Germans Going Native

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About an hour from me is a park on a man-made lake they call Bostalsee, and most weekends this summer it was home to some sort of spectacle. One Friday in early July I went to an event billed as “Fiesta Latina,” which sounded like it would involve mojitos and a salsa band, when actually it was more akin to a 19th century ethnological exhibit. 

“Gentlemen! You’d better hold your women tight,” said an emcee as he introduced a troupe of bare-chested black Capoeira dancers to the German farmers drinking their mugs of beer. Afterward came the limbo ladies, wearing animal-skin prints and looking sufficiently savage next to the torches they lit, and finally the lithe samba dancers with their feathers. 

It was an impressive display of well-sculpted brown flesh, and the closeness of the audience to the performers – who used the floor rather than the stage — made it seem as though they were there to be touched and smelled as much as watched. Everyone appeared to be having a great time.

There’s been a lot written about the ethnological exhibits of the 19th and early 20th centuries — wincing tales of Nubians and Inuits that the German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck imported to Hamburg and exhibited in his zoo, Ota Benga, the pygmy stuck in an orangutan cage in the Bronx. In 1910 the University of Philadelphia museum engaged a South African “specimen” to walk up and down its halls in some sort of drag, until he found more lucrative work in vaudeville. All these histories assume implicitly that the phenomenon is over. I don’t know what the definition of an ethnological exhibit is, but I know one when I see one…

I missed the next week’s spectacle at Bostalsee: “Indianer Powwow.” But I got the pamphlet, which showed bare-chested men on horseback with face paint, and some sort of Indian in a Cherokee war bonnet, and lots of Germans in Western clothes, playing trappers and saloon owners. The guy who puts on the powwow, Georg Lauer, said the horsemen are French and that the Native Americans, including the one in a war bonnet, are actually from Mexico. Lauer puts on all kinds of shows – magic shows, mime shows. His powow is in its fifth year and getting bigger.

Lauer didn’t find the Mexicans – they found him, he said, and he has no idea how. At last year’s powwow the Mexicans did a great job, Lauer said. This time around he canceled them after they called him from the Mexico City airport on their scheduled day of departure, asking for more money. He made do with just the French horseman. Local politicians from the left and right showed up, because it is election season, and the newspapers said they all had a great time. 


It turns out that a huge number of adult Germans are fascinated enough by Native Americans that they spend their weekends playing Indian, setting up tipis and making fry bread, all in costume. Most people trace the phenomenon to Karl May’s Winnetou novels from the late 19th century, which begat the earliest Indian clubs in Europe. 

When the books were made into movies in the 1960s, a whole generation was imprinted on Winnetou, the compassionate Apache. Men and women in their forties and fifties now have the leisure time and money to act out their affections in a really elaborate way. 

This involves investing in buckskin hides and beads and other materials used to fastidiously copy Indian costumes in museums. Indian clubs, some with thousands of members, put on huge powwows in Berlin and other big cities, powwows with a much more authentic flavor than the Bostalsee show, save for that every single one of the drummers and dancers is German. Sometimes special guests from one of the American Indian nations are present, but one gets the sense that they are not the point.

“Germans really appreciate Native Americans, but this creates problems, too,” said Carmen Kwasny, a German woman who found her way to Indians through Winnetou, just like the rest of her generation, but has worked very hard to make something meaningful out of the obsession. Her group’s chairman is a Kiowa from Oklahoma who spends half the year in Germany.

Kwasny reaches out to the Native Americans stationed at Kaiserslautern, flies musicians over for seminars, and keeps in close touch with Indian friends in the states. Her association bans alcohol at its events, and only actual Indians are invited to perform. This all sits very poorly with the German hobbyists, who want to be drinking beer in their tipis.

When German hobbyists are brought into contact with real Native Americans, Kwasny said, the result is almost invariably disappointment. “They just decide that they not interested in Native Americans today – that they are no longer the way it used to be,” she said. 

They like their version much, much better.

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