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The Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery in Pharmaceutical Advertising

Updated: Aug 13

Editor’s Note: From the Collections highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from publications and historical collections of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). Points Managing Editor and AIHP Head Archivist Greg Bond writes about a recent AIHP online historical exhibit.

Burroughs Wellcome exhibit 1893

Burroughs, Wellcome, and Company Exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago featuring several Native Americans. Henry Wellcome stands at the left wearing a hat. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, British multinational pharmaceutical firm Burroughs, Wellcome, and Company constructed an elaborate exhibit featuring the company’s drugs, medicines, and pharmaceutical products. Company co-founder Henry Wellcome was on site for the Exposition, and, during the event, he posed for a picture at his company’s exhibit along with several unnamed and unidentified Native Americans.

There might not seem to be an obvious connection between Indigenous North Americans and a European pharmaceutical company, but Wellcome strategically utilized the imagery—and the bodies—of Native Americans to exploit a longstanding Euro-American association between Indigenous peoples and the healing power of natural medicinal plants. By arranging for the presence of the uncredited Native Americans at his company’s exhibit space, Wellcome hoped that fair goers would thereby associate his company’s manufactured pharmaceuticals with the therapeutic healing power of traditional medicinal plants.

Indigenous peoples in North America have long used medicinal plants and botanicals to treat illnesses and diseases. White Americans and Europeans quickly adopted some native plants for therapeutic purposes after arriving in North America, and they also came to strongly associate medicinal plants and natural medicines with Indigenous cultures.

Drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers—like Burroughs, Wellcome—in turn, capitalized on these beliefs and co-opted Native and Indigenous imagery and iconography to market drugs and medicines containing plants and natural products. Particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drug companies often relied on these misrepresentations and misappropriations of Native Americans and Indigenous cultures to brand their products as “natural” and safe for therapeutic purposes.

The American Institute of the History of pharmacy recently unveiled an online exhibit titled, “The Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery in Pharmaceutical Advertising” that explores some of this complicated history. Drawn mostly from the historical collections of AIHP and the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy, the exhibit interrogates how drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers have misappropriated Native and Indigenous imagery, customs, and beliefs to market their products.

This post contains sample images from the exhibit, but be sure visit the online exhibit to see all the images and the full exhibit text. Please be advised that this post and the exhibit includes stylized and stereotypical images of Native Americans based on the prejudiced conceptions of white American culture. These uncomfortable artifacts and difficult images help us to confront, acknowledge, and understand how white Americans have co-opted, misappropriated, and exploited Native/Indigenous culture, particularly in regard to drugs, medicines, and healthcare.

Chief Two Moon Bitter Oil Advertisement

Chief Two Moon Bitter Oil advertisement, c. 1930. Image courtesy of AIHP Digital Collections.

Patent medicine companies frequently used Native/Indigenous names, imagery, and words to brand and market their products, and the exhibit explores this history. Many patent medicines were of very questionable therapeutic value, but manufacturers used Native/Indigenous imagery to advertise their products as “natural” and safe. The exhibit investigates, in particular, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company and the Chief Two Moon Herb Company, two well-known patent medicine manufacturers who relied upon Native/Indigenous imagery and iconography.

Kickapoo Pills Box

Kickapoo Pills Box, c. 1910. Image courtesy of AIHP Digital Collections.

The exhibit also documents a wide-range of advertising techniques. To reinforce the connection between their products and the healing powers of medicinal plants used by Native Americans, patent medicine companies, for example, sponsored traveling medicine shows that frequently featured Native American Powwows and skills competitions by Indigenous performers.

Drug manufacturers also published almanacs, replete with useful reference information, that they distributed free of charge to customers. Almanacs’ primary purpose, however, was to promote the sale of drugs and medicines, especially proprietary remedies or patent medicines. Almanacs typically contained plentiful advertisements—often featuring Native/Indigenous imagery—that touted the curative powers of various products and numerous exaggerated testimonials from satisfied customers.

The exhibit concludes by recounting some of the history of native North American medicinal plants. Many native plant cures—first developed by Indigenous peoples—for ailments ranging from lung problems to snakebites to burns have since been adopted by non-Native doctors.

AIHP and the UW–Madison School of Pharmacy created the exhibit in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Our Shared Future Heritage Marker program that aims to spark learning and deepen understanding about the Ho-Chunk Nation and other regional Indigenous history and culture.

1889 Wright Vegetable PIlls ad

1889 Wright’s Vegetable Pills advertisement

1901 NewYor kQuinine Ad

1901 New York Quinine advertisement

1960 Healthway Almanac cover

1960 Healthway Products Almanac cover

Sample Images from the Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery in Pharmaceutical Advertising exhibit. All images courtesy of AIHP Digital Collections.

#Advertising #NativeAmericans #AIHP #Artifacts #advertisements #exhibits #patentmedicines

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