July 27, 2009

Germans think they own Native culture

Der Indianer:  Why do 40,000 Germans spend their weekends dressed as Native Americans?

by Noemi LopintoBlackbird’s fame springs from a remarkable cultural phenomenon: some 40,000 German “hobbyists” who spend their weekends trying to live exactly as Indians of the North American plains did over two centuries ago. They recreate tepee encampments, dress in animal skins and furs, and forgo modern tools, using handmade bone knives to cut and prepare food. They address each other by adopted Indian-sounding names such as White Wolf. Many feel an intense spiritual link to Native myths and spirituality, and talk about “feeling” Native on the inside.

Their fascination with Native culture is due in large part to Karl May, the best-selling German author of all time. In 1892, May published the first of many books about a fictional Apache warrior named Winnetou and his German blood brother, Old Shatterhand. The two men roamed the North American plains, using their nearly superhuman powers to fight off the land-hungry government and thuggish, violent pioneers. (Fans of the stories included Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler.) In the 1960s the duo was immortalized in five popular films, and hobbyist groups began forming across Europe. There are now more than 400 clubs in Germany alone.

Some Natives do take issue. When he first traveled to Germany, David Redbird Baker, an Ojibwe, thought adults playing cowboys and Indians were cute. But when the hobbyists began staging sacred ceremonies like ghost and sun dances and sweat lodges, Baker was offended.

“They take the social and religious ceremonies and change them beyond recognition,” says Baker, who believes that hobbyists, in claiming the right to improvise on the most sacred rituals, have begun to develop a sense of ownership over Native culture. They’ve held dances where anyone in modern dress is barred from attending—even visiting Natives. They buy sacred items like eagle feathers and add them to their regalia. They’ve even allowed women to dance during their “moon time,” which is, according to Baker, the equivalent of a cardinal sin.

Carmen Kwasny, who chairs the Native American Association of Germany, is convinced that Germans’ fascination with der Indianer comes from a lack of interaction with the natural environment in the country’s increasingly crowded, industrial cities. Kwasny grew up in Bavaria in an area surrounded by towers and factories; she remembers longing for an intimate connection to nature. “People in Germany are looking for some closeness, a new religion, new way of thinking,” she says. “The conflict is they have to find out that Native Americans are just people.”

They have to get past Karl May, in other words. If Germans knew the conditions in which a lot of Natives live today, they would have no interest in recreating them, says Marta Carlson, a member of California’s Yurok tribe and a Native studies teacher at the University of Massachusetts. “No one wants to be living below the poverty level on a [North American] reservation,” she says. “It lacks a certain romance.”
Brits and Americans, Imagining IndiansCarys said...

In response to that Utne article posted by Saints and Spinners--in the current (July-August 2009)issue there is an interesting (especially in light of what Debbie is doing) letter to the editor (bold is mine):

"I grew up in Romania, and when I was 10 years old Karl May's novels about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were the bomb. There were also some spin-offs that I remember (plus cartoons galore). I now live in Oconee County, South Carolina. While my childhood memories still uphold these heroes, my adoptive country has shown me that everything I knew about Native Americans since childhood was wrong, the product of a writer's imaginative mind." Florin D. Lung Seneca, South Carolina.

Nicole said...

Regarding the quote Carys mentioned--that reminded me of one time when a Romanian visited us when I was a kid. I can't remember the whole incident, but the gentleman asked my dad if they could go see Indians; the assumption was that they would go to a reservation, perhaps, and see people as they would have lived 100+ years ago, except he didn't realize that they don't live that way anymore, in the same way that my family no longer herds sheep and practices transhumance.
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 7/21/09.)

Comment:  Although the article doesn't specify it, the Germans emulate only a romanticized version of Plains Indian life. They don't know or care about the hundreds of other Native cultures. That's what's wrong with this picture.

For more on the subject, see Germans = "Only Real Indians"? and The Hobby of Being an Indian.


Anonymous said...

I tried posting a comment in the "Der Indianer Utne Artlcle" yesterday but it didn't go through(sigh). As one Indian pointed out in the article, it does worry me as Native, knowing that some of our beloved cultural heritage is indeed, being stolen. At least, that's how I view it. Especially our most sacred aspects of our Native spirituality(i.e. Sweat lodges, Sundances, the Sacred Pipe etc.) Many times these people do not fully understand the important significance of each ceremonies and how they were conducted and for what purposes. They attempt to re-create some of the spiritual ceremonies by allowing woman who are in their "moon-time" participate in sacred feats. So yes, it does worry me. And I think these people would benifit greatly through education, the same way that we teach local embeciled rednecks and other ignorant beings.


Anonymous said...

Germans are the number 1 "Indian Lovers" and it's got nothing to do with Karl May because German-Americans never heard of him. It's mostly a highlander phenomenon. Carmen Kwanzy who chairs the Native American Association of Germany grew up in Bavaria.

As for messing up the ceremonies, you could have a 'Christian' ceremony with a female priest in Roman collar and an upsidedown cross and it wouldn't be instrinsically evil to me. Just an honest mistake that doesn't make a difference anyway. Unchanging rituals over centuries is a sign of excessive control, not high culture.

Rob said...

I haven't heard of German Americans (as opposed to Germans) who love Indians. Is there any evidence of this German American love of Indians?

Germans are the subject of this article, and they know Karl May. What German Americans know or don't know is irrelevant.

A bastardized Catholic ceremony wouldn't be "evil," but it would mislead people by misrepresenting the reality. Indians endure enough misrepresentations already, so they don't need any more.

Anonymous said...

Nicolas Cage is German-American. Have you seen the movie Next. It contains an American Indian tribute. Big movie stars can make any movie they want so you can see what they're all about.
We're talking recent vintage German Americans, not the ones who came 300 years ago, and California ones too. Like yourself, Rob.
Stallone is part German. Rambo is supposed to be German and part Indian. Burt Reynolds, who's Cherokee I believe, convinced him to do it.
Twilight was written by the wife of a German Mormon. I guess he'd be American.

In the Catholic ceremonies, you'd be misrepresenting something that was already a misrepresentation.

Anonymous said...

Franz Boas came from Germany but he wrote The Central Eskimo in 1888, four years before Karl May became successful with Winnetou.

My Native American studies professor was Daniel Merkur. He's written a couple of books on the Inuit. I assume Merkur is a German name.

Rob said...

Your two actor examples aren't very persuasive, Anonymous. Nicolas Cage (nee Coppola) is known for being Italian American and the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, although his mother is of German descent.

As for Sylvester Stallone, he's definitely known for being Italian American. Here's his background:


Stallone's paternal grandfather, Silvestro Stallone, was an immigrant from Gioia del Colle, in the province of Bari (Apulia, Italy). Stallone's mother was born in Washington, D.C.; her paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa and her mother was a Parisian socialite.

Rob said...

Nor do your claims hold much water. I've seen and written about Next, but a few minutes of Indians on screen with an actor who's part German doesn't prove anything.

We learned in a previous discussion that the second Rambo movie made the character part-Indian. That has nothing to do with why Stallone the Italian American chose to make the first movie.

And Stephenie Meyer's husband "Pancho"? You've got to be kidding. Meyer came up with the Twilight concepts herself...she found the Quileute tribe on the Internet...and the amount of Indian lore in the books is small. I don't think she knows much about Indians from personal experience.

Nor does my interest in Indians come from being German American. It has absolutely nothing to do with my German or English background. None of my ancestors had any interest in Indians; I developed the interest on my own.

You can name all the German Americans you want and I'll shoot them all down. Something like 17% of Americans are German Americans and many more have some German ancestors. If, say, half the US population is part German and a tiny fraction of these people like Indians, it's worthless as evidence.

If you want to make a claim about German Americans loving Indians, you'll need a lot more than that. You'll need national German-American organizations or events for Indian appreciation with tens or hundreds of thousands of participants. Or something of that magnitude.

In other words, something comparable in size to the huge "hobbyist" movement in Germany. I'm pretty sure nothing like that exists in America.

Moonblood said...

Thank you, Rob, for clarifying Stallone's maternal ancestry. His bios are very secretive about that side. All I knew was that his grandfather's name was Labofish.

He's still the type to have an interest and I've read that he believed he was an Indian in a past life and he named his kid Sage Moonblood. (Moonblood was a name I used once for one of my amateur superhero creations--a sacreligious female from what I remember!)

Maybe I'm wrong. There's a fine line between mystic and mistake.

Anonymous said...

I agree that those Germans we're talking about in Germany would look better in their own pheasant feathers or, better yet, peacock or ostrich feathers.

Anonymous said...

"All I knew was that his grandfather's name was Labofish."
It turns out Labofish is an "anglicization" of a Russian name.
Stallone did the major rewrite on Rambo II after James Cameron's initial script. It was probably his idea to bring in race.
And it was only the media and Reagan who misrepresented Rambo as a "patriot" in their sense of the word. That's the misrepresentation that I find offensive.

foxxtail said...

Germans and all peoples are welcome to join in some "invited" sundances every summer here (on my rez- Kainai). These are held seperately and on private land. The rituals are similiar. Only thing is, only "nisitapi" meaning "real people" or Blackfoot are allowed to participate in the annual "Okan" sundance where ALL the secret societies of the tribes clans gather and this hasnt and will never change, no matter what the hobbists do.so it doesnt offend me.