Germany's Obsession With American Indians Is Touching—And Occasionally Surreal
Jürgen Michaelis, who lives near Dresden, was standing in front of the small, improvised tipi he keeps in his back garden, wearing a homemade deerskin suit and a matted black wig that had a lone blue feather stuck in it. “I’m 75 percent Indian but still German,” the retired locksmith told a writer for Der Spiegel, adding that his Indian name is The Lonely Man.
Michaelis is not the only German who likes to pretend he is an Indian. Hobbyism or Indianism, the desire to copy Native Americans is a puzzling and persistent passion for many Germans. Every year, there are dozens of pow wows arranged, managed and run by non-Natives at which, Der Spiegel reported, “thousands of Germans with an American Indian fetish drink firewater, wear turquoise jewelry and run around places like Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein dressed as Comanches and Apaches.” There are several German Wild West theme parks like Eldorado, a popular vacation spot featuring staged cowboys vs. Indians or small reenactments of notable battles, as well as dancers performing choreographed sets that combine dance styles and forms.
Michaelis’s life as an “Indian” mostly consists of emulating Natives who roamed the Great Plains of North America over two centuries ago, and now that he’s retired, he spends the majority of his time making and selling Native-inspired trinkets and small leather goods to sell. Some Germans don’t limit their dress-up to their backyards. They periodically put away their mobile devices and other modern tools for the weekend and recreate tipi encampments, dress in animal skins and furs, prepare and cook food over an open fire and address one another by Indian-sounding names such as White Wolf, all while discussing their feelings of invoking the spirit of what it is to be an Indian. There are also websites like Tipis.org, which declares itself “dedicated to all the people around the world who have ever studied the American Indian tipi and wanted to live the life of freedom on the Plains that this structure represents.” Posted there are photos of Europeans who have abandoned their own culture, either permanently or occasionally, to “live like Indians”—or what they have rather fancifully imagined what living like an Indian entails. Some of these people actually roam the countryside wearing buckskin, living off the land and practicing their peculiar brand of American Indian religion.
An estimated 40,000 Germans pay dues at more than 400 clubs so that they can pretend to be Indians. Some of these clubs serve a dual purpose because it is illegal in Germany to fire a rifle, ride a horse or camp unless you belong to a registered club and engage in those activities on club premises. Some of the more popular ones are the Cheyenne Indian Club, Western Club Freising and the Wild West Club. The Cowboy Club of Munich, founded in 1913, is the oldest club of its kind in Germany, and regularly hosts events in which members dress up and act as they believe Indians did hundreds of years ago, insisting upon what they believe is authenticity, although they call themselves rote Indianer—red Indians. They organize pow wows; make, sell and trade handiwork; and drum, sing and dance. Some even take lessons on horseback riding or shooting a bow and arrow.
Krisztina Szabo, who was interviewed for Linda Holley’s book, Tepees, Teepees and Tipis: History and Design of the Cloth Tipi, told the author, “Our camp is always in summer, in July for two weeks. During this time we live in tipis, we wear only Indian clothes. We don’t use technology, and we try to follow Indian traditions. We have those [pretending to be] Lakota, Oglala, Blackfoot Blood, Siksika, Pawnee…and we go on warpath against each other day and night, anytime at all. In two weeks, every tribe can fight each other. We don’t know when somebody will attack or when they will come to steal our horses. And the battles are always exciting, too. I really enjoy them.”
Adults playing dress-up might seem vaguely comic, but these people are shockingly earnest in their love for Native culture, regardless of how poorly many of them understand it. Many even acknowledge that their events—and even their costumes—aren’t about Native American life as it is today, or even was 200 years ago. They just consider their dress-up to be good fun and do not mean to give offense.
Some champions of Native culture don’t find these hobbyists funny or benign. Susan Marcia Stan, who wrote an essay about the impact of Native misrepresentation in children’s literature says, “ ‘Playing Indian’…assumes that being Indian is something that can be put on or taken off at will and completely ignores the cultural heritage of Native people.”
But not everyone with Native bona fides is disturbed by the hobbyists. Laura Kerchee, a young Comanche and jingle dress dancer serving in the Air Force is stationed in western Germany. When she recently spoke at a cultural diversity day on her base, she was impressed by how enthralled the Germans there were by Native Americans. She says some of the adults told her they were very eager to see a Native up close because “when they were little, Indians were like fairy tales or a dream.”
Kerchee has lived in Germany off and on for almost 13 years. “I often see things which are Native-themed,” she says. “For example, games at festivals where the ‘cowboy’ shoots the ‘Indians,’ or at a theme park called Phantasialand, where they have your stereotypical racist Peter Pan–style Indians climbing rocks and all that. I’ve noticed a few ‘twinkie’ stores—twinkie is a slang term for non-Natives who claim to be Indian—as well as vendors at festivals selling twinkie Indian supplies, such as dreamcatchers, crystals, et cetera. They must make a lot of money because I was in one shop that was charging $44 for a small bundle of sage. All of these items are of course mixed with rip-offs of other cultures, such as Hindu and Buddhist statues and tie-dyed T-shirts.”
There are also some tribes in North America reaching out to their fans in Europe. They realize that this is an opportunity to promote understanding and education and a way to market Native culture to a highly sympathetic audience. Several members of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association were at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest tourism convention, which was held in early March. “They are looking for tribes,” Camille Ferguson, executive director of the group, says of the German hobbyists. “They are looking for Indian country. They want to know more about the Native people in America; they want the real stories.”
She says the association’s mission is to help introduce, define and grow American Indian and Alaska Native tourism, “and part of our program is international outreach, so that we are telling our own stories.”
She adds that European travelers who visit Indian country seek authentic experiences. “The European people will be interested in more of the cultural aspects of tourism, [such as] the local venues—from food to dance to art.”
This was the fourth year the association was part of the ITB Berlin convention, and Indian country representation has been getting stronger every year. For the first time, members from Native Tourism of Wisconsin, which represents 11 sovereign nations, the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and the Chickasaw Nation were there. “We are not afraid to show the world what our culture can bring as well as capture the hearts of people who haven’t seen or heard it,” says Jason Morsette, a member of the Arikara Tribe (Fort Berthold Reservation), who represented the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota in Berlin this year.
Where did this obsession with Native Americans come from? You can thank (or blame) the novels of Karl May (1842–1912), the best-selling German author in history. Many of his most popular books were about a German explorer and wanderer who traveled through America’s Old West and eventually became blood brother to Winnetou, a fictional Apache warrior. This German explorer comes to be called Old Shatterhand, and with his Indian companion battles and overcomes evil of all kinds. Winnetou is the stereotypical figure for many Germans of what a “real” Indian is like: how they dress, speak (broken English) and behave. The country’s long fascination with Native Americans spiked in the 1960s, after several of May’s books were made into films.
May was a fascinating character and an inveterate fabulist. From an early age, he also had a propensity for thievery, fraud and conning people, which landed him in trouble—and occasionally in jail. By the age of 32, he had already done a couple of stints in jail. His deep fascination with Indians and his imaginings about them expanded while he was incarcerated, for the prisons in which he was housed had libraries that offered the titles he craved, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
When May was released from prison in 1874, he was determined to make his living as a writer. He declared he was going to emigrate to America. Instead, he became an editor for a publishing company, and over the next 38 years, he published almost 70 books, 15 of which feature Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. May adamantly insisted his novels were based on actual experiences, but they were all the creations
of his fertile imagination, with some liberal cribbing from source material and maps. He didn’t come to America until he was 66, where he met his first Indian near Buffalo, New York. Buffalo was as close to the Old West as he ever got.
Many Europeans grew up reading May’s novels, which have been widely translated, and his popularity endures. Following World War II, he was very popular in areas controlled by the Soviet Union—East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Russians living under strict Soviet rule say they sought relief from their oppressive government through imagining life as Native Americans: wild, free, often oppressed but somehow happy. They began emulating the characters and situations in May’s books, and they created clubs and groups dedicated to Native culture.
Many young Germans are dismissive of the opinions and concerns of “the old folks,” yet they, too, eagerly visit Indian theme parks, are interested in the art, music and traditions of Indigenous Peoples and incorporate—rightly or wrongly—some elements of Native ceremonies into their own hybrid forms of religion.
Berlin’s HeileHaus is a popular meeting spot for younger hobbyists. It once offered Native American healing, meditation, vision quests and ceremonies that are said to help people find their spirit guide, animal totem or even their secret Indian names. Through Google you’ll find pages of results for such New Age groups, some with their personal Indian shamans, leaders or someone who says they’ve studied with Indians and have now brought these teachings to Europe, often for a fee.
Julian Crandall Hollick is a writer who has interviewed many German and European hobbyists and aficionados. “These are intelligent men and women—computer programmers, truck drivers, interior decorators—for whom the American West offers another identity necessary for their mental stability, a means of going back into history to make sense of as world in which they often alienated; another way for Man to renew the search for identity and his relationship with Nature,” he has written. “Of course, many ordinary Europeans have now visited the [American] West. They know full well their dream is about an America that no longer exists, may never have existed. But they are content with the myth because it fulfills [personal] needs.”
For some it goes far beyond weekend fun or a chance to adopt certain Indian values or beliefs; these hobbyists don’t limit themselves to occasionally procuring authentic garments, decorative items and handicraft projects. Such is the case with the self-proclaimed chief, Gerhard Fischer, known as Old Bull, who heads the Karl May fan club, which hosts a festival on the author’s birthday. Fischer and his kind have romanticized long-gone Native Americans to a degree that they think “latter-day” Indians are poor examples of their ancestors—whom they revere as noble savages. Old Bull’s followers believe Natives today are being perverted by modern culture and that they, not Native Americans, are preserving Native culture.
Instead of empathizing with the very real struggles of Natives now living in North America, these “new Indians” of Europe see the societal problems, substance or alcohol abuse, poverty and internal difficulties
within some indigenous communities as evidence supporting their conclusions. They believe their activities are keeping Native American traditions alive, because—they believe—most Natives neglect or do not appreciate their own heritage.
The website for the “Indians and Mountain Men” club declares that “the purpose of the club is to maintain the customs and traditions of the North American Indians and Mountain Men.… We call ourselves practicing anthropologists and take our hobby and the related work, either in theoretical or practical shape, very seriously. The tipis, all the clothing, as well as all items are lovingly made by hand and decorated by us. Many of us even tan the leather itself and sew it together with animal sinews, as the Indians did before. We practice in many skills and craft techniques of this cultural group, and even in songs and dances we strive to achieve the utmost authenticity.”
David Redbird Baker, Ojibwe, told Noemi LaPinto for an article in the Canadian monthly magazine, Alberta Views, that when he first came to Germany, he was amused by the hobbyists, but his feelings changed as he spent more time amongst them. “They take the social and religious ceremonies and change them beyond recognition….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.” In his opinion, these hobbyists, by claiming the right to improvise on the most sacred rituals, have begun to develop a sense of ownership over Native culture.
LaPinto also talked to John Blackbird, Cree, a minor celebrity in Germany known for his Native dance performances and his documentaries on the hobbyists. He often feels frustrated by hobbyists who feel they are more Indian than Indians. He told LaPinto that he made a documentary entitled Powwow in 2005, which follows several people as they perform dances from across a broad spectrum of Native traditions. Blackbird says he was “trying to show Germans that Native dances are evolving art forms, not the ancient rituals of an extinct people.” While promoting this film, he sent an e-mail to a hobbyist organization, explaining that his film was about ‘Indian life.’ He says he received a quick, curt response informing him that the proper term was ‘First Nations,’ and that he would do well “to not 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.’ ”
Like John Blackbird, I am Indian living and working in Germany—I am of Chiricahua Apache and Cherokee heritage, with a couple of splashes of other cultures. Like John Blackbird, I generally find life comfortable in Germany, and for the most part I am accepted for who I am. I have met many Germans who are genuinely interested in and respectful of Native American cultures and are aware of the struggles we’ve had in the past and continue to face today.
But I have met other, less-endearing hobbyists. Through Facebook and other websites or social applications, I am sometimes contacted by enthusiasts who avidly want to talk to a “real” Native American. And sometimes I oblige them. I recently had a conversation with a middle-aged German man who was looking for a Native American with whom to discuss his thoughts and beliefs. He believed he was a reincarnated Nez Percé chief, and repeatedly spoke of “our people, our culture, our beliefs, our blood.” He vehemently objected to the idea that real Native Americans might take issue with his claims. His final message to me was: “No people should be allowed to keep their culture just for themselves.”
As a Native American in Germany, when I am asked honest questions, I give honest answers, and if I don’t know something, I direct the person toward a reliable source of information. When I am dismissed by hobbyists who think they know more about my people and culture than I do, I do not let them bother me. Instead, I try to educate those who are willing to listen and hope they will support causes that help improve the life and future of Native Americans.