Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic August 20, 2009 - 2:02 pm

Taissumani, Aug. 21

Nancy Columbia — The first Inuit queen

NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Nancy Columbia of Labrador, voted “Queen of the Pay Streak” at the Seattle World's Fair of 1906, where she and other Inuit from Labrador, Alaska and Siberia were put on display.
Nancy Columbia of Labrador, voted “Queen of the Pay Streak” at the Seattle World's Fair of 1906, where she and other Inuit from Labrador, Alaska and Siberia were put on display.

KENN HARPER

In 2009, Aug. 20 passed with no fanfare, yet it marked the 100th anniversary of the crowning of an Inuit queen.

I’ve written before about Nancy Columbia, an Inuit girl born in Chicago in 1892 to a Labrador mother. Nancy was the daughter of Esther Enutseak, a young Labrador woman in her mid-teens who had accompanied her parents, Abile and Helena, from Zoar on the Labrador coast, along with over 50 other Inuit, to the United States, at the behest of a promoter, to be exhibited in a living “Eskimo Village” at the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair.

There was no Discovery Channel or Learning Channel to present the life styles of different ethnic groups to a curious population in those long-ago days, and so ethnographic villages featured not only Inuit, but Saami, Filipinos, various African groups, American Indian tribes, and ordinary people from distant countries.

When the Chicago Fair was over, most of the Inuit eventually made it back to Labrador. But Nancy, her mother and grandparents remained in the United States. They had decided to earn their livelihood through exhibition at other fairs, circuses and carnivals.

In 1896 Nancy, then three years old, returned with her grandparents to Labrador while her mother remained in New York City. But three years later, Esther returned to Labrador with a promoter to recruit Inuit for more exhibitions, this time in Europe.

About 30 Inuit, including young Nancy and her grandparents, spent the next two years travelling and being exhibited in London, Madrid, Paris and even North Africa. Then they sailed from Italy to America in time for a major exhibition in Buffalo in 1901.

Their lives changed that year. Their long-time promoter left them, and his interests were taken over by a man named John Caspar Smith.

In short order, a romance sprang up between Nancy’s mother, Esther, and Smith, and the two were married. That marriage would eventually produce four half-siblings for Nancy.

Their exhibition became a family business, and Nancy was clearly the star. John Smith was the manager and the business even had its own “Esquimaux Village” letterhead. They exhibited in Coney Island, Charleston, St. Louis, Portland, Virginia and Jacksonville.

A major exhibition was held in Seattle in 1909. Usually referred to as the Seattle World’s Fair, its proper name was the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

The midway there was officially known as the Pay Streak, a reference to the exposition’s gold rush theme. The Eskimo Village that was featured there in fact contained three separate groups of Eskimos, one each from Labrador, Alaska and Siberia.

Nancy Columbia, or simply Columbia as she was often called, was 16 years old in Seattle and had grown into a beautiful young woman. She was often photographed wearing her trademark costume of sealskin trousers, kamiks and a sealskin or caribou coat.

Celebrities visiting the fair wanted to be photographed with her. A newspaper report said that “Columbia isn’t anything if she isn’t attractive, and she knows she is as she flashes her sunny smile at you. She is wholly feminine, and her Eskimo trappings but add novelty to her other charms.”

The Eskimo Village was the most profitable of the anthropological attractions at the fair, and the third most profitable concession on the entire Pay Streak.

In August fairgoers were given the opportunity to vote for the prettiest girl at the fair in a beauty contest to choose the Carnival Queen, quickly changed to Queen of the Pay Streak.

Of course, Nancy won, beating out girls from Hawaii, Egypt, Japan, Mexico, Syria, Spain, Italy and the continental United States. When the votes were counted on August 19, 100 years ago, she drew 58,410 votes, almost 8,000 more than the runner-up.

The following day, Concessionaires’ Day, a parade was held in her honour. Nancy arrived by boat at the esplanade at the end of the Pay Streak. Performers representing over 20 nationalities escorted her through the grounds.

A newspaper reported, “Everywhere the pretty daughter of the Far North was greeted with cheers and applause as she rode through the exposition streets, clad in her royal robes.”

Two weeks later, Nancy, “the belle of the Eskimo Village,” was holding a series of public receptions in the Eskimo Village every afternoon and evening. There she talked with visitors, told them of her early life, talked of her childhood experiences in Labrador, and autographed photos of herself.

Concessionaires’ Day, August 20, 1909, was the biggest day in the event-filled life of Nancy Columbia, the most well-known and well-travelled Inuk of her time.

There would be many more memorable events, too many to mention in this brief article. In 1959, four days short of half a century after her coronation as Queen of the Pay Streak, Nancy Columbia died in Encino, California.

In my personal collection of Nancy Columbia memorabilia, I have a number of photographs of Nancy at the Seattle fair, a Queen of the Pay Streak badge and even two Eskimo Village souvenir pillowcases featuring Nancy’s smiling image. With her beguiling smile, Nancy captivated the public’s attention a hundred years ago. This daughter of Labrador was the world’s first Inuit Queen.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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