Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Romanticizing the Noble Savage

How the German peoples’ escapism can both preserve and ignore history.

Oct 30, 2016

On the walls of my grandparents’ house hang pictures of their family. Their 10 grandchildren sit framed, wearing big smiles for their school’s Picture Day. Their five children are standing at the altar or posing for a wedding picture. All of them are wearing white dresses or tuxedos, except for my uncle, Thomas Kunze. In sepia tones, he is riding a horse, he is shirtless and he is wearing a cowboy hat.
Kunze’s picture reminds me of my childhood, watching the movie adaptations of Karl May’s adventure novels, which were set in the Wild West. We only had one on DVD and so I watched The Treasure in the Silver Lake over and over, laughing each time at the British butterfly collector and admiring the bravery and friendship of the brave Apache Winnetou and his trusty companion, Old Shatterhand.
Of all the adaptations of May’s stories, the best by far were at the Karl May Festspiele in Bad Segeberg. The first time I went to see a reenactment was with my friend Laura Dunst. The two of us, like Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, considered ourselves blood brothers, imitating their pact in which they cut their hands and let their blood mix. Dunst remembers the Festspiele fondly.
“As a child I thought the Festival was fantastic. We went almost every year and I loved the atmosphere: the warm summer night, the smell of the blanks being fired on stage,” said Dunst.
But her favorite part was the Western village surrounding the play. When Dunst and I were there together, we sifted for gold, which we traded in for a minted pendant.
May’s popularity was certainly at its peak in the 1970s, when our parents were growing up, but his influence and the shared German interest in Native Americans persists, even if it is only in the collective subconscious. Ask any German on the street today to rattle off a few things they associate with the U.S. and you’ll invariably get Coca-Cola, the war in Iraq and Cowboys and Indians.
My Kunze was no exception to this particularly German phenomena.
“As a kid, I gobbled up the Karl May books of course,” he wrote in an email to me, “but that was more because of childish adventurousness.”
In his opinion, the German fascination does not come from May, but the visit of the U.S. American showman Buffalo Bill, whose show toured Europe in 1896.
“The show in Munich was the impetus for some like-minded people to experiment with [U.S.] American history from the perspective of European emigrants. In fact, [for] the hobbyists the historical engagement with the history of Native Americans is so intensive that on several past occasions, members of American Indian tribes actually came to Germany to learn about their own history,” Kunze explained.
I found no definitive evidence for Kunze’s claim; however, I found a lot of anecdotes from Germans about Native Americans visiting Germany and admiring the care that Germans took when exploring Native American practices and rituals, as well as stories of a homesick American Indian who heard his local dialect, only to find it being spoken by two burly German men.
However, combing through online chat rooms and the comment sections of Indian Country Today Media Network reveals a different perspective. Here Native Americans and First Nations people voice their bafflement over the German obsession with native cultural and historical accuracy that has banned natives visiting Germany from entering German-held pow-wows — which simulate the traditional Native American gathering — if they are not wearing historically accurate attire.
The German hobbyists’ conception of Native life, though perhaps more accurate than May’s stories, is filled with the same romanticization. This is most starkly reflected in comments that Alex Bieber, a German Western hobbyist, made in an interview with Salon.
“What we do has nothing to do with the Indians today,” he said. “What we do has to do with a culture that is already gone, like the Romans. It’s not necessary for me to go to Rome and get permission to study the Romans.”
Because of the perception that this German hobby has nothing to do with Native Americans today, requests — like that made of Karl May Museum — to return the scalps of members of the Chippewa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Objibwe tribes seem absurd to German hobbyists. 19 scalps were in the museum's possession from 2010 until 2014, when the museum agreed to return some of the scalps.
For Kunze and Dunst, May’s appeal has less to do with Native Americans and more to do with good, old-fashioned escapism.
“I found the whole of [U.S.] American history of the Western expansion and conflicts with the [Native Americans] very exciting. Simply because it was about discovery, exploration and the unknown,” said Dunst.
“I think May describes freedom and adventure in his books, something that many people then and now often lack. I think this longing is the reason for both the fascination with May’s stories and for the Western hobbyists. You find the same fascination with the Middle Ages. It is a way to temporarily escape everyday life with all its rules and obligations,” said Kunze.
But Germany is far removed from Native Americans in more ways than they care to acknowledge. Western hobbyists see the world they are recreating as long gone, not only on the other side of an ocean, but also deep in history. This gives them a sense of ownership over the rituals and the life they are emulating. Since no one lives like this anymore, why shouldn’t they be able to do anything they want with the rituals? After all, it is thanks to them that the rituals are being preserved. This attitude simultaneously romanticizes and claims Native American history.
It may be true that the German Western hobbyists learn the religious ceremonies, keep the languages alive and preserve the handicrafts, but the reenactments — whether on the stage in Bad Segeberg or lived by Western hobbyists — are as fake as May’s books, written in his library in Dresden, or their adaptations into movies that star French actors and are filmed in Yugoslavia. By living them as real, German hobbyists ignore the reality of contemporary Native American life — the reservations, the substance abuse, the stolen culture and artifacts and the displacement.
“No one wants to be living below the poverty level on a [North American] reservation … It lacks a certain romance,” said Marta Carlson, in an interview with Alberta Views, a member of California’s Yurok tribe and a Native studies teacher at the University of Massachusetts.
That life is a lot less romantic. That life offers no escapism.
Laura Waltje is Arts Reporter. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
gazelle logo