In 1874, a Pawnee man named White Fox died from disease while traveling in Sweden. Tragically, his remains didn’t make it back home for over a century thanks to the disturbing decision of a Swedish professor.
Note: the word Indian is used instead of Native American as it was the norm at the time.
In the 1870s native North Americans were a great curiosity for the people of Scandinavia. Although many Swedes were aware of the ongoing struggle on the American frontier through newspaper reports and letters from emigrant relatives, most still held a very romantic idea of “Indians.” This view was formed mainly by fiction, especially through the works of American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, whose stories of forest-dwelling eastern peoples created a prevailing image that did not change until the late 1800s when it was replaced with the image of war bonnet-wearing peoples of the plains. Throughout the Pawnees’ stay, European newspapers often compared them to the Indians in Cooper’s novels.
Swedish audiences were curious about the unfamiliar “other.” Painter George Catlin had exhibited Iowas and Ojibwas in Europe as early as the 1840s. In a similar way Saami people from the north of Sweden and Norway had been exhibited throughout Europe and by the 1870s the number of touring Saami had risen substantially. There was a widespread sense of wonder, not necessarily in a good way, when faced with “strange” things, and European audiences not only wanted to see trapeze artists, trick-riders, bearded ladies, and so on, but also people from distant lands. They also genuinely wished to understand and place the peoples of the earth in a larger context. Educated Europeans and Euroamericans felt this was an opportunity to see representatives of vanishing peoples before they were obliterated by the “inevitable” triumph of European civilization. They considered White Fox, Red Fox, and White Eagle as “Indians” first and as Pawnees second.
The article this excerpt was taken from, The Long Journey of White Fox, was written by Dan Jibreus in the Summer 2014 issue of Nebraska History, which you can read here. The article won Jibreus the 2014 James L. Sellers Memorial Award, which is awarded by History Nebraska to the author of the best article printed in that year’s Nebraska History issues.
Three unusual visitors arrived in Sweden in the summer of 1874. They were Pawnee Indians who had come to perform their native dances and customs for the public. Accompanying them were two Swedish American circus directors or impresarios. While in Sweden, one of the three Pawnees, White Fox, contracted an illness and died.
Rather than allowing his two friends to bury him, a Swedish scientist laid claim to White Fox’s remains and dismembered the corpse, taking the skin off the head and torso and placing it on a plaster cast for public display at an exhibition. Not until the 1990s did Sweden return White Fox’s skin to the Pawnee nation.
Earlier researchers who wrote about White Fox emphasized the disposition of his remains. While that is an important story to tell, when Dan Jibreus wrote about White Fox in Nebraska History, his main purpose was to paint a portrait, as far as possible, of the living man. White Fox and his traveling Pawnee companions were part of several important processes.
His story was part of the greater tragedy of the Pawnee people and of the Indian wars on the American western plains; he was part of a pioneer group of entertainers and can be considered one of the first Native American explorers of Northern Europe.
Jibreus also tried to shed some light on why White Fox and his companions embarked on such an adventurous undertaking in the first place and to examine the lives of the two Swedes in order to give a fuller picture of the context.