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.