By Nick Vacchio
When Berlin was liberated at the end of World War II, American soldiers were surprised to find German children familiar with concepts of the Old West. Just like American boys and girls back home, German children could be seen playing imaginative games dressed as Native Americans in deer skin and feathers (“Ich Bin”). Today, the practice continues on an even grander scale with Wild West clubs, festivals, plays and museums dedicated to indigenous American Indian culture captivating the interest of Germans and other Europeans of all ages. It seems strange to think of Europeans being so engulfed and captivated by a particular period of history in which they played no part. The Old West’s past is filled with unique tales and folklore specific to its country of origin: The United States. How Germany became obsessed over a culture they have no connection with whatsoever is a compelling tale with modern ties.
European interest for Indigenous American culture stems from the works of German author, Karl May. Influenced by James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel The Last of the Mohicans, which depicted the events of the French and Indian War in 1757, May occasionally spent time in prison reading about the Wild West and soon began to pen his own stories. When he was released from prison, May desired to move to America but instead became an editor and eventually the most popular author in German history (Haircrow). His most famous works revolved around an inexperienced German explorer named Old Shatterhand who moved to America and befriended a fictional Apache warrior named Winnetou. May wrote several well-read novels about the duo’s heroic adventures across the Wild West. This helped to support Germanic conceptions of their national identity as well as carve a specific place in their hearts for Native American peoples and their customs (“Ich Bin”).
May’s western stories were all purely fictional. The most ‘western’ place he ever physically set foot in was Buffalo, New York. This is in no way close to his imagined setting of the Great Plains (“Ich Bin”). Despite the lack of historical accuracy, May’s works found their way into the lives of a German people desperate for a role model. Up until his first Winnetou novel was published in the late 1880’s, Germany lacked home-grown literary characters it could identify with and be proud of. During this time, Europe was developing into an industrial capitalist machine. May’s books provided a form of escape from this lifestyle and had significant influence on both Albert Einstein as well as Adolf Hitler (“Ich Bin”). In 1987, Author Frederic Morton summed up the famous writer’s impact stating, “The legendary in Karl May’s books saturated (and still saturates) just about every Central European boyhood,” (Morton).
Today, May’s works continue to leave their impact on central European culture. Ever since the 1950s, the Karl May Festival has taken place in the town of Bad Segeberg. The festival lasts for the course of the summer and includes a fantasized Indian village set in the era when May’s stories take place. The real draw to the festival though is the yearly play which is derived from one of May’s many stories about Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. Last years festival season brought in a total of 346,677 people which set a record for the third consecutive year (“Treasure of Silver Lake”). But May’s posthumously successful festival is not the only place where Germany celebrates the Native American way of life.
Many Germans are participants in this imagined and fetishized Native American lifestyle. There are Wild West theme parks such as El Dorado which are popular vacation spots complete with saloon, Indian village, wooden fort, and everything else that comes to mind when thinking about the traditional imagery associated with cowboys and Indians. For those who are more serious about getting in touch with their “inner Native American,” there are over 400 clubs where members pay dues so they can pretend to be American Indians. Pow-wows are hosted throughout the year by Caucasians in native dress and some people even take up the art of making leather gifts and additional knick knacks. Others learn to shoot a bow and arrow, ride horses, play drums, and dance in the way they imagine Natives did hundreds of years ago. Participants in these activities sometimes refer to themselves as rote Indianer or red Indians and give one another traditional fantasized names like White Wolf or Old Bull. Some even go one step further and head out into the countryside for the weekend to set up a tipi campground. There, they adorn themselves in the furs of various animals, cook meals on an open flame, and discuss what it truly means to be Native American (Haircrow). They are, of course, not actually Native Americans, which has left more than a few members of indigenous tribes in the United States and Canada offended.
Some German Indian hobbyists believe that they are keeping the true spirit of Native American culture alive. They look down on the actual Natives who struggle with poverty or alcoholism and do not seem to appreciate their own unique customs (Haircrow). However, as part Apache and Cherokee, Red Haircrow notes that this harmless fantasization is anything but:
They have not lived with the centuries of oppression, racism and genocide, part of which is still on-going for Native Americans, and the others we are still trying to recover from. Fantasize about being raped, murdered or having your family, your children raped and murdered in front of you. Losing your homes, your land. Being taken away from your family. (“Pretendians”)
Essentially, it is unfair for a group to embrace the positive aspects of a particular culture without experiencing the pain and misery that also come through being a member of that particular culture. You cannot have the good without the bad. It is also hurtful in a further sense because the genocide of Native Americans came at the hands of the white man.
Despite these negative opinions, not everyone thinks that this cultural appropriation is harmful. Some Natives living in Germany as well as North America find the deep interest in themselves and their culture flattering. This profound intrigue into Native American culture has led tribes to get in touch with some of their fans overseas. Groups like the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association promote and educate receptive audiences in their customs including history, art, food, and dance (Haircrow). Central Europeans are desperate to hear authentic stories from real Natives instead of the books, plays, and movies cemented in a time no longer relevant to modernity.
Whether one sees Indian hobbyists in Europe as offensive and distorting the image of what it means to truly be Native American or as a benign practice and surprising blend of two distinct cultures is a debate that is not going away anytime soon. However, there should be a consensus that it is healthy and beneficial to get away from industrial, commercialized and capitalistic society every now and again to get back to our roots as a global population. Attempting to connect deeper spiritually, taking care of the environment, forming close bonds within a community and appreciating what it truly means to be a human being on this planet are things that seem to be easily forgotten in our fast-paced and disconnected modern society. These core pillars are still prevalent in Native American culture and it might be wise that we explore them more deeply.
Haircrow, Red. “Germany’s Obsession with American Indians is Touching – And Occasionally Surreal.” Indian Country. Todaymedianetwork.com, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
“Ich Bin Ein Cowboy.” The Economist. People.uwec.edu, 24 May 2001. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
Morton, Frederic. “Tales of the Grand Teutons: Karl May Among the Indians.” The New York Times. Nytimes.com, 4 Jan. 1987. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
“Pretendians: Why Offensive to Indigenous as a Whole.” Songs of the Universal Vagabond. Redhaircrow.com, 7 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
“Treasure of Silver Lake.” Karl May Spiele. Karl-may-speile.de, 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Image by Julius Beckmann