Chief of the Kickapoo tribe, Mexico City, 1865. Note the paper in his hand. Is it the decree signed by Maximilian?
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Between January and March of 1865 a delegation of the Kickapoo tribe traveled from northern Mexico to Mexico City in order to meet Emperor Maximilian and discuss territorial matters and seek land rights as well as protection against attacks from other hostile tribes and deserting American soldiers raiding in their territory near Rio Grande.
“Last week we received at the palace a deputation of real, heathen Indians from the northern frontier, regular Fenimore Cooper figures in the true sense of the word. They had dinner here yesterday in Montezuma’s cypress grove, on the very place where the Indian emperor used to hold his great banquets,” wrote Maximilian to his brother in Vienna. 
The Kickapoo Indians, an Algonkian-speaking group of fewer than 1,000 individuals scattered across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and northern Mexico, are the remnants of a larger tribe that once lived in the central Great Lakes region. When first encountered by French explorers in the early 1640s, the Kickapoos, or Kiikaapoa, as they call themselves, were still living in the region between lakes Michigan and Erie-the area considered to have been their ancestral home. By the 1660s, however, they were seeking refuge in what is now Wisconsin. The Kickapoos were an independent and self-sufficient people whose mode of life was well adapted to their rich environment, and were by then semi-nomadic.
Nonetheless, over the next two centuries, the pressures of white expansion, Indian removal policies, and the escalating cycle of frontier violence forced the Kickapoos into a series of relocations, divisions, and reassociations. By the mid-nineteenth century the tribe had been displaced from western Missouri amid Civil War conflict and they divided into three distinct groups-the Kansas Kickapoos, the Oklahoma Kickapoos, and the group known as either the Mexican Kickapoos or the Texas Band of the Oklahoma Kickapoos that journeyed through Texas and into Mexico.
Nowadays, the biggest group of Kickapoos are located in El Nacimiento, Mexico. However, they are still considered a semi-nomadic tribe and depending on the season they move back and forth between Mexico and the United States in search of job opportunities.
They have always regarded themselves as a nation unto themselves, over the years they have migrated across the international border with little regard for political boundaries. Mexico and the United States, in turn, have informally granted the Kickapoos the privilege to seek employment in both countries by giving them, in effect, dual citizenship. Consequently, the tribe is free to cross and re-cross the border at will.
The conference between the Kickapoos and Maximilian in 1865 created a major sensation in the press in a quickly modernizing Mexico. It was documented in several writings and paintings over the years – the most important being that by Jean Adolphe Beaucé – but there are only a handful of photographs that show record of the Kickapoo people in Mexico City.
The images we have seen so far from this visit are: a portrait of the entire delegation, a portrait of two of the men and a portrait of two women and a baby; all part of the Getty Research Institute’s collection that you can find below.
Indios Kikapos, [between 1865 and 1867]. Getty Research Institute.
Kickapoo Indians, 1865. Getty Research Institute.
Indias Kikapoas, 1865. Getty Research Institute.
This past week we acquired, together with a colleague, four portraits of the chief of the Kickapoos and fellow members of the tribe made by François Aubert during the tribe’s short stay in Mexico City. Aubert, active in Mexico from 1864 to 1869, was working as a court photographer at the time. The Kickapoos must have looked remarkably exotic to him, and so he must have rushed to photograph them while he had the opportunity.
We knew the delegation had taken place, and we had seen Aubert’s group photo before but our interest peaked when we saw the lovely portrait of the two African American men. Who were they? What was their connection to the tribe?
Three African Americans from Texas accompanied them to translate their petitions into English, and Maximilian assured them that the French army would help protect them as subjects of the empire.
This enigma was solved by the following excerpt written by the botanist Wilhelm Knechtel in his book Las Memorias del Jardinero de Maximiliano; based on his personal memoirs of his years in Mexico working as Maximilian’s gardener from 1864 to 1867.
“…five men and four women, one of them with a child. They were wrapped in red and blue serapes, fantastic head ornaments of feathers, leather, ribbons and glass, and they walked with solemnity through Chapultepec Park, the women with their heads bare. The chief was an old man. From his neck hung a symbol of his authority: a great silver medallion with an engraving of a jaguar and a commemorative coin of Louis XV of France… They brought with them three black men from Texas as their translators. These spoke the Kickapoo language, but no Spanish nor French, only English, a language which the emperor and empress spoke perfectly. The emperor received them very kindly and then had them served a meal in the park, at the entrance to the grand boulevard; the plates were put directly on the ground. In a circle, the Kickapoos knelt down and ate with their hands.”
Close up – The medal worn by the chief mentioned in Wilhelm Knechtel’s colorful memoir is a Louis XV peace medal awarded to his tribe a century earlier by the French.
These photographs are considered unique.
We have searched the collections of the Getty Research Institute, Quai Branly Museum, BNF, Ransom Center and other international museums, and they are nowhere to be seen. The closest, which are clearly from the same series, are the ones shown above found at the Getty; but our photographs are still one of a kind.
 Amberson, Mary Margaret McAllen. Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. p. 169
 Knechtel, Wilhelm, Amparo Gómez Tepexicuapan, and Susanne Igler. Las Memorias Del Jardinero De Maximiliano: Apuntes Manuscritos De Mis Impresiones Y Experiencias Personales En México Entre 1864 Y 1867. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional De Antropología E Historia, 2012. Print.