by Noemi Lopinto
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.”
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.
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.
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.