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There’s No Accounting For People’s Passions

Here’s an unusual story about heritage and culture.

When I was growing up, my father had an interest in the American Indian. In fact, we had a framed picture of Red Jacket hanging in our dusty basement. And I remember him reading us Red Jacket’s famous speech about religion that the chief gave to a missionary along Buffalo Creek in 1805.

Red Jacket was a Seneca orator and chief of the Wolf clan, based in western New York. While historians are unsure where he was born, he lived much of his adult life in Seneca territory in the Genesee River Valley.

We never really knew where my father’s interest in Native American history came from, but my brother thinks he may have stumbled upon the answer.

While researching an article, my brother met a bronze sculptor who was born and raised in Germany but is now living in Detroit. When my brother visited him at his studio, he noticed some American Indian artifacts that were displayed along some shelves.

“What is your interest in Indian culture?” He asked the sculptor.

And the sculptor explained that a vast number of people in Germany are enthralled with Native Americans-almost to the point of obsession.

He showed my brother some videos on YouTube of modern day Germans dressed up like Native Americans, living in tipis, cooking over open fires and practicing the native religion.

Who knew the Native American spirit was alive and well in Germany? And even more interesting is why?

In an article featured in “Indian Country Today,” we learn that “Indianism”–the desire to copy Native Americans–is a puzzling and persistent passion for many Germans.

“Every year,” the article states, “there are dozens of pow wows arranged, managed and run by non-Natives at which thousands of Germans with an American Indian fetish drink firewater, wear turquoise jewelry and run around places like Baden-W˘rttemberg or Schleswig-Holstein dressed as Comanches and Apaches.”

There are also several German Wild West theme parks like Eldorado, a popular vacation spot featuring staged cowboys versus Indians or small reenactments of notable battles, as well as dancers performing choreographed sets that combine dance styles and forms.

What’s more is that an estimated 40,000 Germans pay dues at more than 400 clubs so that they can pretend to be Indians. And Germany is overrun with fanciful and cheesy Wild West-themed clubs, bars and recreation towns

How did this obsession begin in such a politically and culturally complex country like Germany?

You can blame a book, or fifteen books to be exact.

It turns out that American Indians are the focus of one of Europe’s most popular book series. Just over 100 years ago, Germany’s best-selling author of all time–Karl May–published 15 books about fictional characters Old Shatterhand, a gallant European, and his Apache chief blood brother, Winnetou.

More than 100 million of May’s books have been sold in Germany.

May never made it to the western United States, and really only made it far as Buffalo, where he met up with a real American Indian–but he still claimed that the stories were based on actual experiences.

A few years ago, when a representative from the Ojibwe nation went to Germany to reclaim some Native American scalps showcased in the Karl May Museum, it started an important conversation about the reparation of artifacts.

Who do they belong to? The Ojibwe representative wanted to take the scalps back home and bury them properly, but so far, the Germans haven’t cooperated.

It just so happened that when the Ojibwe representative arrived in Germany, the Karl May festival was in full swing, and all around him were Germans riding around on horseback and dressed up like Native Americans chasing cowboys.

He said he was most amused, but you’ve got to imagine it must have been an interesting afternoon for him. What kind of timing was that?

So, what does this all have to do with my father?

The maternal side of my father’s family was German and we wonder if his interest in Native American culture came from them. Maybe one of his relatives introduced him to May’s books, which have been translated into 33 languages.

And maybe my dad sat under a tree in Jamestown somewhere and whiled away some summer afternoons reading about Old Shatterhand and his Apache friend Winnetou.

What’s interesting is that there’s no accounting for people’s hobbies and passions. And other times, you run into a German sculptor and you get it all figured out.

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