Harry E. "Indian" Miller: Spectacles of Identity in the Early Twentieth Century American Southwest
Date of Award
Open Access Master's Thesis
School of Arts and Humanities
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
© 2022 Courtney Lamb
Exhibition, Identity, Igorot, Indian, Southwest, Spectacle
Harry E. Miller was a self-styled historian, writer, lecturer, archeologist, sideshow impresario, zookeeper, and Route 66 curio shop owner who spent most of his adult life promoting himself as an Apache known as Indian Miller, Chief Crazy Thunder. Miller insisted on his Native American heritage despite the fact that he was born to a European-American family of pioneers, and for most of the early twentieth century, his audiences and customers apparently accepted the ruse. This paper examines Miller’s choice to engage in various kinds of what I define as spectacles of identity—performances dependent upon markers of ethnographic identity for their visual impact and commercial appeal—and places those choices in historic context. Miller’s life in spectacles extends beyond his Indian Miller persona. His family members also participated in spectacles of identity, but in a manner that adds complexity to my examination of identity formation in the emergent Southwest. His children were born to a local Igorot woman Miller met while living in the Bontoc region of the Philippines after serving in the Philippine-American War. Miller briefly attempted to be an impresario of ethnographic exhibitions, or “human zoos,” following on the enormous popularity of “Igorotte Villages” in American international expositions in the early years of the twentieth century. The Miller family arrived in the United States just as political considerations caused the government to lose interest in putting Igorot people on display. Nonetheless, the Filipino Millers embarked on an extended career performing in ethnographic sideshow spectacles in carnivals. I argue that Miller’s Indian persona and the Miller family’s work in carnivals reflect broader shifts in Western identity formation during the early twentieth century. While engaging in commercial enterprises dependent upon racial and ethnic identity formulations, the Millers had to continually adapt their public personas to reflect and confirm the expectations of their European-American audiences. I demonstrate how four categories of sociocultural conditions influenced the Millers’ decisions: frontier and Old West mythology, the extinction narratives of ethnographic exhibitions and zoos, the antimodernist embrace of primitivism and “playing Indian”, and the roadside commercial culture of the Southwest in the early decades of automobile tourism. By analyzing the Millers’ careers in their historical context, I demonstrate the power of commercial culture, governments, and academics to impose, shape, destroy, and reformulate personal identities and cultures. This paper thus serves as a cautionary tale for museums and zoo professionals, entertainers, documentarians, and others engaged in creating or participating in spectacles of identity.
Lamb, Courtney. (2022). Harry E. "Indian" Miller: Spectacles of Identity in the Early Twentieth Century American Southwest. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 463. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/463.