Germany's Fascination With Native American Culture

Dec 3, 2014

Credit Eklectique-photo

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The University of Oklahoma held a symposium commemorating the event. Guest speakers came from around the world to lecture about their specific knowledge base around the fall of the Berlin Wall. Assignment: Radio’s Hayley Thornton attended expecting to learn about a culture on another continent. Instead she learned about German’s fascination with a culture closer to home.

Many Germans love Native Americans. A great deal of this fascination stems from the books of Karl May published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of May’s films came to life on the silver screen through what German’s call “Indianerfilme.”

In this 1966 East German film, Karl May’s famous Native American Hero, Winnetou bravely confronts his cowboy foe in order to protect his tribe.

In this film, Winnetou is the hero; this concept is different than in the Western interpretations where the cowboys always triumph.

Frank Usbeck is a historian and expert on what he calls “Indianthusiasm.” During his lecture at OU he explained that painting the Native American as a hero and a victim of western capitalism was not just used in film. This idea was even used in German politics.

“In the Nazi era, there maybe occasions for deliberate Nazi propaganda to attack America, saying ‘Oh see how the Americans killed off all the Indians and now they’re complaining how we treat our Jews.” And then there were other occasions to portray yourself as a small helpless group, that is overrun by huge numbers coming from the east, the red army.”

According to Usbeck, Karl May’s depiction of American Indians and the so-called “Wild West” offered Germans an escape from their own difficult realities that resulted from the Holocaust and World War II.

“The West German Karl May films were intent on soothing post war anxieties and to provide a make belief of normalcy in a simple world where good and bad are clearly defined, and where West Germans wouldn’t have to think about their guilt related to the Holocaust and World War II. “

“Indianthusiasm” endures as many Germans equate Native American values with strength, humility, spirituality and even sustainability.

In a recent New York Times documentary, “Native Fantasy: Germany’s Indian Heroes”, Gerd Brandt is filmed inside a teepee chanting and playing what appears to be an authentic Native American drum.

The documentary shows how hundreds of Germans gather together to witness a recreation of a Native American Pow wows. Those who participate are called “Hobbyists.” 

Nearly 40 thousand Germans pay dues to one of the more than 400 clubs that participate in these reenactments and celebrations of Native American Culture.

Although “Hobbyists” portray Native American culture in a devout way, University of Oklahoma German Professor Karin Schutjer explains, it is not always taken positively.

“The German image of Native Americans is precisely that, it is an image that comes from a completely different culture, and a completely different history and a lot of it is pure fantasy, it is not necessarily accurate and sometimes is a bit overbearing.”

Usbeck agrees with this.

“Many German “Hobbyist” are extremely glad to explain and be in a position of authority and “let me tell you native guys what your culture is actually about.” 

However, there is no question that the devotion is present. Some Germans even incorporate Native American languages into their everyday lives. Usbeck relayed this in an anecdote

“One day a Lakota travels through Germany and sits in a restaurant when suddenly he picks up a conversation in the booth right behind him, in Lakota and he turns around and it’s two blond Germans. And he goes hey what are you doing speaking Lakota, and it turns out they were hobbyists."