The Federal City and Indigenous Space: Realities and Representations of Internal Colonialism in Nineteenth-Century Washington, D.C.

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, Illinois College
This essay contrasts the visual and symbolic with the actual Native presence in nineteenth-century Washington DC and seeks to reconstruct how Indigenous people experienced the capital city. Influenced by Linda Gordon’s recent call for American historians to reconsider the utility of “internal colonialism” as a theoretical construct in the study of United States history, it suggests that the public discourse (a term used to denote artwork, drama, newspaper rhetoric, and guidebook language) conveyed an evolving notion of “two worlds,” by presenting Indian people in the nation’s capital as primitive, mystified by “modern” (especially urban) life, economically exploitable, and at a most basic level, curiosities to be viewed by an urbane and sophisticated audience. By presenting Indians as “sons of the forest,” noble savages, childlike innocents, or Vanishing Americans, writers and artists engaged in a national dialogue that drew arbitrary and often false lines between Native and non-Native experiences.

These representations of Indian people ignored a more complex and interesting nineteenth-century reality in which Native diplomatic travel to the capital was a common, even normative experience, and Indian diplomats engaged with non-Native Washingtonians and the iconographic program of the city questioning the foundations of American colonialism in important ways. Finally, nineteenth-century representations and realities of the Indigenous experience in Washington DC indicate that gender discourse informed notions of American colonialism, not just on the peripheries and borders of contact, but within the seat of national power. This essay not only contributes to the emerging literatures on “hidden” urban Indian history and place-based narratives, it also provides an essential historical component to the proliferation of critical studies of Native space in Washington DC that followed the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.