co-written by Monique Mojica and LeAnne Howe
“From 1840 until 1940, freak shows by the hundreds crisscrossed the United States, from the smallest towns to the largest cities, exhibiting their casts of dwarfs, giants, Siamese twins, bearded ladies, savages, snake charmers, fire eaters, and other oddities. By today’s standards such displays would be considered cruel and exploitative — the pornography of disability.”
Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit
(University of Chicago Press 1988
During the 1930s, Monique Mojica’s mother and aunt (the future founders of New York’s Spiderwoman Theater) worked the Side Show at the Golden City Amusement Park in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, New York. Their tipi was next to the sword swallower, the bearded lady and those performers with physical anomalies who performed as ‘freaks’. They posed for tourists in their buckskins and feathers and danced for the Boy Scouts. (A generation later, so did she.) Leanne Howe’s Aunt Euda “ran off and joined the circus” when it camped on the outskirts of Ada.
The re-embodiment and re-enactment of family histories against the backdrop of historical events explores the legacy of “playing Indian”, being an exotic on display, an objectified body, always available for the colonizer’s amusement & titillation, while exploring the relationship between the freak show, the “pornography of disability” and their relationship to the pornography of cultural “othering”.
This juxtaposition between structure and story highlights the tension between Indigenous hyper–visibility — “Indians” marked as freaks and exotics — and our invisibility: a deliberate concealment and erasure of the evidence that marks our sustained presence on the landscape. Indigenous peoples, like the presence of the effigy mounds and earthworks, are “hidden in plain sight”.
Two steam locomotive trains propel toward the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. On each train is a Native woman traveling in disguise. One has just escaped from the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota. The other woman has escaped from a sanatorium for tubercular Indians in Talihina, Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In an actual historical event, the Missouri Pacific trains collide three miles east of Warrensburg, Missouri. The women crawl out of the wreckage — survivors — a metaphor for the collision of the Indigenous Americas with the Industrial Age — the age of progress — as “Steam Injun Punk” oddities. The women begin new lives as performing acts in the sideshows, ethnographic congresses and cabinets of curiosities billed as Izzie The Invisible Woman and Panther Girl.
Central to what we are examining in Side Show Freaks & Circus Injuns is the tension between the sacred and the profane and the ways in which things that are sacred in Indigenous societies became profaned for entertainment and profit. This theme also relates to the underlying structure of effigy mounds and earthworks because some of them were not only brutally excavated and looted but also used as race tracks and amusements parks.
Side Show Freaks & Circus Injuns Collaborators: