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

by Noemi Lopinto, from Alberta Views
May-June 2009
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image by AFP / Getty Images


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The first thing John Blackbird learned when he was growing up on the Canadian prairies was that his people were no good. Raised primarily by a white family, Blackbird heard from friends and classmates that Natives were lazy and unemployable. Even in childhood games, nobody wanted to be the Indian. Everyone wanted to play the gallant cowboy.

Today in Germany, Blackbird is a star, a celebrity even. He’s seen as a descendant of the wild and free people of the plains—an embodiment of environmental respect. Fans routinely trail the 38-year-old Cree filmmaker on the streets. He tours the country’s military installations and schools, and is asked for opinions on everything from politics to spirituality.

Blackbird’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.”

John Blackbird often feels frustrated with his role as a “dime-store Indian,” but when he comes home to Canada, he sees airport gift shops hawking sweatshirts and mugs stamped with the faces of chiefs who were persecuted during their lifetimes. If he looked for a job or an apartment, he would face a wall of racism. His daughters might expect to have poorer health and higher rates of unemployment as adults.

So he stays in Deutschland and promotes the documentary film he finished in 2005. Entitled Powwow, it follows several people as they perform dances from across a broad spectrum of Native traditions. Blackbird says he is trying to show Germans that Native dances are evolving art forms, not the ancient rituals of an extinct people.

Once, as part of his promotion efforts, he described his documentary in an e-mail to a hobbyist organization as being about “Indian life.” He received a quick response informing him that the proper term was “First Nations,” that he would do well not to use racist terminology.

“I am an Indian!” Blackbird shot back. “My friends are Indians, my family are Indians. We have always called ourselves Indians. I have a status card from the Canadian government that tells me I am an Indian. You have no right to tell me what I am.”

 

Excerpted from Alberta Views(July-Aug. 2008), a magazine that reports on Albertan politics and culture with wit and zeal and a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for social/cultural coverage; www.albertaviews.ab.ca.


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shamancloud
8/26/2014 11:32:57 PM
yantaho.webs.com i am a shaman native american shaman heres my web site

Sylvia McAdam
3/3/2012 5:48:55 PM
tansi, I would like to suggest something. Its true Indigenous people struggle with many colonialistic symptoms and most likely will for a long time. In saying that, there is also a beauty and sacredness that still exists within the traditional and "grassroots" Indians. The ones who carry the knowledge and understand the laws of their people. Our songs, our ceremonies, our languages are all of a much bigger picture immersed in Nationhood. A "true" Indian will not promote themselves nor seek out attention. People need to understand we are a gifted Nation still linked to the spirit world in many ways. Mina kehtwam.

Peggy Selander
8/7/2011 12:32:54 AM
Hello! Great article! I would like to contact this group to introduce my western art to them. A friend of mine met a gentleman from one of the German Cowboys and Indians clubs and told me that my art would be of great interest to them. I hope you can help me with a contact. www.fineartamerica/peggyselander.com http://www.the-edge-center.org/exhibits/juried2009.html Many thanks, Peggy R. Selander

Peggy Selander
8/7/2011 12:28:12 AM
Hello! Great article! I would like to contact this group to introduce my western art to them. A friend of mine met a gentleman from one of the German Cowboys and Indians clubs and told me that my art would be of great interest to them. I hope you can help me with a contact. www.fineartamerica/peggyselander.com http://www.the-edge-center.org/exhibits/juried2009.html Many thanks, Peggy R. Selander

BuffaloBrother
5/6/2011 11:46:27 AM
cornell_1 you're not the only one Comanche living in Germany. I am getting my naming ceremony in July during the Comanche home coming. I'm from the Bear clan. Plus I can understand how Littlebirdscreaming feels about being constantly judged as being something else. Not to offend Germans, Americans do it too, but they constantly view as Mexicans or Turks.

Littlebirdscreaming
10/3/2010 4:10:39 AM
ANII to all out there. I am Cree from the Raven Clan. I was born in Toronto/ Canada, moved to Germany, then back to Canada, then back to Germany and then back home to Canada, NOW I am back here in Germany. I was adoped from german people as I was very young, in Toronto. I never had problems with the germans. When I speak and tell them I am canadian, the y react very positive...when I say Iam Native they ask what is that? I look at them...hmmm. I say INDIAN!!! ohhh the reply....wowowowow. As I was a young girl family members, where I then grew up later in Ontario, called me certain names and so I had cut off all my long hair, they had stopped calling me names. My children are white= Native, I am dark.They are proud to be cree and from the Raven Clan.We know who we are. I once had to have a conversation with one of the kids teachers, later I had told her that we are CREE, she looked at me." YOU DONT LOOK INDIAN" .....I paused for a sec...I replied" OHH and how does an indain look like"? her relpy was" You dont look indian....I thought do the Europeans really have one pic of us natives, that we are all dark, red or what ever? I was going to say to her, go to Canada/ USA and lokk how many of us are out there. I coudnt understand. I have problmes accepting the euopeans, when they want to be natives....I try and accept, maybe they learn more form us, I dont know.I wish all natives in Germany, would just come together,like in Canada and the USA.....we can show who we are

Stuart M.
8/24/2009 12:59:49 AM
I can imagine Native Americans would feel insulted by these semi-naked Germans dancing around, thinking they are reenacting some Native American rituals. Some of the commentators here seem surpised that these Germans aren't really interested in helping indigenous peoples to get their rights. I think these Germans are best compared to "Trekkies" who fixate on Star Trek, who attend Star Trek conventions, dress up and speak Kling-On. They just want to have fun. There is a long history of German fascination with nature, numerous hiking associations, nudist movements, garden plot associations, etc., all sprung up to "soften" the alienation of the proletariat during the industrial era. Political parties and movements of all stripes tried to use this fascination with nature to further their agendas, culminating in the Hitler Jugend and the FDJ movement of the the former East Germany. Maybe these Karl May fanatics see their reenactment of Native American rituals as some kind of more pure Nature without the ideological "baggage" many of the past German "back to nature" movements have had. It's unfortunate they have to go dancing on the feelings of the Native Americans!

Jessica_4
7/30/2009 12:57:36 PM
(The rest of message) Perhaps, this is an understated and mute point that should be pondered by the organization a bit further. I suppose by running around and playing “Indians”, the Germans can continue to seduce themselves with their fantasies so that it makes it very difficult for them to even recognize that a North American indigenous person has real joys, real sorrows, just like German people do, and further more have continual and real violations of Treaty, land, cultural, and human rights. As Professor Marta Carlson stated, “No one wants to be living below the poverty level on a reservation. It lacks a certain romance.” Certainly, the Germans do not want their romance killed- it will kill apart of their identity and their cultural myths. This could be quite crushing. I do not find anything amusing or cute about these German “Indians”. They simply are escape artists and hamper the intelligent discourse regarding contemporary North American indigenous conflicts – issues that truly do need meaningful international support, attention, and realism. Not the “romance”.

Jessica_4
7/30/2009 12:55:08 PM
I am an American temporarily living in Berlin, Germany and working on endeavors to advocate and educate on contemporary North American indigenous conflicts including conflicts over land, Treaty, cultural, and human rights. I work in affiliation and with support from several indigenous grassroots community groups near the United States and Mexico border (who are suffering grave indignities as a result of the border wall, the drug cartels), First Nations in Canada who are battling the multi-national corporate exploitation of the Albertan oil tar sands, and the Western Shoshone in Nevada who are battling multi-national corporate mineral extraction and the nuclear industry in Nevada. In my work in Germany, I have lectured or given speaking engagements at universities, human rights organizations, and even had the opportunity recently to speak with a European Union government official. Germany, like the rest, signed and committed to the September 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. None of these groups and people believe nor have an interest in supporting, advocating, or educating the Germans about these conflicts. While there is, of course, the behind-the scenes “politics” with international foreign policy and economic developments as the advance-market economies among the United States, Canada, and Germany (and the rest of the G-8 countries) are inextricably linked, there is also the problem in Germany with the cultural clichés, stereotypes, and this “romance” with Karl May “Indians”. It permeates every aspect of German society – whether in minuscule or large ways. I have contacted the Native American Association of Germany several times in regards to these conflicts, with absolutely no response of support or interest from this organization of any kind. I find it very uncanny that Carmen Kwansy is quoted as saying, “The conflict is they have to find out that Native Americans are just people.” Perhaps, this is an understated

Jessica_4
7/30/2009 12:54:25 PM
I am an American temporarily living in Berlin, Germany and working on endeavors to advocate and educate on contemporary North American indigenous conflicts including conflicts over land, Treaty, cultural, and human rights. I work in affiliation and with support from several indigenous grassroots community groups near the United States and Mexico border (who are suffering grave indignities as a result of the border wall, the drug cartels), First Nations in Canada who are battling the multi-national corporate exploitation of the Albertan oil tar sands, and the Western Shoshone in Nevada who are battling multi-national corporate mineral extraction and the nuclear industry in Nevada. In my work in Germany, I have lectured or given speaking engagements at universities, human rights organizations, and even had the opportunity recently to speak with a European Union government official. Germany, like the rest, signed and committed to the September 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. None of these groups and people believe nor have an interest in supporting, advocating, or educating the Germans about these conflicts. While there is, of course, the behind-the scenes “politics” with international foreign policy and economic developments as the advance-market economies among the United States, Canada, and Germany (and the rest of the G-8 countries) are inextricably linked, there is also the problem in Germany with the cultural clichés, stereotypes, and this “romance” with Karl May “Indians”. It permeates every aspect of German society – whether in minuscule or large ways. I have contacted the Native American Association of Germany several times in regards to these conflicts, with absolutely no response of support or interest from this organization of any kind. I find it very uncanny that Carmen Kwansy is quoted as saying, “The conflict is they have to find out that Native Americans are just people.” Perhaps, this is an understated

cornell_1
7/27/2009 2:32:03 PM
make no mistake about it--I am a north american aborigine of the numunuh nation.

Ted_1
7/27/2009 10:26:57 AM
Hau! I have visited Germany in the past and I will return there in the summer of 2010. A few weeks ago, I was in Italy for about 10 days and it was an experience that I will never forget. I felt that there was this great interest in our Native American culture, especially, the Dakota / Lakota / Nakota Oyate of the Great Sioux Nation. I have made some life-long friends in Europe and they are always asking me questions about my Oyate. Mitakuye Oyasin - "Everything is related."

Florin Lung_1
4/22/2009 7:33:18 PM
The point is, this guy was so imaginative that he completely invented all the adventures he wrote, without even setting a foot on the American soil, until before his death, when it didn't matter anymore. His adventure-genre books were hugely successful and the "myth" lived on. Now I am split. My childhood memories side with Winnetou, Old Surehand and the Inca warriors. On the other hand, my adoptive country shows me that everything I knew about Indians since childhood is wrong, a product of a writer's mind. Well, I guess I have to take the same approach as with another childhood's lecture: when in the end of Dumas' novel "Robin Hood", the famous outlaw is betrayed and dies, I vowed to avenge him. This resolution is really confusing to me now, since it was all a literary fiction. I decided that the statute of limitations applies. Likewise, I can agree that while Winnetou and his sister Nsho-Chi, are just figments of the imagination of another writer, the real indians are right next to me. Magically, I am living among the favorite heroes of my childhood. The good part: it's not on the eternal hunting ground. The bad part: these heroes are not exactly how I imagined them, they actually seem pretty similar to me, they drive cars, they even go to school (I had a student with Native American heritage). In the end it's up to what I make of this story. But I choose to live in a real world, beyond literary imagination. That's why I chose to add here my story, of an European settled on the Native American ground, after having read in UTNE this story of an Indian (BTW, the US "politically correct" term seems to not be "Indian") going to Europe.

Florin Lung_1
4/22/2009 7:31:43 PM
As I grew up in Romania, Karl May's novels about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were the bomb when we were like 10 year old. Even dad, who is in his early sixties now, has read them. It was all about western stories of friendship, enemies, and discoveries. There even were some movies shot in late 70s and early 80s, especially in Eastern Germany and the then Yugoslavia (because of the mountains), inspired by Karl may's novels. There were also a couple of spin-offs that I remember of (plus cartoons galore). First, a Czechoslovak film called Joe Lemonade, a comedy about the Far West, and a Romanian cycle with people from Transylvania also living in the late 19th century America. It's a different kind of "spaghetti westerns", in a way. Two years ago I read an article in NY Times ( http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/arts/design/12karl.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=%22karl%20may%22&st=cse ) about this cultural misunderstanding, and I remember I even told dad on the phone about it, but he didn't seem to understand. After all, I am now living in Oconee County, and before that I lived on a certain Keowee Trail. So i figured to know better. All was in vain. But if we analyze this issue a little bit, we come to despair because of the main cause. By this I mean that Karl May was a special character. There is a book written by a German psychiatrist, Karl Leonhard, its Romanian translation title is something like "Accentuated personalities in life and literature" (I wasn't able to find a link now), where Karl May was given as a case study for a certain type of borderline personality, characterized by confabulation, will to convince other people of their own value etc. The point is, this guy was so imaginative that he completely invented all the adventures he wrote, without even setting a foot on the American soil, until before his death, when it didn't matter anymore. His adventure-genre books were hugely successful and the "








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