The Indian Congress of 1898

About the Congress

The Indian Congress of 1898 was the culmination of activities started in the prior year. In December, 1897, at the insistance of the management and friends of the exposition, a bill was introduced in Congress providing an appropriation of $100,000 to carry out the project as part of the exposition. The bill passed the Senate. Before it could come up for final action in the House, the preparations for the war with Spain so monopolized the legislative attention that it was found impossible to effect the passage of the measure as contemplated. Later an item for the same purpose, carrying $40,000 was incorporated as a paragraph in the Indian Appropriations Bill. This was reported by the Omaha Bee on February 11, 1898. Additional articles were also written about the prospects for the congress by the World Herald and the Bee. Unfortunatly, this bill did not become law until July 1, 1898, a full month after the opening of the exposition.

The Indian Congress of 1898 brought together over 500 Native Americans representing 35 different tribes. The Indian Congress was managed by Captain W. A. Mercer of the 8th U. S. Infantry, under the direction of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs acting on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior.

The purpose of the gathering was detailed by a letter sent by W. A. Jones, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, which was sent to each Indian Agency. In this letter he states:
"It is the purpose of the promoters of the proposed encampment or congress to make an extensive exhibit illustrative of the mode of life, native industries, and ethnic traits of as many of the aboriginal American tribes as possible. To that end it is pro posed to bring together selected families or groups from all the principal tribes and camp them in tepees, wigwams, hogans etc., on the expostion grounds, and permit them to conduct their domestic affairs as they do at home, and make and sell their wares for their own profit." This letter was reported in its entirety by the Omaha Bee on Monday April 4, 1898 and is also included as part of The Report by Captain Mercer included in the Secretary's Report completed in 1903.

Since funding was not approved until after the Exposition opened, much of what was envisioned for the Indian Congress had to be modified to fit within the constraints of time and available funds. The Indian Congress was formally opened on August 4, 1898. On that day 450 Native Americans participated in the opening ceremonies. About 150 of the Native Americans in attendance on that day were from the Omaha tribe and 45 were from the Winnebago tribe. These individuals returned to their reservations after remaining about ten days. The permanent delagations on hand for the opening ceremonies numbered 225, representing fifteen tribes and eighteen reservations.

The Indian Congress included "Apache prisoners of war from Fort Sill" Chief Geronimo and his "able lieutenant" Nachie were part of this group.

According to Captain Mercer's report the weather "has been trying in the extreme ... Most of the time we have had extreme heat accompanied by dry, hot winds, which rendered camp life anything but pleasant, the conditions being rendered somewhat worse by o ur location. Following close upon the heated period we have just had a week of cold, heavy rains which made the camp and life in it more disagreeable even than it was during the hot spell."

Our knowledge of the Congress comes from the official reports of the manager, other TransMississippi officials and the local papers of the day. It would be interesting to see the participants thought of the experience.

The Collection:

The Omaha Public Library collection includes over 500 photographs of Native Americans. These photographs were taken by F. A. Rinehart. Rinehart was the official photographer for the TransMississippi Exposition. Many of these photographs are portraits o f individuals. Group photos of families and photographs of various activities are also in the collection.

The library also has the original "Secretary's Report" from the TransMississippi Exposition. This document includes a section on the The Indian Congress by Mr. W. V. Cox, Secretary of the Government Exhibit Board. I t also contains the Report of Captain Mercer, manager of the Indian Congress. The documents and photographs provide a prime resource for this unique event in American history.

© 1998 The Omaha Public Library