History Nebraska Blog

Pawnees in Sweden – the Long Journey of White Fox

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"3841","attributes":{"class":"media-image size-full wp-image-1730","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"600","height":"376","alt":"From Nebraska History magazine. White Fox is shown seated in about 1874 in a photo courtesy of G\u00f6teborgs Etnografiska Museum"}}]]

Why would three Pawnee men travel to Sweden in the 1870s? And why, when one of the men died, was his body not returned to his family?

In the Summer 2014 issue of Nebraska History, Dan Jibréus of the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm, Sweden, tells the story of the first Native Americans to visit Scandinavia in 1874.

That summer three Pawnee men traveled from Nebraska to perform their native dances and customs for the public. One of the three, White Fox, became ill and died in Sweden, and his body was claimed by a Swedish scientist who had White Fox’s head and torso taxidermied and mounted.

At the time, Jibréus writes, “native North Americans were a great curiosity for the people of Scandinavia,” most of whom still held romantic ideas of “Indians” shaped by fiction. Two Swedish immigrants to the United States organized the tour, which happened years before Buffalo Bill’s Wild West did something similar on a much larger scale.

The Pawnees toured Britain, Denmark, Norway, and finally Sweden before White Fox died in Gothenburg. Though his companions wanted to give him a proper burial, Jibréus writes, “Swedish law made it possible for scientists to claim for research purposes the bodies of criminals or people with no known relations.” White Fox’s body was sent to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, one of the world’s premier medical universities. There, Professor of Anatomy Gustaf von Düben studied the corpse.

“What happened to White Fox’s remains went beyond even the common practices of the time,” Jibréus writes. Von Düben had plaster casts made of White Fox’s torso and head, and had one of these covered with White Fox’s own skin. This macabre specimen was later displayed at an ethnographical exhibition in Stockholm, and languished in the basement of Karolinska Institute for more than a century.

The existence of the “bust” came to light in the 1990s. The Karolinska Institute notified the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, who contacted the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma (the Pawnees had been removed from Nebraska to Oklahoma around the time of the Swedish tour). The Pawnees demanded that White Fox’s remains be returned for burial; this was done in 1996.

In all, it’s a strange and dark story, too complex to be told here. Jibréus describes details from the tour and the attitudes of the European audiences; he traces the lives of the Swedish entrepreneurs who organized the tour, and the lives of White Fox’s two companions after they returned home. Nebraska History has published a number of articles about the Pawnees over the years (find them here), but this story was previously inaccessible to American scholars, and provides insight into how Native Americans were perceived in northern Europe in the nineteenth century.

Update, October 13, 2015: "The Long Journey of White Fox" has been named the winner of the annual James L. Sellers Memorial Award. Read the full article here (PDF).

- David L. Bristow, Associate Director / Publications

Yearly memberships start at $32

Learn More