Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

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The Other Continents among Us

PARSONS threw herself into fieldwork in the Southwest in 1918 in reaction to an America that was chasing the chimera of racial purity. The American Southwest provided the perfect antidote to that absurd quest. Throughout the nineteenth century, the "Vanishing Indian" had served as a potent symbol of the inevitable destruction of the "primitive" by the forces of "civilization"--of "red" by "white." Whether through the segregationist philosophy of the 1830s or the assimilationist of the 1880s, American native populations were willed into extinction by removal or absorption. "Everywhere, at the approach of the white man, they fade away," Justice Joseph Story lamented in 1828. "We hear the rustling of their footsteps, like that of the withered leaves of autumn, and they are gone for ever." A century later, photographer Edward Curtis caught the continuing mood of elegy for a departed race in his evocative picture of a band of Navajo fading into the horizon.1

Department store heir Rodman Wanamaker dispatched his assistant Joseph Dixon on a series of expeditions between 1908 and 1913 to mark the death of the Indian. "Listen for the heavy footfalls of departing greatness," Dixon urged the American public in his book The Vanishing Race. "Watch the grim faces, sternly set toward the western sky rim, heads still erect, eagle feathers, emblems of victory, moving proudly into the twilight, and a long, solitary peal of distant thunder joining the refrain of the soul--and it is night." At the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, where Dixon lectured three times a day, an enlarged version of James Earle Fraser's elegiac sculpture, The End of the Trail, won the gold medal.2

As the Americanization program got under way in 1916, the commissioner of Indian Affairs devised a bizarre citizenship ceremony for Native Americans--who were allowed to fight for "their" country but only selectively granted citizenship. After handing each male


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