In the late summer of 1909, two young men in Santa Rosa mounted their bicycles and headed towards Washington state, where they were determined to see the sights of the great Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE). Nearly two months later and with a thousand often-rugged miles behind them, Vic McDaniel and Ray Francisco, sick and tearful, stood on a hill outside Seattle and gazed upon the lights of the Exposition, their road trip having tested them in ways never imagined.
It’s a ripping yarn told well in “Two Wheels North” written by Vic’s daughter, who coaxed from dad a narrative of that long-ago trek. It is even worth reading twice, first for the coming-of-age adventure and again for the art of the telling. A small sample of Evelyn McDaniel Gibb’s fine writing: “I locked my eyes on the dark that was the other side of the canyon. Its blackness wavered lesser, denser, the eerie campfire glows like feeble candles in a room too large. Men’s voices also rose and sank and were made of sounds I’ve never heard. A dozen nights ago when I was a boy, all this might have kept me awake.”
Now on the centennial of the trip, and a 72-year-old retired teacher is retracing their route and blogging about it for the Press Democrat (link currently available here, but search their June, 2009 archives for “Bill Harrison” if the file is not found.) Then on July 4, a dozen or more riders will start their “Wheels North” bicycle tour that is expected to reach Seattle in just two weeks. That ride is a search-for-a-cure fundraiser and participants are required to pay $2,000 or $200/day. The Wheels North website also offers high-quality versions of photographs and postcards from Vic and Ray’s adventure.
But what about that fair was so compelling to Ray and Vic? The book is slim on details: “From the day we saw the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition traveling tent show I’d talked hard to convince Ray we could bike the thousand miles up there to see the fair… we’d seen the real Siberian Eskimos and listened to the high-hatted spieler tell about the Igorot people from the Phillippines who would cook and eat their puppies where folks could watch, and the Hawaiian girl, Ieka, who would dance her native hula-hula…” That description of the alluring Ieka may have inspired Vic’s imagination and teenage libido, but what the boys actually saw would inspire outrage today. Here were human beings on display for public amusement, their entertainment value being their culture’s limited contact with the Western world up to that point. Among the people on exhibit were even children, and one of them was about to die.
Ray and Vic were among the curious who crowded into the tent (which would have been near the main mall entrance today) to see the “Real Siberian Eskimos,” as promoted in the large Press Democrat ad shown here. The show was the main attraction found on the Rose Carnival midway that lined Fourth Street, where the Rose Parade would be held that Saturday, May 8. Santa Rosa’s festival was quite the event in 1909, with a parade at noon and then an illuminated parade at night.
The Santa Rosa papers didn’t say much about what happened in the “Big Arctic Show,” but some details emerged from their stop in Oakland the following week. “The people are seen cooking over the flame of walrus oil lamps, making garments of seal skin and sleds of ivory and carved wood,” the San Francisco Call reported. “The children play their native games and the men harness and drive the score of wolf dogs that accompany the tribe…” Even the smallest children were on display, and the public was apparently encouraged to handle them. That a newborn died of bronchitis in Santa Rosa may not be so surprising, and given the group’s limited exposure to Western diseases prior to this trip, you wonder how many other children and adults became seriously ill or died.
The “Eskimos” were actually members of six families of the Siberian Yupik tribe who lived along the Saint Lawrence Bay in the very eastern-most part of Siberia (also known as the part of Russia that Sarah Palin can see from her house). The Yupik were famed sea hunters and shrewd traders; John Muir wrote an interesting 1881 account of attempting to barter with them — and failing. According to an essay on the Yupik at AYPE available from Washington state’s remarkable HistoryLink.org, an Alaskan firm called the North Star Trading Company had a warehouse on the Bay, and it was a Captain A. M. Baber from that company who convinced Yupik tribal members to join him on a steamer across the Bering Sea for the strange lands of America.
Captain Baber and the Yupiks reached Seattle on September 18, 1908, when he told a reporter from the Post-Intelligencer that they needed to leave nearly a year early to beat the oncoming Siberian winter. “I will find a quiet place on the Sound for the natives and house them this winter,” the considerate Baber told the paper, “although it may be possible that I will take them to the mountains if I find that the climate is too warm for them.” A month later, a followup story finds them temporarily living in abandoned housing for loggers across Puget Sound from Seattle. As for wintering in snowy mountains, apparently the Captain decided that they would actually be more comfortable performing on the vaudeville stage. Before arriving in Santa Rosa several months later, another HistoryLink essay states they performed as far away as Topeka, and even marched in numerous parades. A January, 1909 review of their stage act in Salt Lake City suggests their program was already polished, with sequences of wrestling and feats of strength by the men, a reenactment of a seal hunt, and performances of traditional dances with music. “Special school children’s matinees” were also offered.
After 6+ months rattling around the West and Midwest on trains (which none of them had even seen a year earlier), the opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition probably came as somewhat a relief to the Yupiks, even though they were now under constant public observation. They shared the AYPE “Eskimo Village” building with a well-established troupe of Labradorean Inuit and Inuit-descent performers, some who had been touring American fairs for more than a decade. The Yupiks were exhibited in their own area, along with “40 tons of stuff…[presenting] the village just as it was before it was knocked down,” as Captain Baber told a Seattle PI reporter. The Eskimo Village was a must-see show on the Pay Streak midway and the second most popular concession of the fair, behind in box office receipts only to an elaborate cyclorama portraying the Civil War battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack.
No photographs or exact descriptions survive of the doings inside the Eskimo Village attraction, but it’s safe to assume that the Yupiks periodically put on a show similar to their now-well rehearsed vaudeville act. Between performances, the public could gawk at them making traditional handicrafts. And speaking of the latter, what happened to all those handmade furs and ivories and leathers that the Yupiks produced during their American visit?
The only hint is found in that SF Call item on their Oakland appearance: “…It is estimated that the skins and furs are worth $50,000, but none is for sale, as the pelts, admitted free of duty, must leave the country.” Think about that: With no import fees, valuable raw materials entered the country, were turned into more valuable garments and handiwork, and were then were sent out of the country, apparently without export fees. Where would Captain A. M. Baber, late of the North Star Trading Company, send the finished work, except back to his old company’s warehouse in Siberia? From there, the company could profit by importing the goods back into the U.S. If this was indeed the setup, then how was the Siberian Eskimo show different than a sweatshop?
The Yupiks weren’t the only racial group exploited at the Exposition. Just this month (June, 2009), Filipino-American community groups in Seattle announced that they were demanding a public apology for the related AYPE “Igorot Village.” As noted in a press release, “The zoo-like village reinforced racial stereotypes of Filipinos as a primitive people through displays of spear-throwing, mock battles, semi-nude clothing, so-called headhunters and dog-eating.” And even though the point of the fair was to celebrate the Pacific Northwest and its ties to Asia, another big concession on the midway was “Dixieland,” where visitors saw a plantation exhibit with “every feature of the happy life the darky lived before the troubles came that set him free.”
Nearly four million passed through the fair in Seattle that summer of 1909, and most probably arrived with some of the casual racist views of the day, such as the “White Man’s Burden” presumption of superiority, or simple prejudice against people who didn’t act or look like Euro-Americans. How sad that many likely went home with their biases reinforced by what they saw at AYPE.
SIBERIAN ESKIMOS COME TO SANTA ROSA
The group of Siberian Eskimos that have been brought to America for the Alaska-Yukon Exposition, have come to Santa Rosa to stay until the Rose Carnival is over. They can be seen this evening and daily thereafter, in the tent on Fourth street west of the Occidental hotel. This group of Eskimos has been exhibited in the chief cities of Oregon, and the newspapers of that state speak most highly of the character of the show. Many scenes of the home life of the Eskimos are given, including their daily occupations and their pastimes, and the sight of them is no douby an interesting study in ethnology. The leading educators of Oregon give their hearty endorsement to the show.– Press Democrat, May 5, 1909
DON’T FAIL TO SEE MAYOR NAME ESKIMO BABY
Mayor Gray stated last night that he will christen the Eskimo baby at the “Eski Village” tonight directly after the illuminated parade. He will give “Santa Rosa” a medal. Let everybody be on hand to see His Honor name the baby. That “Eskimo Village,” by the way, is well worth seeing.– Press Democrat, May 8, 1909
LITTLE ESKIMO BABY DIES OF BRONCHITIS
The little Eskimo baby, whom so many hundreds of people saw named by Mayor Gray last Saturday night in the Eskimo Village on the “Midway,” died on Sunday night, and on Monday the little piece of humanity was laid to rest here. Dr. J. W. Jesse was called in and certified that the death was due to bronchitis. The baby was a puny little creature at birth. There were scores at the village on Sunday night, and when they were told that “Santa Rosa” was dead, there were many expressions of regret, particularly from the women and children who were anxious to see the baby.– Press Democrat, May 11, 1909