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Collection Spotlight

Healy & Bigelow's Kickapoo Indian Oil Bottle

Touted to be cure-alls for anything from coughs and pain to stomachaches and liver ailments, quack medicines were not only based on pseudoscience but went so far as to be intentionally fraudulent. Manufacturers made knowingly false claims about their medicines and products in the days before market oversight or regulation; the first Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906. This oil was produced between 1882 and 1906 when new FDA regulations forced the company to remove the word “Indian” from the packaging.

Healy & Bigelow and other companies blatantly exploited Native American stereotypes and imagery for the sake of profits. Traveling medicine shows were extremely popular in the late 19th century, and were at once carnivals and sales pitches, using indigenous people who posed as “agents” or “professors” and peddled tonics and elixirs whose ingredients and attributes were unbacked by scientific study. Up to 300 indigenous people would travel with the Healy & Bigelow Kickapoo Indian medicine show, alternately hawking quack medicines and demonstrating their so-called “Indian” customs such as fake war dances. In reality, the people who portrayed Kickapoo people in the company’s shows were mostly from Iroquois tribes and plains tribes, not the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma.

Traveling medicine shows claimed Indians had in-depth knowledge of nature and natural medicine, further exploiting the stereotype of Native Americans as inherently environmentalist peoples, referred to by scholars as the “ecological Indian” euphemism. The origin of this particular stereotype dates back to a time when indigenous people were not viewed as fully human by European settlers; they purportedly were wild “savages” who lived in an “untamed” wilderness.

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