaking those laws “forced” Indian Affairs to “confront” the “failure” of their assimilation programs.

In a similar way, while Indian Affairs still demanded a large hand in controlling the image the Indians of Canada Pavilion presented, those who gave their time to tell a story that they wanted the public to hear is not as historically new as you would initially think. As we mentioned in another blog post, sometimes treating Indigenous people throughout history as passive victims means that we miss the amazing things that they were--and are still--able to do within systems designed to destroy them.

We can talk about the ways in which Expo ‘67 marked a change in the way First Nations people particularly were able to exercise agency within a restrictive settler system, but it’s more important, especially now, to understand that Indigenous peoples have always done this kind of thing. It’s business as usual indeed.


David R.M. Beck, Unfair Labor?: American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019)

Jane Griffith, “One Little, Two Little, Three Canadians: The Indians of Canada Pavilion and Public Pedagogy, Expo 1967,” Journal of Canadian Studies 49, no. 2 (2015): 171-204.

Indigenous Foundations - University of British Columbia: The Indian Act

George Manuel, “Chapter 7: The Decade of Consultation,” in The Fourth World: An Indian Reality, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974)

Nancy Parezo and Don D. Fowler, Anthropology Goes to the Fair: the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007)

Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)