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


| May-June 2009

  • German Weekend Spent as Native American

    image by AFP / Getty Images

  • German Weekend Spent as Native American

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.

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DaleVieweger
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DaleVieweger
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