Researching at Stanford, Reflecting on American Indian Identity
Photo: Left to right: Maurice Patterson, Director, “Oriental Korein Band”; Dolores Jean McLaughlin, Hunkpapa Sioux from Fort Yates, No. Dakota, and “Queen of the Oriental Band”; Howard Keik, Mayor of Casper, Wyoming; and Howard Evans, “Captain of the Guild, Korien Temple,” at the All-American Indians Days Pageant, Sheridan, WY, 1954. Miss American Indian “Miss America” Archive, c. 1950-1960, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University
This summer, the visiting researcher Cindy Ott spent time at the Center delving into the Stanford University archives. One collection that particularly intrigued her was the papers of the Miss American Indian Pageant, which was held annually in Sheridan, Wyoming between 1953 and 1985. “They reveal surprising collaborations among American Indian communities and the Shriners who organized the pageant,” she says, “collaborations and forms of cooperation that resist simple categorizations of us vs. them, or Indian vs. non-Indian identity.”
Ott says that she was struck by images like the one above, which depicts a young contestant alongside Shriners in Orientalist attire on parade through the streets of Sheridan, as three Native Americans view them from curbside. She says that the Miss American Indian archives document through written and visual sources how an ideal American Indian woman was defined at the time, and by whom and how those determinations were made.
Ott, an assistant professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University, is working on a research project entitled “Indians Making History,” examining how American Indian communities have documented their past and perpetuated their heritage in the last half-century. Some of the questions this project raises are: What are the dynamics and mechanisms by which American Indians reconcile their own experiences in a modern globalized world with the persistently romantic expectations of what it means to be Indian? What do Indians nowadays preserve from their own lives to perpetuate Indian heritage for future generations? She especially draws on Indians’ use of photographs, food, and land preservation, and the connections among them, to explore this topic.