Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Biggest Indian Contest" Mystery Solved

In my last post I shared this picture of Spokane's "Biggest Indian Contest" and asked my readers: What the hell?

Spokane Mayor Burch with 'Biggest Indian' Contest Winner'
I got a couple of good responses. Over on the Northwest History Facebook page (and you have "liked" the Northwest History Facebook page, haven't you?) Charles Hansen pointed out that the photographer is Charles Libby. The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture holds the complete works of Libby, who is famous for his detailed records of the photographs that he took. I could head over there and ask to look at Libby's notebooks.

Riva Dean, the fantastic reference librarian at the Northwest Room of the Spokane Public Library, nailed it:

Hi Larry. I just saw your post this morning and then this afternoon, I realized where it came from! We have a file of photographs of the opening of the Indian Canyon Golf Course. There are lots of photographs of Indians dressed up and doing some pretty odd things – like shooting bows and arrows while someone is teeing off. This photograph is included in the file and it says “Mayor Burch greeting the ‘biggest’ Indian present for the golf opening ceremonies in May 1936.”

So there we have it--the Biggest Indian Contest was a promotional stunt for the opening of a Golf Course. Dean sent along a link to this 1935 Spokane Chronicle story about the event:

We can't just leave it there, however. The opening of the golf course was kind of a big deal in Spokane. The promoters played off the name of Indian Canyon and invited numerous native people to the grand opening, and photographers to record the event. Some of these images are similar to the staged, racist photographs of the period that tried to draw humor from the supposed contrast between native peoples and modern technology. Others are simply documentary or at worst playful. Here are a few from the University of Washington's digital collections:

Wenatchi man named George Nanamkin showing archery skill,
Indian Canyon Golf Course, Spokane, Washington, April 26, 1936

George Nanamkin golfing

Wenatchi man named George Nanamkin golfing

Wenatchi young people attend the opening of the Golf Course

Finally, in April of the next year the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran a photograph of George Nanamkin and some friends, again at Indian Canyon but this time in everyday dress. "Indians See Many Changes in Site of Historic Battle" the headline reads, though so far as I know there was never a battle at this site. From the sweaters and cardigans in the image, it looks like Nanamkin was there to play golf for real that day. I love the contrast between this image of real individuals on a holiday compared to the staged images above:

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