Native Fantasy: Germany’s Indian Heroes

Posted By Toyacoyah Brown August 19th, 2014 Last Updated on: August 19th, 2014

From the New York Times comes a mini-documentary of Germany's obsession with Native American culture.

Germany’s biggest folk hero is an Apache who fights for justice three hours north of Berlin and has inspired spiritual seekers. But some parts of Native American culture get lost in translation.

So what do you think? Is it flattering they're interested in the culture or cringe worthy when they only focus on the romanticized Hollywood version?

Home » Native American Articles » Native American Culture » Native Fantasy: Germany’s Indian Heroes

About Toyacoyah Brown

Toyacoyah Brown is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, currently living in Chicago. She received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. When she's not scouring the Internet for fun things to share with PowWows.com readers you can find her digging for vinyl in her local record store or curling up with a good book.

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Jojo Purpur

As a German, I grew up with the novels from Karl May that are the basis of the Karl May Fest performances and I also visited one of the shows some time ago. The novels, writtensince the 1890s, are meant to entertain with adventure and travel stories and show a lot of sympathy towards Natives. They still shape the image in German minds of Native Americans till today and are very popular. It is rather difficult to get real and authentic information about Native Americans in Germany, if you are not at a university with Native American Studies. The novels focus on the nobleness of Native Americans as “noble savage”, especially the Apaches. For his time Karl May was a very progressive writer (regarding the strong beliefs in white supremacy, colonization and heroism of soldiers and armies present in 18-1900s European society) although he never visited the Americas and drew his information from travel papers and newspaper articles. In his series about North America, main characters are mostly a Native American hero and a German hero, who are friends. His books support the idea of peace and understanding between peoples. However, we can also see typical Eurocentricity and a paternalistic attitude towards indigeneous peoples, who are treated with respect but more pity as “soon-to-be-extinct” peoples.
Here are some of the rather weird ideas: In one of the novels, Winnetou, the fictitious leader of a fictitious Apache band, changes his belief to Christianity and allows the construction of a railroad through his tribe’s lands in order to help his former enemy and now best buddy, a German “Wild West man” because of this friendship and because he agrees with the White Western superiority and technology, although he knows and has witnessed the destruction, the buffalo-shootings from trains and the settlers and people that came with it. Kiowas are reduced to “wild savages” and a threat to other Natives and Europeans alike. We see a lot of stereotypes in the books, may they be postive or negative. In fact, those stereotypes or images of Native Americans are so dominant, that I only learned more about the real situations, topics and discussions when I entered university (and found the 1491s on youtube, the SmithsonianNMAI and of course powwows.com on the web).
When I saw the Karl May Fest show, most of the actors were Germans, some even with red/bronce paint on their bodies. The hero Winnetou was played by Errol Sanders, a German with Turkish parents. Later I read that this redpainting was a common thing in old Wild West films, and nowadays considered racist. It is also difficult to say if the merchandise there is made by Natives or made in China, which could not be answered by the cashier.
There is also a little Native American weekend fair near the place I live once a year. You can find German reenactors, who are very keen on depicting authentic Plains regalia and educate the public, although they sometimes mix other tribe’s regalia or jewellery with the one they want to depict. There are teepees, storytellers who get their info from books, singers and workshops for kids where they can build a headband with a feather and get facepaint on, although I think by now they have abandoned the practice due to the mascot/racism discussion in the US about white people dressing up as ‘generic Indian’. However, there is a lack of “real” Native Americans. Overall, Native Americans are well-respected in Germany, although sometimes kitsch/New Age/stereotypes appear.
There exist several German Native American associations or clubs which create exibitions and workshops (www.naaog.de, http://www.indianer-web.de/museum/museum.htm), museums that feature Native-related exibitions (who sometimes give back holy regalia) and even a powwow kalendar (www.powwow-kalender.de. Near Vienna, an “Indian Village Europe” opened, the web-link leads to J. Reuben Silverbird’s page(http://www.silverbird.at/).
I am a student of English-Speaking Cultures and History with the focus on Native American contemporary culture and Medieval Europe and love to hear what you think!


Hello JoJo Purpur,
This is very interesting and good information. Is there a way to get in contact with you? I have an acquaintance in Germany but have since lost contact. It is my understanding from that acquaintance that the German people have a great respect for the Native American culture due to the book you mentioned. Children in the schools are introduced to the culture through this book. I would like to learn more.

Jessica C

I was a performer at the Karl May Fest in Radebeul, Germany back in 1999.I danced fancy shawl with the Red Hawk Dance Troupe. We were priviliged to represent our culture there, and were very surprised to see how the German people made such efforts with all things native. I met an older woman who had painstakingly made a buckskin dress complete with a breastplate, leggings and moccs. She must have worked very hard and paid attention to detail, even if the plains style dress did not match the upper Northeast style hat she wore. We remarked that her skills were better than some of the people we knew on the circuit. It was definitely an experience we’ll never forget. Though the customs they portrayed were not recognizable as any one tribe, but many different traditions/dress/etc rolled into one, it was flattering that for once we were the heroes, and not the “savage heathens” that we had been portrayed as in our own land for the last 500 years. Each person will form their own opinion, but as for one who was there, it was nice to be appreciated at least.

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