The Ongoing German Fascination with American Indians

Yesterday Debbie Reese and I had an interesting twitter conversation about the odd American Indian obsession that so many German-speakers still seem to have. Debbie has now followed up with the blog post, “Stereotypes of native peoples, in children’s books, in Switzerland” and here is mine.

It fascinates me that the German writer Karl May and his legacy still have such a hold in German-speaking countries. While unfamiliar in the US, this prolific 19th century German writer wrote a series of adventure novels set in a mythical American West that he never visited. His popularity was vast in my parents’ German childhoods as is evident from these excerpts from my father’s memoir:

As I was so rotund and it suited my mother’s pacifism at the time, I was mortified when I was surprised with a Dr. Doolittle costume for my birthday and not the Indian outfit I so badly wanted to play with the kids who read Karl May….

I was encouraged to read the “good” literature in my parents vast library and kept away from “trash.” Instead of reading and acting out, like other kids, the highly popular fantasies of Karl May, I was directed to James Fenimore Cooper’s more edifying stories about American Indians.

While today we are likely to flinch at the idea of Dr. Dolittle and Fenimore Cooper’s works being worthy reading material (I’ve written about Dr. Dolittle and its like here), in 1931 Germany it was all about literary snobbery  — the racism and stereotyping in these books were not on my grandparents’ radar at that time.  And while Lofting and Cooper’s original works no longer have the clout they had in my parents’ childhood, Karl May endures. I well remember, while living in Germany in the mid 1960s, my best friend’s obsession with his books and how she dressed up as Winnetou for Fasching (the German Carnival).  And it still goes on. You can get a taste from these articles:

Curious to see what sort of recent books were coming out on the topic in Germany I did a search on the German Amazon site. Going in to seeing the variety of books on the topic in Germany is quite a wormhole and I learned that a new Winnetou movie is in the works. A little more poking around and I found this 2015 Hollywood Reporter article, “Germany Reviving “Winnetou” Westerns for TV” and this trailer. Seems Karl May love is loud and clear still in Germany. Will be curious if the commentary in Germany around this movie considers its problematic nature.

 

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7 responses to “The Ongoing German Fascination with American Indians

  1. Pur – Wo sind all die Indianer hin 1993

    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    Wann verlor das grosse Ziel den Sinn?

    Dieses alte Bild aus der Kinderzeit
    Zeigt alle Brüder vom Stamm der Gerechtigkeit.
    Wir waren bunt bemalt und mit wildem Schrei
    Stand jeder stolze Krieger den Schwachen bei.

    Unser Ehrenwort war heilig,
    Nur ein Bleichgesicht betrog.
    Und es waren gute Jahre,
    Bis der Erste sich belog.

    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    Wann verlor das grosse Ziel den Sinn?
    So wie Chingachgook für das Gute steh’n,
    Als letzter Mohikaner unter Geiern nach dem Rechten seh’n.

    Der “Kleine Büffel” spielt heute Boss,
    Er zog mit Papis Firma das grosse Los.
    “Geschmeidige Natter” sortiert die Post,
    Und in seiner Freizeit sagt er meistens “Prost”.

    Und die Friedenspfeife baumelt über’m Videogerät,
    Wieviel Träume dürfen platzen,
    Ohne dass man sich verrät?

    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    Wann verlor das grosse Ziel den Sinn?
    So wie Chingachgook für das Gute steh’n,
    Als letzter Mohikaner unter Geiern nach dem Rechten seh’n.

    Es gibt noch ein paar wenige vom Stamme der Schoschonen,
    Die finden sich, erkennen sich am Blick,
    Und deren gute Taten kann man nur durch Freundschaft belohnen,
    Sie nehmen ein Versprechen nie zurück.

    Und die Friedenspfeife baumelt über’m Videogerät,
    Wieviel Träume dürfen platzen,
    Ohne dass man sich verrät?

    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    Wann verlor das grosse Ziel den Sinn?
    So wie Chingachgook für das Gute steh’n,
    Als letzter Mohikaner unter Geiern nach dem Rechten seh’n.

    (Wo sind all die Indianer hin?)
    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    (Wann verlor das grosse Ziel den Sinn?)
    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    (So wie Chingachgook für das Gute steh’n)
    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?
    (Als letzter Mohikaner unter Geiern nach dem Rechten seh’n.)
    Wo sind all die Indianer hin?

    This is a song in praise of young boys’ loyalty as pledged through an imitation of Indian ways. I am not sure if you can read German, but basically it laments the passing of childhood and the bonds that those children had while pretending to be Indians, standing for good among vultures, striving for the great goals. Instead, most of them are just ordinary people now – sorting the mail, managing dad’s business.

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  2. debbiereese

    I wish Cooper was not read any longer, but it is, and the people who manage his estate and/or publishers who know it is still read, are putting out one of those “classics illustrated” in September.

    http://www.amazon.com/Last-Mohicans-Classics-Illustrated/dp/1911238000/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1464003326&sr=1-3&keywords=james+fenimore+cooper

    And looking over the books in your search… easy to see why the playing Indian activity is going strong.

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  3. As one of those Germans, I have to admit that I loved the Winnetou movies with French actor Pierre Brice in the lead role when I was growing up. Since moving to the US for work in 1989 I have learned a lot about American Indian history, culture, politics and current issues in Indian country. I read AI literature and the kids books that Debbie Reese recommends. I watch Indian and FN movies. I listen to Indian and FN bands. I am a member of NMAI and donor to AICF and have visited a couple of reservations and tribal colleges and museums. And still, there’s always so much more to learn and I appreciate the discussions about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation/stereotyping of American Indians – they help me fine tune my inner antenna. A couple of months ago I had to stay home from work after surgery. The best part was watching the Canadian TV series The Rez over and over again and laughing my head off – here’s the episode “Der Deutsche Indianer” on YouTube – it might make a good discussion starter for those who still dwell deep in Indian stereotypes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjDPXyTpEko

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