"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Icelandic Indian Wannabe: Ólöf the Eskimo Lady

There's a new book out about yet another Indian wannabe.


By: Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir

Here's a brief summary of the book:

UCSB Anthropologist Tells the Story of 20th-Century Con Artist

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) –– From the late 1880's to the early 1900's, Ólöf Krarer regaled listeners with incredible stories about her native Greenland and her own Eskimo heritage. She crossed the country, giving lectures and presentations –– more than 2,500 in all –– to audiences that included such luminaries as senator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

There was one catch, however: Krarer was not an Eskimo, and she had never set foot in Greenland. She was, in fact, a dwarf from Iceland who had immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. Unable to find steady employment outside of circus sideshows, she decided to reinvent herself as the Eskimo people assumed her to be.

Eventually, she changed her country of origin to Greenland –– there were no Eskimos in Iceland –– and took to the lecture circuit, sharing everything she knew about Eskimo culture. But nearly everything she said to the tens of thousands of people who flocked to hear her speak was a lie.

In her new book, "Ólöf the Eskimo Lady –– A Biography of an Icelandic Dwarf in America" (The University of Michigan Press, 2010), Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, tells Krarer's life story and explores how one woman was able to fool so many people, including experts of the day. She places Krarer's story against the backdrop of America's fascination with the wild north and the expansion of the railroad, both of which propelled Krarer and her lies around the country.

"America at that time was the country with the greatest number of ethnic groups," Björnsdóttir said. "It was –– and perhaps still is –– the place where immigrants could most easily reinvent themselves and lead a life that would have been impossible in their native countries. At the same time, Americans were very ignorant about life and cultures in foreign lands, and harbored great prejudice against minorities and foreigners, a fact that Ólöf certainly used to her advantage."


Which came first: the "wannabe" or the public craving an up close look at the exotic Native?

Anyone with enough ignorance and guts can dress up as an Indian and claim to be 100% authentic.  It takes something else all together to make those people into full-fledged celebrities.  The throngs of adoring public that flocked to see Ólöf Krarer made her into that instant but short-lived celebrity.

I appreciate how the author, Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir, places Ólöf into the wider cultural context of the late nineteenth century with its fascination with foreign cultures, dramatic race to the North Pole, and transportation revolution which all factored into Ólöf's quick rise.

Her story also parallels other individuals who adopted Native identities.  She completely re-invented herself in America, from a disabled Icelandic dwarf into an accepted cultural icon.  While I appreciate this positive spin on the story, it doesn't change the underlying fact that she was a complete fraud.

"The Little Esquimaux Lady
Miss Olof Krarer
Age, 33 years. Height, 40 inches. Weight, 120 lbs."

...a great example of how NOT to go about drawing on Indians!

And lest you think this is only something that happened in the long ago days of the past, check out this July 30, 2010 article from Indian Country Today about a current hobbyist group dressing up and "playing Indian."

Playing Indian: Group presents native culture with fake fires and tipis, phony tribal ID

The highlight is an interview with Iowa Native leader Vicky Apala-Cuevas about the new Indian wannabes:

There have been many offenses to our peoples and cultures, and these are yet more. The desire to show us how to run a sweat lodge is an example of non-Natives feeling they can present Indian life better than the Indians. These people promulgate a mishmash of misinformation gleaned from Hollywood movies and similar sources. Believe me, being an Indian is the hardest thing anyone can do, and they are not up to it.

I’ve heard some claim descent from tribes or historic leaders, though the claims change – it’s Tecumseh, it’s his brother; one visited a Lakota reservation and, wouldn’t you know, he’s Lakota now. This is an insult and, simply put, fraud. Race is not the issue, though. There are those with good hearts who work for the People in a humble, respectful way, whether or not they have Native ancestry, whether or not they are enrolled in a federally recognized tribe.

Couldn't say it better myself.

For some more great analysis on the celebrity / Indian connection, check out this post from the Newspaper Rock blog:

Indian Wannabes = Celebrity Wannabes


  1. I hadn't heard about this. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    And great timing considering my celebrity wannabe posting. This fits that perfectly.

  2. An Icelandic dwarf playing an Eskimo... you can't make this stuff up!

    While this book is right up my alley, I have about a dozen other books in my "to be read" pile so it may have to wait.

    Now, back to writing...

  3. A dozen...is that all? I have about 300 books in my "to be read" pile. I've been buying them faster than I could read them ever since I went off to college.

    I'm sure this book is interesting. But unless it gets a rave review or a five-star rating on Amazon.com, I can't afford to get it. Like you, I'll have to settle for reading the press release and knowing it exists.