Documenting and Reinterpreting

"Early Indian Life in Kansas" WPA Dioramas

The Kansas WPA’s Museum Extension Project produced six dioramas representing Native American groups with a presence in what is now the state of Kansas in the early nineteenth century. In this digital station, you can explore images of these dioramas and their original accompanying texts as well as view updated interpretations of the dioramas. The dioramas documented here were originally owned by the Marysville Public Schools and are presently located in the Pony Express Museum in Marysville, Kansas.

Compared to other representations of Native Americans in this exhibition, this series of dioramas seems to present a more sympathetic and nuanced view of Native American peoples, recognizing distinctions between Tribes and acknowledging the negative pressures of white expansion, including removal. However, the larger context of their creation tells a more complicated story.

Inspired by the work of early twentieth-century anthropologists like Franz Boas, American scholars and policymakers had begun to appreciate the diversity of Indigenous North American cultures by the 1920s and 1930s.  Rather than imagine that all Native peoples belonged to a homogenous “Indian” culture, they recognized that each group had unique customs that reflected their particular circumstances.

Nevertheless, white thinkers still tended to view American Indians as “people without history” whose unique cultural practices had remained relatively unchanged since time immemorial. This was a dangerous interpretation since it denied the full complexity and creativity of Indigenous people and implied that American Indians could not adapt but only disappear in the face of modernity. Indeed, many anthropologists of the period engaged in so-called “salvage ethnography” to observe and record Indigenous cultures before they and the people who created them seemingly vanished forever.

Such views made their way into WPA projects like the Museum Extension Program, which sought to educate the public about Indigenous peoples in the past but often failed to acknowledge their ongoing existence in the present. The dioramas purport to depict timeless, pre-contact Indigenous cultures without fully exploring how these peoples adapted and survived over time.

Indigenous people were no strangers to change. They had experienced profound cultural transformations across the centuries as they responded to new opportunities and challenges, particularly in the wake of European and Euro-American colonization. The scenes depicted in the Museum Extension Program’s dioramas thus represented a mere snapshot of their rich and complex stories.

Despite decades of warfare, forced removal, hardship, and disease, Kansas’s Indigenous people had endured. Although they no longer engaged in all of the practices shown in the dioramas by the 1930s, they remained none-the-less Indigenous with strong kinship, cultural, and community ties. Indeed, at the same time as the dioramas went on display, many tribes were taking advantage of new federal policies under the Indian New Deal to undergo a political and economic rebirth—one that would set the stage for the tribal self-determination movements of the later twentieth century.

Click the images on the left to explore each diorama.