Posts Tagged ‘Ota Benga’

An Iroquois Indian canoes in Central Park

July 28, 2011

It’s all a very culturally insensitive stunt from the 1920s, apparently. According to the caption on the back of this Getty Images photo, with the city skyline in view:

“Often romanticized, native people were hired to help promote New York events and locales. In 1927, amid much fanfare, So-Tsien-O-Wa-Ne (Chief Great Fire), a local Iroquois man, began patrolling Central Park’s lake in a canoe.”

A New York Times article from April 16 of that year has this to say:

“The Indian, an Iroquois, is to glide hither and thither around the three-mile stretch of water, preserve order, and lend local color. . . . He has lived for some years in Brooklyn, although born on a reservation in Montreal. On duty, Chief Great Fire will be attired in the usual buckskin clothes with plenty of feathers attached.”

It’s not the first time the city has officially sanctioned putting a human being more or less on display, as this story, of a man who lived for a short time in the Bronx Zoo, reveals.

The Bronx Zoo’s deplorable human exhibit

January 7, 2009

In September 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga—who had been living in the Museum of Natural History after a stint at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—was moved into the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. Given a bow and arrow, he was free to come and go on zoo grounds.

He wasn’t an employee, however, but an exhibit—one that was met with a fair amount of outrage. African-American leaders protested immediately. And though crowds came to laugh and jeer at Ota Benga, many visitors also found the situation shameful.


Ota Benga, supposedly at the Bronx Zoo

The New York Times said this about zoo-goers on September 9, 1906: “Even those who laughed the most turned away with an expression on their faces such as one sees after a play with a sad ending or a book in which the hero or heroine is poorly rewarded. ‘Something about it that I don’t like’ was the way one man put it.”

bronxzoo1910 The Bronx Zoo entrance in 1910, 11 years after the zoo opened 

Within a few weeks, the zoo took Ota Benga off display, and by the end of the month he came under the guardianship of an African-American clergyman who moved him to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. 

The zoo’s human exhibit was over; Ota Benga met his end a decade later. In 1910 he relocated to a Baptist seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he later found work at a tobacco factory. In 1916, he shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.