Becoming 'Indigenous': German Fascination with North American Indians

Examining why German hobbyists study and even try to emulate North American Indians through scholarly essays.

North American Indian

German hobbyists call their effort to study, simulate and emulate aspects of North American Indian life "practical ethnology."

Photo by Fotolia/Shchipkova Elena

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Performing Indigeneity (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), edited by Laura R. Graham and H. Glenn Penny, brings together scholars, including indigenous scholars, from a variety of fields to provoke critical thinking about the many ways in which individuals and social groups construct and display unique identities around the world and discusses the complexities of “being” indigenous in public spaces. The following excerpt from Chapter 7, “Not Playing Indian,” discusses the fascination that some German hobbyists have had and continue to have with North American Indians.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

“The truth is that Indians have been dressing like Europeans since first contact. . . . So why do we think it is so unusual for Europeans to dress Indian?”

— Jolene Rickard, 1998

In the fall of 2000, shortly after I arrived at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, one of my new colleagues handed me a story from the Kansas City Star headlined “Germans Emulate American Indians.” I was amused; but not because the reporter, Daniel Rubin, had discovered over a thousand German hobbyists living like various nineteenth-century American Indians in a large encampment near Stolpe, Germany. I already knew about that. It also was not because the essay had appeared in such a provincial paper; in one form or another, it has been in most papers. Indeed, what amused me, and has since begun to irritate me, was how much Rubin’s article resembled the scores of other essays written about German hobbyists over the last fifty years. They essentialize these people and their actions in the most superficial way.

Such gatherings of German hobbyists—people devoted to what they call “practical ethnology”: the effort to study, simulate, and emulate various aspects of American Indian lifeways—are not isolated events. They are one accentuated manifestation of the pervasive fascination with North American Indians among Germans. Shared by men and women alike, this fascination cuts across political, confessional, social, and generational boundaries. It is also much more than a current, postmodern enchantment with “the primitive.”

During the early nineteenth century, stories set among American Indians became popular in German-speaking Central Europe. Literature about them became ubiquitous. The fantastic success of James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales is perhaps the most poignant example: the first volume was quickly translated into German in 1826, and it was ultimately condensed with the four following volumes into a single tome, released in abbreviated versions for children, and put through countless new editions during the next decades. It became, in fact, a classic of German literature, familiar to the literate classes in all German states across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Rossbacher 1972).

The Leatherstocking Tales were followed by a host of other, similar translations from English, French, and Spanish, which appeared in German periodicals and as swiftly consumed monographs. A series of German travel writers and novelists built on the success of those stories. By writing about American Indians, they became best-selling authors over the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The most prominent of these was Karl May, whose books sold over seventy million copies by the 1980s, about twenty million more than the most well-known American author of Westerns, Louis L’Amour. The enthusiasm continued during the postwar period and moved rapidly into other media. May’s books, for example, inspired West Germany’s most popular set of movies; a similar set was fantastically successful in East Germany; and in 2003, after the fall of the Berlin wall and German unification, The Manitou’s Shoe, a spoof on those popular films, broke all records in the German film industry.

Such successes seem astonishing until we recognize that by the end of the nineteenth century thinking about American Indians had become integral to German culture. They were not only a popular subject among novelists and other writers; they were incorporated into the production of toys, theater, circus, high and low art, and the new cinema. Across Imperial, Weimar, and Nazi Germany, children of all ages and both genders “played Indian,” emulating the characters from Cooper and May and the people they encountered in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and German circuses, as well as those performing with other impresarios who sought to capitalize on Germans’ fascination with Native America. Adults “played Indian” as well, and not simply those individuals who joined the first hobby clubs in the early twentieth century. Artists such as Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, and Rudolf Schlichter, for example, turned to their childhood engagement with American Indians while dealing with their personal crises and the crises of modernity (Sell Tower 1990). Art historian Aby Warburg traveled to the Hopi and Zuni pueblos for the same reason (Warburg 1995); the artist Max Ernst, the psychiatrist Carl Jung, and the ethnologists Karl von den Steinen and Paul Ehrenreich followed. Adolf Hitler remained in Germany; but he continued to read Karl May’s Winnetou for insights into crisis situations, recommending it to his General Staff during the battles of World War II (Haible 1998).

“American Indians,” in short, became deeply ingrained in German culture during the nineteenth century, their stories became ciphers for modern struggles during the twentieth century, and that long cultural history continued unabated through the postwar era, resurfacing during Cold War clashes, at peace protests, and in environmental movements, esoteric musings, and the persistent settings of backyard play and hobbyists’ camps. The unrelenting breadth and depth of this preoccupation is remarkable.

Covering the Obsession

It is also well documented. Journalists have been writing about it for decades. Indeed, they have repeatedly discovered it with elation. The spectacle of Germans emulating American Indians is particularly titillating and evidently hard to resist. Writing about this obsession, especially the hobbyist meetings, is guaranteed to generate smirks and laughter among readers, even righteous anger from some, and that is a recipe for publishing success: those reactions have allowed reporters, as well as a number of scholars, to reap attention from the sensation and then position themselves to disclose astute revelations.

Rubin, for example, attempted to do this by focusing on one man, Jörg Diecke, forty-four, whom he found “dressed in the handcrafted clothing a Hidatsa warrior might have worn on the Great Plains 150 years ago.” As Rubin showed, however, Diecke was neither a social misfit nor insane. His wife was a dentist, and his compatriots included “doctors, engineers, cooks, and scholars.” He was, if we were to believe the reporter, the product of an odd national politics. Diecke and other East German hobbyists had been weaned on state-sanctioned history books that endorsed viewing American Indians as freedom-loving heroes struggling against oppression; they watched movies in which “Indians were the good guys”; and they were quite adamant on one issue. As Diecke put it, “We do not ‘play’ at being Indians” (Rubin 2000; cf. Turski 1994; Kalshoven 2005, 2012).

Diecke was not offering a witty retort to Phillip Deloria’s 1998 book Playing Indian. Rather, he was restating what German hobbyists had been saying about their endeavor for decades. In 1972, for instance, an East German newspaper ran an essay on the club Manitou in the town of Radebeul, one of the oldest German clubs. It included a photograph from a 1928 meeting of the association and an interview with Johannes Hüttner, one of the early members who survived World War II and refounded the group afterward. Hüttner, a pharmacist, together with Fred Metasch, a forester, stressed that their activities were “more than a hobby.” Members of the club gained impressive handworking skills, and they engaged in outreach: they had recently finished a successful exhibit of American Indian crafts (made by them) in the Dresden Museum of Folk Art. Moreover, they were activists of sorts: since 1954 they had been making themselves into living displays in Dresden’s Zoological Gardens, raising over seven thousand East German marks for the zoo’s expansion and educating Germans about different American Indian tribes. They studied ethnological texts and museum exhibits, and they consulted leading authors such as Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, who had written a dozen novels and stories about Plains Indians, and the ethnologist Eva Lips at Leipzig’s Institute of Ethnology. In 1975 they set up a solidarity bazaar in an effort to raise awareness of North American Indians’ plight. Acknowledging that most of their members had become enamored with American Indians during childhood, they nevertheless argued adamantly that they had long since moved beyond childish things (E. U. n.d.; KKN 1964).

Journalists highlighted the same attitudes in West Germany. In 1966, for instance, a Cologne paper ran a story headlined “When Papa becomes a Sioux,” in which one of the participants in the yearly gathering of West German hobby clubs was quoted as saying that while some people might think that he and his friends were trying to live out a kind of “second childhood, in reality we only want to practice what we have learned from Indians. No, we are not a kindergarten,” he argued, “rather we are an ethnological association,” focused on practical ethnology instead of theoretical anthropology and consisting of “handworkers, clerical workers, and business people.” Even “a genuine professor is here in actual Indian clothing” (Oliv 1988:185; cf. Oliv 1997).

While covering these meetings in Dresden in 1964, Cologne in 1966, and Stople in 2000, journalists consistently reveled in the sensation of hobbyists’ activities, connecting them to clichés inherent in popular texts about American Indians, especially the books written by the famous Karl May. At the same time, the various hobbyists, during each of these separate interviews, attempted to redirect the discourse about themselves by explaining that the point of their meetings was not to live out childhood fantasies and reinforce old clichés. Rather, during all of these gatherings, the goal was to undercut the clichés by showing what they knew about “actual American Indians.” In that sense the hobbyists oft en saw themselves as engaged in damage control. Theirs was an effort to correct Germans’ misconceptions of North America’s Indigenous Peoples by placing themselves and the knowledge they had acquired through “practical ethnology” on display. Hüttner’s group did this at the Dresden Zoo and also in places as diverse as “vacation campgrounds, schools, International Children’s Day celebrations, the Children’s Clinic in Johannstadt, a meeting of journalists in Magdeburg,” and veterans’ clubs. Moreover, through these efforts and during their private meetings, they also sought to learn more about their subjects through lived experience, through praxis, as well as through an exchange of knowledge among themselves, all of which they insisted was “serious and necessarily scientific” work (KKN 1964).

Thus by the time Rubin wrote his report, the only real news in his column was that East German hobbyists could now leave the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. Some did, traveling to events such as the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva, where they lent their support to activists attending the meetings and where representatives of the Mohawk delegation were able to confirm the legitimacy of the hobbyists’ endeavors by telling them that “re-enactment is the highest form of admiration.” Few of the journalists, however, were interested in that.

Rather, it was and is the spectacle that drives journalists to hobbyist camps and their annual meetings in order to posit the same puzzled questions again and again until many hobbyists, much like some of the American Indians they emulate, have grown accustomed to the attention and irritated by the visits. They have learned to receive their inquisitors with well-rehearsed answers, if they agree to receive them at all (e.g., in 1996 alone: Aeppel 1996; Kinzer 1996; Neuffer 1996; cf. Gilders 2003).

Two-Way Stereotyping?

One characteristic of these reports is typical of even the most scholarly analyses of Germans’ interests in American Indians: they harness multiple enticing clichés. As Susanne Zantop has noted, such analyses are not only replete with a focus on clichéd and stereotypical depictions of American Indians by hobbyists and others “but also stereotypical accounts of Germans and their national character or alleged (sinister) motivations” (Calloway et al. 2002:5; cf. Bolz 1999).

Literary scholar Katrin Sieg’s essay on West German hobbyists, written about the same time as Rubin’s column, is exemplary (Sieg 2002). Although the essay is theoretically sophisticated and analytically incisive, Sieg nevertheless assumes that some sinister notion of “Germanness” was being worked out through hobbyist actions. Based on a small number of interviews, and eschewing the kinds of ambivalences at the heart of Eric Lott’s masterful work on ethnic transvestitism in antebellum American minstrelsy (Lott 1993), Sieg attempts to argue that Germans’ “impersonations” of American Indians were essentially masked “attempts to cope with the guilt of the Holocaust as well as the widespread shame and resentment provoked by the accusations brought against Germans in the international war crimes tribunals and the denazification procedures.” Embodying Zantop’s lament, Sieg argues that donning American Indian garb from the nineteenth century somehow “allowed Germans to align themselves with the victims and avengers of genocide, rather than its perpetrators and accomplices” (Sieg 2002:13). That is an unfortunate conclusion. For Sieg’s assertions not only lack a historical understanding of the many motivations that drove German hobbyists, before, during, and after the period of National Socialism, it also fails to recognize the long history of German condemnation of the United States’ efforts to eradicate American Indians, which predated the 1950s by a century. She has hardly been alone (e.g., Grewling 2007; Guettel 2007).

Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer’s book (2008) on hobbyists in former East Germany is framed in a similar manner. It is driven by the assumption that the German Democratic Republic’s ominous character best explains East German hobbyists’ actions and behaviors. Dependent on a small number of extreme statements by a few participants (they interviewed Diecke as well) and spurred by their fascination with the secret police (Stasi) and its interest in these groups, the book’s conclusions that East German hobbyists were drawn to the study of American Indians because the German Democratic Republic was its own kind of reservation are foregone in the first pages. These authors also leave no room for either historical continuities or social and cultural explanations unhinged from the parameters of nation-states and national identities. They seem blithely unaware that the hobbyist scene is a phenomenon that has persisted across many chronological and geographic borders, including the so-called iron curtain.

It is hardly surprising to learn that few hobbyists are satisfied with such “scholarly” portraits of their passions and endeavors or that even fewer are eager to see more such studies pursued. Nevertheless, hobbyists’ efforts are worthy of earnest scholarly consideration. Christian F. Feest, perhaps the leading authority on the subject of Europeans’ interests in North American Indians, has noted in several essays that he has been “as puzzled and intrigued” by the “subcultural practices” of hobbyists as he is “puzzled and intrigued by other cultures” and “regrets that so little serious attention has been devoted to understanding and explaining them beyond the assertion that they are a form of cultural escapism” (Feest 2002:31; cf. Bolz 1999a; González 1989; Kalshoven 2007, 2012).


Reprinted with permission from Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences, edited by Laura R. Graham and H. Glenn Penny, and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2014.