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Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800

Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800

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Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800

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Aug 12, 2013


How do we explain the persistent preoccupation with American Indians in Germany and the staggering numbers of Germans one encounters as visitors to Indian country? As H. Glenn Penny demonstrates, that preoccupation is rooted in an affinity for American Indians that has permeated German cultures for two centuries. This affinity stems directly from German polycentrism, notions of tribalism, a devotion to resistance, a longing for freedom, and a melancholy sense of shared fate.
Locating the origins of the fascination for Indian life in the transatlantic world of German cultures in the nineteenth century, Penny explores German settler colonialism in the American Midwest, the rise and fall of German America, and the transnational worlds of American Indian performers. As he traces this phenomenon through the twentieth century, Penny engages debates about race, masculinity, comparative genocides, and American Indians' reactions to Germans' interests in them. He also assesses what persists of the affinity across the political ruptures of modern German history and challenges readers to rethink how cultural history is made.

Aug 12, 2013

Informazioni sull'autore

H. Glenn Penny, assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is coeditor of Worldly Provincialism: German Anthropology in the Age of Empire. His dissertation, on which this book is based, won the Fritz Stern Prize of the German Historical Institute.

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Kindred by Choice - H. Glenn Penny

Kindred by Choice

Kindred by Choice

Germans and American Indians since 1800

H. Glenn Penny

The University of North Carolina Press

Chapel Hill

© 2013 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved. Designed and set in Calluna by Rebecca Evans. Manufactured in the United States of America.

The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

The University of North Carolina Press has been a member of the Green Press Initiative since 2003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Penny, H. Glenn.

Kindred by choice : Germans and American Indians

since 1800/H. Glenn Penny.

pages cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-4696-0764-1 (cloth : alk. paper)

1. Indians of North America— Public opinion. 2. Indians in popular culture. 3. Germans— Attitudes. 4. Germans— Social life and customs. 5. Public opinion— Germany. I. Title.

E98.P99P46 2013

970.004ʹ97— dc23


Parts of chapter 4 previously appeared as The German Love Affair with American Indians: Rudolf Cronau’s Epiphany, Common-place 11, no. 4 (July 2011). Used with permission.

17 16 15 14 13 5 4 3 2 1

For Beatrice and Timmer




Introduction Beyond the Buckskin

Part I

Origins and Transformations across the Nineteenth Century

1 From Cooper to Karl May—Recast

2 Accommodating Violence

3 Changes in the Lands

4 Modern Germans and Indians

Part II

Consistencies across Twentieth-Century Ruptures

5 Instrumentalization across Political Regimes

6 Race, Character, and Masculinity before and after Hitler

7 Comparative Genocides

8 Receptions in Native America

Conclusions What Persists





1 A group of Kit Foxes announcing the beginning of the opening ceremonies at The Week during the summer of 2006 2

2 Charles E. Gunter and his vest near Pawnee, Oklahoma 10

3 Karl Bodmer, Horse Racing of Sioux Indians: Near Fort Pierre 46

4 Theodore Kaufmann, Westward the Star of Empire 47

5 Albert Bierstadt, The regon Trail 50

6 Carl Wimar, The Attack on the Emigrant Train 52

7 Die Chippeways-Indianer im Panoptikum zu Berlin 58

8 A group of Omaha in Berlin, advertised as Sioux 60

9 Postcard: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Germany 61

10 Advertisement: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Dresden, 1890 62

11 New Ulm promotional image 73

12 Rudolf Cronau, Lager der Sioux-Indianer bei Fort Snelling in Minnesota 102

13 Rudolf Cronau, Sitting Bull 107

14 Hagenbeck’s 1910 Oglala Troupe 131

15 Otto Dix, American Riding Act 142

16 Big Snake at Karl May’s grave 147

17 The Munich Cowboy Club hosting a gathering in 1934 148

18 Elk Eber, Custer’s Last Battle 150

19 Elk Eber in his Munich studio 151

20 Encampment of two thousand near Taucha, outside of Leipzig (1938) 158

21 Patty Frank with Hitler Youth in the Karl-May-Museum 162

22 Swastika display in the Karl-May-Museum 166

23 Sarrasani Indians at Karl May’s grave 167

24 Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich at her home in East Berlin with Dennis Banks and Vernon Bellecourt 189

25 Burning bad books in Munich while Buffalo Child Long Lance (Silkirtis Nichols) dances in regalia 200

26 A postwar gathering of twenty-three West German hobby clubs in the Black Forest near Freiburg in 1953 201

27 Buffalo Child Long Lance among German hobbyists 203

28 Two German hobbyists near a Mercedes 300D 206

29 Performers from the St. Johns School in Berlin 207

30 Buffalo Child Long Lance dancing at the ceremony in honor of the Munich Cowboy Club’s new clubhouse 208

31 Buffalo Child Long Lance in his prime 217

32 Denton Fast Whirlwind, 13th Trophy of the Holocaust 231

35 Arthur Amiotte, This place reminds us of home . . . 253

34 Two-Two’s grave 262

35 Advertisement in Berlin for Reiner Leist’s photo exhibition American Portraits 296


Let me confess, said Charlotte, that when you call all these curious entities of yours affined, they appear to me to possess not so much an affinity of blood as an affinity of mind and soul.


Elective Affinities, 1809

This book began as an effort to explain the abundant references to American Indians in contemporary Germany as well as the staggering numbers of Germans one encounters in Indian country today. That explanation, I quickly realized, has deep roots. It turns around a striking sense of affinity for American Indians that has permeated German cultures for two centuries, and which stems directly from German polycentrism, notions of tribalism, a devotion to resistance, a longing for freedom, and a melancholy sense of shared fate. It also has much to do with Germans’ historical interactions with the United States and the transnational world of German cultures that spread across the Atlantic during the nineteenth century—a world we too often forget.

Germans’ affinities for American Indians were always elective. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many millions of Germans repeatedly chose to embrace a sense of kinship with American Indians that stemmed from affinities of mind and soul. At precisely the time when this process began, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe turned to the notion of elective affinities developed in the natural sciences to explain the tendency of some chemical species to combine with some substances rather than others. He drew on these scientific theories in order to explore the attractions and emotional connections between particular individuals. Later, scholars such as Max Weber drew on Goethe’s insights while seeking to understand relationships within and between human societies. Others, such as Walter Benjamin, critiqued them extensively.¹

What Goethe and those who followed him most sought to understand were the shared dispositions revealed by elective affinities. That is also a central goal of this book. For behind those affinities lies an internal tension about the place of Germans in the modern world that ran across multiple generations and persisted through all the political regimes and the most radical ruptures in modern German history—from the early nineteenth century through the so-called Age of Extremes.²

Scholarly efforts to engage the relationship between continuity and rupture in modern German history have long been plagued by teleologies. Most recently, for example, Helmut Walser Smith sought to expose the profound roots of what took place in Nazi Germany by sketching out the chronological depth and the historical connections of nation, race, and religion from the Nazi period back to the sixteenth century.³ However, as Alon Confino and Dieter Langewiesche astutely noted, Smith’s narrow method was so focused on revealing the historic roots of the National Socialist discourse of annihilation that it often ignored narratives and evidence that might call that putative continuity into question.⁴

A central problem with Smith’s project was his desire to reach back in time for the antecedents of a historic event and his willingness to label continuity what might better be thought of as repeated similarities, each of which had singular meanings defined by their particular contexts. To Confino’s mind, a preferable approach to the problem of continuities in German history would be to conceive of German culture as made up of a repertoire of symbols and memories that were differently adapted, adopted, and changed as each generation chose certain elements within the constraints of the evolving tradition.⁵ The first example he suggested, as someone who had written extensively on the topic, was the idea of Heimat, which persisted across the modern era, and which, as he and others have demonstrated, took up radically different resonances in different political eras.⁶

This book engages the problem of continuities and ruptures as well. For what began with an interest in Germans’ persistent fascination with American Indians ended with an appreciation for how analyses of consistent or persistent dispositions within German (and, by implication, other) cultures can inform our investigations of particular events. There is no question that Germans’ affinities for American Indians resonated differently within different historical contexts; but there is also no question that these affinities retained certain consistent characteristics that reveal persistent dispositions, moods, and attitudes within German cultures over a long period of time and across a geographic space that extended far beyond Germany’s national borders.

Indeed, behind these elective affinities was an ongoing conflict within German cultures about Germans’ place in the modern world—a conflict that was driven, to some degree, by the melancholy recognition that Germans were both victims and proponents of the homogenizing forces of modern Western civilization. This is not the kind of ideological continuity sought by Smith and so many others, and allowing this and other persistent dispositions to emerge and inform our historical examinations is not an attempt to describe how earlier actions necessarily lead to later ones. Rather it is an effort to underscore how consistent, repetitive actions by people associated with a culture can reveal equally persistent dispositions within that culture, which not only have an explanatory power that is often overlooked but also, in turn, unveil histories long overshadowed by those driven by nations, states, and scholars’ all-too-frequent focus on political ideology.


If I had known that this book would take so long to complete, I might well have pursued something else: a life history, a state history, a take on an era, something with a more explicit beginning, middle, and end. There were many times when I cursed myself for not choosing a topic with a finite set of sources located in a tidy, accessible archive. Transnational and transcultural histories, I quickly learned, pose particular challenges—but they also offer significant rewards. Pursuing this project, for example, forced me to engage a range of unanticipated topics: German settler colonialism in the American Midwest, the rise and fall of German America, and the transnational world of American Indian performers and postwar activists, not to mention comparative genocides, persistent notions of masculinity, and the ways in which a range of American Indians helped to channel and shape German notions of human difference. Perhaps most importantly, this project has pushed me to think hard about the relationships between continuities and ruptures in modern German history and to rethink the ways in which we conceive of and write cultural history.

I am grateful that I had the chance to engage in this research, particularly because it put me in contact with so many generous people. I am also thankful for the institutional support I received and for the insights I gleaned into American Indian studies, American history, and many new realms of German and European history. Those areas were only at the margins of my earlier inquiries; they were simply sparks of ideas I had gleaned from conversations with Peter Fritzsche and George Mosse, until I had the opportunity to pursue them directly.

That opportunity was created through the support of the American Philosophical Society, the Center for Contemporary Historical Research (ZZF) in Potsdam, The George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation at Brown University, the German Academic Exchange, the German Historical Institution in Washington, D.C., the Max Planck Institute for History in Göttingen, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The University of Missouri Research Board supported my initial inquiries, while the University of Iowa’s International Programs and Arts and Humanities Initiative proved crucial along the way. I could never have completed all the necessary research trips without them. I am particularly indebted to the University of Iowa for granting me a Faculty Scholar Fellowship. That fantastic program allowed me to develop the project to its full potential. Without it, this book would have taken much longer to complete.

The number of people who eagerly assisted me is so large that I cannot list them all here. Countless archivists and librarians aided me, and many scholars helped me along the way. I am grateful for their assistance. I benefited from comments on earlier versions of these chapters during meetings of the American Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association, the American Indian Workshop, the American Society for Ethnohistory, and the German Studies Association, as well as presentations in Berlin, Erfurt, Konstanz, Minneapolis, Munich, Montreal, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Potsdam, Seville, Washington, D.C., and Iowa City. The diverse and engaged publics that showed up to my presentations on the Dakota Conflict at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota were especially heartening and instructive. So too were the students at the University of Minnesota in Morris.

Indeed, the striking number of people from outside academics who have assisted me has been humbling. They have greatly enriched this book. People such as Ted Asten, Bernd Damisch, Joachim Giel, Max Oliv, and Wolfgang Seifert invited me into their homes, fed me, looked through materials with me, and introduced me to numerous interlocutors. Chuck Trimble offered me much more of his time than I ever could have expected. So too did Arthur Amiotte, Klaus Biegrt, Curtis Dahlin, Ann Davis, Joe and Janice Day, Richard Erdoes, Roswitha Freier, Andre Köhler, John LaBatte, Nick McCaffery, Lindberg Namingha, Angelika Powell, Uli Sanner, Cindy Sapp, Milo Yellowhair, Joe Whiting, Gerry Wunderlich, and so many others. A special word of thanks has to go to Hartmut and Heidi Rietschel. Their kindness and generosity seems boundless, their enthusiasm for the topic endless, and Hartmut’s knowledge of American Indians’ activities in Europe is simply astonishing; he never ceases to amaze. Respekt.

A number of my colleagues also deserve special thanks. Everything would have been much, much harder without the openness and assistance of Peter Bolz, who I suspect knows much more about this topic than anyone else. I also learned a great deal from Eric Ames, Randall Bytwerk, Siegrid Deutschlander, Christian Feest, Curtis Hinsley, Greg Johnson, Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, Karl Markus Kreis, Bradley Naranch, Mark Peterson, Paul Chaat Smith, Alina Dana Weber, and Thomas Weber. All of them happily shared their work with me. Others went to even greater lengths. Maiken Umbach has been tireless in her support. Fred Hoxie, Suzanne Marchand, and Lynn Nyhart read the entire manuscript and flooded me with critical suggestions. Chuck Grench was patient enough to wait for years for the book to be completed, recognizing its importance when it was only an idea. Andrew Zimmerman provided me with critical insights during the final phase of writing, and so too did two anonymous reviewers for UNC Press. My family deserves my thanks as well. They have put up with a lot: being dragged across the Dakotas, the Southwest, and much of Germany, being left alone for long periods of time, or being ignored during far too many nights when all they heard from me was the annoying typing in another room. That is, unfortunately, part of the enterprise, but that makes me no less grateful for their patience.

Kindred by Choice

Introduction Beyond the Buckskin

Germania is separated from the Gauls and from the Raeti and Pannonii by the Rhine and Danube rivers, from the Sarmatians and Dacians by the barrier of mutual fear or mountain ranges. The other parts, with their broad promontories and vast islands, are surrounded by the Ocean; in recent times war has revealed the existence there of nations and kings unknown before.

—TACITUS, Germania, 98 C.E.

In August 2006, I arrived in a forest clearing outside of Cottbus, a German city near the Polish border, to join approximately a thousand Germans dressed like nineteenth-century North American Indians. Hundreds of teepees, many of them quite old, were set in clusters around the meadow. As I walked to my hosts’ teepee, small children in breechcloths or buckskin dresses ran past me with bows and arrows to swim naked in the nearby lake. Their grandparents, in similar attire and with the same intention, trailed closely behind. Traders had already set up tables on the side of the encampment, selling the porcupine skins needed for the quillwork that adorned many of these peoples’ garments, as well as newly tanned leather, a variety of horns, hatchets, knives, trade beads and cloth, and the latest literature on contemporary American Indians, their ancestors, and their arts and crafts. Men dressed as Cheyenne Dog Soldiers patrolled the perimeter, keeping tourists at bay, and ensuring that no one, with the exception of myself, entered the area in present-day clothing. Cars and trucks used to transport these people, their belongings, and the thousands of teepee poles required for the meeting were tucked behind a hill at a distance. Once settled in the clearing, these hobbyists spent a week gossiping and socializing—exchanging information about their handicrafts, rituals, and historic events; trading artifacts; and taking classes in leatherwork, beadwork, and Lakota. They participated in daily gatherings that allowed them to demonstrate their knowledge of artifact production, dancing, or drumming, and they held a special ceremony to commemorate this thirtieth annual gathering of the hobbyist clubs in the former East Germany (GDR).

FIGURE 1. A group of Kit Foxes announcing the beginning of the opening ceremonies at The Week during the summer of 2006. Near Cottbus, on the German-Polish border. (Photo by the author)

The Week, as participants call it, is not an isolated event. It is one accentuated manifestation of the pervasive fascination with North American Indians among Germans. Shared by men and women alike, this fascination cuts across political, confessional, social, and generational boundaries. It is also much more than a current, postmodern enchantment with the primitive. It has persisted across a strikingly longue durée.

During the early nineteenth century, stories set among American Indians became popular in German-speaking Central Europe. Literature about them became ubiquitous. The fantastic success of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales is perhaps the most poignant example: the first volume was quickly translated into German in 1826, and it was ultimately condensed with the four following volumes into a single tome, released in abbreviated versions for children, and put through countless new editions during the next decades. It became, in fact, a classic of German literature, familiar to the literate classes in all German states across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.¹ The Leatherstocking Tales was followed by a host of other, similar translations from English, French, and Spanish, which appeared in German periodicals and as swiftly consumed monographs. A series of German travel writers and novelists built on the success of those stories. By writing about American Indians, they became best-selling authors over the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The most prominent of these was Karl May, whose books sold more than seventy million copies by the 1980s, about twenty million more than the best-known American author of westerns, Louis L’Amour. The enthusiasm continued during the postwar period and moved rapidly into other media. May’s books, for example, inspired West Germany’s most popular set of movies; a similar set was fantastically successful in East Germany; and in 2003, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification, The Manitou’s Shoe, a spoof on those popular films, broke all records in the German film industry.

Such successes seem astonishing until we recognize that by the end of the nineteenth century thinking about American Indians had become integral to German cultures. They not only were a popular subject among German novelists and other writers but were incorporated into the production of toys, theater, circus, high and low art, and the new cinema. Across Imperial, Weimar, and later Nazi Germany, children of all ages and both genders played Indian, emulating the characters from Cooper and May and the people they encountered in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, in German circuses, and with other impresarios who sought to capitalize on Germans’ fascination with Native America. Adults played Indian as well, and not simply those individuals who joined the first hobby clubs in the early twentieth century. Artists such as Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, and Rudolf Schlichter, for example, turned to their childhood engagement with American Indians while dealing with their personal crises and the crises of modernity.² Art historian Aby Warburg traveled to the Hopi and Zuni Pueblos for the same reason;³ the artist Max Ernst, the psychiatrist Carl Jung, and ethnologists Karl von den Steinen and Paul Ehrenreich followed. Adolf Hitler remained in Germany; but he continued to read Karl May’s Winnetou for insights into crisis situations, recommending it to his general staff during the battles of World War II.⁴ Indians, in short, became deeply ingrained in German cultures during the nineteenth century, their stories became ciphers for modern struggles during the twentieth century, and that long cultural history continued unabated through the postwar era, resurfacing during Cold War clashes, peace protests, environmental movements, esoteric musings, and the persistent settings of backyard play and hobbyists’ camps. The unrelenting breadth and depth of this preoccupation are astounding.

It is also well documented. Journalists have been writing about it for decades. Indeed, they have repeatedly discovered it with elation.⁵ The spectacle of Germans emulating American Indians is particularly titillating and hard to resist. Writing about this obsession, especially the hobbyist meetings, is guaranteed to generate smirks and laughter among readers, even righteous anger from some, and that is a recipe for publishing success: those reactions have allowed reporters as well as scholars to reap attention from the sensation and then position themselves to disclose astute revelations.

Spectacular Copy

In August 2000 Daniel Rubin, a reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers and the Kansas City Star, attempted to harness the spectacle produced by a group of hobbyists near Stolpe, Germany, by focusing on one man, Jörg Diecke, forty-four, whom he found dressed in the handcrafted clothing a Hidatsa warrior might have worn on the Great Plains 150 years ago. As Rubin showed, however, Diecke was neither a social misfit nor insane. His wife was a dentist, and his compatriots included doctors, engineers, cooks, and scholars. He was, if we were to believe the reporter, the product of an odd national politics. As Rubin explained, Diecke and other East German hobbyists had been weaned on state-sanctioned history books that endorsed viewing American Indians as freedom-loving heroes struggling against oppression; they watched movies in which Indians were the good guys and claimed to be engaged in serious business. As Diecke put it, ‘We do not play at being Indians.’⁶ Rather they sought to learn from them, and they were eager to act in solidarity with American Indians whenever possible. Eccentric exhibitionist behaviors shaped by a wayward socialist dictatorship? This was spectacular copy indeed.

Diecke’s rhetoric and actions, however, were old news; so too, for that matter, were Rubin’s queries. East German reporters wrote similar essays about these clubs in the 1970s and 1980s.⁷ West German reporters recorded essentially the same answers from hobbyists near Cologne in the 1960s;⁸ American reporters had already been there as well. In the 1950s, Charles Belden, the cowboy photographer from Wyoming, traveled to Germany in search of the hobbyists, establishing a tradition of inquiry and response around the sensation of the clubs that continues until this day.⁹ Indeed, in 1996 alone, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal all ran similar essays on Germans’ fascination with American Indians; and Elizabeth Neuffer’s piece on hobbyists in the Globe also appeared under different titles in the Rocky Mountain News (Denver), the Commercial Appeal (Memphis), and the St. Louis Dispatch. She too quoted Jörg Diecke (then only forty), stressed the putative seriousness of his group’s endeavors, and covered essentially the same terrain that Rubin would cover four years later.¹⁰

Spectacular Clichés

Despite hobbyists’ explanations for their interests and behavior, and the possible implications those explanations could have for our understanding of the production of knowledge, the continuing importance of self-edification in German cultures, or even Germans’ persistent interests in non-Europeans, the sensation has always appealed to reporters much more than the sober discussions. It is the spectacle that continues to drive journalists to hobbyist camps and their annual meetings in order to posit the same puzzled questions again and again until many hobbyists, irritated by the visits, much like some of the American Indians they emulate, have grown accustomed to the attention and have learned to receive their inquisitors with well-rehearsed answers, if they agree to receive them at all.

One characteristic of these reports is typical of even the most scholarly analyses of Germans’ interests in American Indians: they harness multiple enticing clichés. As Susanne Zantop noted, such analyses are replete with a focus not only on clichéd and stereotypical depictions of American Indians by hobbyists and others but also on stereotypical accounts of Germans and their national character or alleged (sinister) motivations.¹¹ Literary scholar Katrin Sieg’s essay on West German hobbyists, written about the same time as Rubin’s column, is exemplary. Theoretically sophisticated and analytically incisive, Sieg nevertheless assumed that some sinister notion of Germanness was being worked out through hobbyist actions. On the basis of a small number of interviews, and eschewing the kinds of ambivalences at the heart of Eric Lott’s masterful work on ethnic transvestitism in antebellum American minstrelsy,¹² Sieg attempted to argue that Germans’ impersonations of American Indians were essentially masked attempts to cope with the guilt of the Holocaust as well as the widespread shame and resentment provoked by the accusations brought against Germans in the international war crimes tribunals and the denazification procedures. Embodying Zantop’s lament, Sieg argued that donning American Indian garb from the nineteenth century somehow allowed Germans to align themselves with the victims and avengers of genocide, rather than its perpetrators and accomplices. That was an unfortunate conclusion. For Sieg’s assertions not only lacked a historical understanding of the many motivations that drove German hobbyists, before, during, and after the period of National Socialism but also failed to recognize the long history of German condemnation of the United States’ efforts to eradicate American Indians, which predated the 1950s by a century.¹³ She has hardly been alone.¹⁴

As Rubin showed, explanations driven by links to historical guilt and diabolical states are also easily, and sometimes all too gleefully, tied to the GDR. Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer’s recent book on hobbyists in former East Germany, for instance, is driven by the assumption that the GDR’s ominous character best explains East German hobbyists’ actions and behaviors. Dependent on a small number of extreme statements by a few participants (they too interviewed Diecke), and spurred by their fascination with the secret police (Stasi) and its interest in these groups, the book’s conclusions that East German hobbyists were drawn to the study of American Indians because the GDR was its own kind of reservation are foregone in the first pages. Much like Sieg, they leave little room for either historical continuities or social and cultural explanations unhinged from the parameters of nation-states and national identities. Indeed, they seem blithely unaware that the hobbyist scene is a phenomenon that has persisted across many chronological and political borders, including the so-called Iron Curtain.¹⁵ Despite that, and because of their eagerness to exploit the sensation of East Germans dressing in feathers, their book has been quite successful; the German television network ZDF even based a special on it.¹⁶

It is my contention, however, that the German fascination with American Indians has much to teach us about German cultures, transnational and transcultural histories, relationships between Europeans and non-Europeans, connections between state-sponsored efforts to gain influence and territory and informal settlement projects, and more. At the very least, it should remind us that German history is not always already driven by nations and states—even if it does flow through them—and it promises to help us rethink, even respatialize, the understanding of Germany and German history by connecting the indeterminacy and incompleteness of the German nation-state inside Europe with the sprawling diversity of the German presence abroad. Achieving those ends, however, requires moving beyond the immediate spectacle of Germans in buckskin, beads, and feathers and outside the parameters of hegemonic historical narratives. Tied as they are to the spectacular lure of German Bürger dressed in buckskin dancing in open fields, and dependent on the limiting parameters of nationalism and the nation-state for their explanations, journalists and scholars continually overlook these people’s actual motivations for reproducing the material culture of another time and location and coming together to exchange information about places and peoples they may never see. There are, in fact, long historical explanations for their choice of kinships, if one looks past the glitz and the national paradigm, and critical implications for how we conceive and write cultural history.¹⁷

To reach those explanations and implications, however, we have to overcome many of our own prejudices about the very notion of adults playing Indian or thinking about American Indians and take these endeavors seriously. We have to be willing, for example, to soberly observe the behavior of German enthusiasts eagerly studying Lakota in a field outside Cottbus, listen to them asking their instructor the kinds of astute questions about grammar and pronunciation that would make any teacher’s heart swoon, and understand that so many of them have managed to gain enough knowledge of the language that people working in places like the Red Cloud School on the Pine Ridge Reservation no longer find it surprising to encounter groups of Germans speaking Lakota in their courtyard. That is not only curious and out of the ordinary; it is, by any estimation, impressive. The fact that many of the hobbyists who achieve those goals are also from the working classes, never attended a university, and yet have found the time and energy to devote themselves to such endeavors with verve and success make the implications all the thicker.

Such engagement with non-European languages and cultures has a long history in the German-speaking lands, and so too does the search for community embodied in the creation of associations such as those established by the hobbyists. Beyond the buckskin, teepees, feathers, and beads, one finds not only an insatiable interest in all things Indian but also multigenerational communities that have persisted through a series of political regimes in which people meet, marry, raise children, and learn and create rituals that gain critical importance in their lives. Indeed, an ethnographic view into these meetings provides a glimpse into the broader phenomena of Germans’ interests in American Indians, and an initial sense for the multifarious ways in which thinking about Indians has been a transcendent part of German cultures for a very long time.

On the most basic level, for the participants at The Week in Cottbus, who came overwhelmingly from the new German states of the former GDR, their particular community has persisted for generations, originating in the wake of World War I and continuing through the most radical ruptures in German political history. For many of them, that community is one thing, sometimes the thing, they were able to hold onto during times of repeated radical transformation, and it is something they have elected to do with great self-reflexivity. As with most groups of reenactors, or people engaged in revitalization movements, there is a hierarchy of authenticity and commitment that often holds sway in their meetings; but among many German hobbyists today there is also a growing sense of tolerance, a realization through decades of experience, that Europeans approach the study and emulation of American Indians in many ways, depending on their needs, and that those methods and the goals can change within individuals, not just from one person or one group to another. Their hobby is, in other words, both didactic and flexible, and a microcosm of the broader interests and needs that have fueled Germans’ long fascination with Native America.

Not all Germans who share that fascination have been moved to fashion teepees or moccasins. Indeed, most have not. Nevertheless, the eager consumers of the Cooper novels in the nineteenth century, those who poured over May’s books in the twentieth, the Weimar-era artists who returned to those narratives when trying to make sense of a fractured world, the Socialists and the Nazis who found different aspects of May’s work to admire but who all esteemed his central characters shared certain assumptions about the world—about nobility, masculinity, modernity, tragedy, and, most importantly, the human condition.

Those shared assumptions have been articulated in a variety of ways and with countless anecdotes. For example, during a public debate in 1956 over the suitability of Karl May’s books for socialist citizens of the GDR, one man recalled that in the spring of 1945, when Czech soldiers were searching houses in villages between Carlsbad and Eger, five young soldiers stormed into the house of an old man who had traveled much of the world and collected many things. They terrified the man and his wife, who expected the worst, until one of the soldiers suddenly stopped in front of his bookshelves, called to the others, and pointed to the sixty or so volumes of Karl May books collected there. The old man began to talk about the books until the first soldier sat on the arm of his chair with one of the books in his hand. They were captivated as he recalled visiting the old Karl May in Radebeul some forty years earlier. And when he spread out photos, maps, and books in front of them, the young men listened enthusiastically to his words because they had all read Karl May’s books in either Czech or German. Only after they realized that much time had passed did they remove themselves from this old man, returning his property to him, parting as friends, and leaving him with a comforting memory of this difficult time.¹⁸

The veracity of this particular tale is difficult to determine, but the general assertion that people could relate to each other in the most trying of circumstances through shared interests in particular topics and texts is indisputable. Indeed, a central position of this book is that such shared points of reference—texts and tales about American Indians, knowledge about fictional characters and historically prominent individuals, the notions that run through those shared ideas, the intersubjectivity they create, and the experience of thinking about American Indians and the American West—have provided consistency across individual Germans’ experiences of flux, rupture, and ebbing change that historians seeking to define and understand those changes often overlook.

It might strike readers as strange that many Germans felt such a strong affinity for American Indians over the past two centuries and that many of these Germans could and did turn to thinking about American Indians as a mode of dealing with crises and conflicts. It should not. Given American Indians’ extensive presence in German cultures over the past two centuries, thinking about them offered a wide variety of individuals a method of grounding themselves in particular moments, and in successions of moments, over extensive periods of time. And that is another point of the book: in many ways playing Indian or simply thinking about American Indians goes to the very base of being German during the modern period, perhaps even more so than being American.¹⁹


My own interest in this topic stemmed in part from growing up in a family that came largely from Oklahoma and claimed a variety of American Indians in its genealogy. Like many Oklahomans with a Caucasian phenotype, my mother told tales of growing up in a family with relatives who were American Indians. I heard much about the collection of objects—knives, bowls, bows, guns, and in particular a fine beaded vest—in my grandfather’s home, and of the tribal membership lost when his brother Wiley Gunter went drinking with the money meant to put the family on the Cherokee roles.

Genealogy is complicated. Moving back only five generations produces thirty-two ancestors, some of whom, in my family’s case, were tied to one or more of the tribes forced into Indian Territory during the nineteenth century. Somehow, even as a child, I knew that did not make me an Indian, but it did expose me to many personal stories from relatives like my aunt Maude, who reminisced about her childhood visits to Ben Whiteshield and his family near Canute, Oklahoma. I loved hearing how her father, whose hair extended to his waist, always let it down when he went to sit with the Indians in their teepees, and how the smoke from their fires almost burned out her eyes. Maude’s grandmother, and thus one of my great-grandmothers, was Maggie Triplet, a Cherokee, and according to Maude, a beautiful lady.

FIGURE 2. Charles E. Gunter and his vest near Pawnee, Oklahoma. (Property of the author)

Perhaps Maggie was the Indian princess my mother occasionally boasted about in ways that would have been familiar to Vine Deloria Jr. After World War II, he and other American Indian activists and scholars began noticing large numbers of whites eager to proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian descent. Cherokee, he remarked, was the most popular tribe of their choice, and people found them all over the United States, from Maine to Washington State. Most of these whites, he noted, also located those ancestors on their grandmother’s side. The reason, he argued, was that a male ancestor has too much of the aura of the savage warrior, the unknown primitive, the instinctive animal. . . . but a young Indian princess? Ah, there was royalty for the taking." At least Maggie Triplet was on my grandfather’s side and lived in Oklahoma. But she was a she, as Deloria would have expected, and what I learned in college from reading his Custer Died for Your Sins was not only that many white Americans wanted to claim a connection to American Indians but that the family of my childhood embodied a stereotype and lived a cliché.²⁰

In the early 1990s, while conducting the research for my book on the history of German ethnology, Deloria’s pronouncements made me sensitive to Germans’ reactions to my ancestry and to similar clichés and tropes about American Indians in Europe. German academics, archivists, and others commonly asked about my family’s origins when they learned that I spoke German and was interested in German history. When I confessed that I had no German lineage but rather stemmed from a mishmash of northwestern Europeans together with some smattering of American Indians, the reactions to the last bit were always the same: delight at being in the presence of a real Indian. My discomfort with that reaction quickly taught me to change my answer to simply some combination of English, French, and Welsh, even as I learned to pay more attention to Germans’ interests in all things Indian.

After a short time in Germany, I also began to puzzle about a conspicuous absence in my research. During the nineteenth century, German ethnology produced the world’s largest and most extensive ethnographic museums, some of its most impressive researchers, and even Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, who went on to attract a number of equally famous German American disciples, such as Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie. And yet there was a striking paucity of material from Native North America in German ethnographic museums.²¹ So few German researchers had traveled to the United States and Canada, and so much more attention had been paid to South America during the heyday of these institutions. In Cologne, for example, which placed its ethnographic collections in a building with a facade that included equal representations of an Asian, an African, and an American Indian (all male), only 3.4 percent of the collections came from North America. Those collections, however, were by far the museum’s greatest attraction in the postwar era.²² Conditions were initially similar in Stuttgart’s Linden-Museum.²³ In Berlin, with the most extensive collections from North America in Germany, which included materials from Frank Hamilton Cushing, Alice Fletcher, Fred Harvey, Clark Wissler, and one of the richest assemblies of nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest artifacts in the world, its North American collections were, if we are to trust the guidebooks and curators’ reports, overwhelmed by the rest of the collections. Indeed, it was not until the late 1990s that Peter Bolz was able to create a standing exhibit from those collections.²⁴

Later, I understood that this absence was a product of the history of ethnology and ethnological theory rather than a lack of interest among Germans of any class or character. I also learned that there are many things such elite institutions fail to tell us about the production of knowledge in a given culture or its relationships with particular groups of people.²⁵ In fact, focusing on them can be misleading. Nineteenth-century German ethnologists believed that more could be gleaned through expeditions to the relatively untouched areas of South America and the Pacific than from North America. As a result, the directors of the American collections in German museums almost always specialized in Central and South America, or sometimes the Arctic, while North America received only limited attention in those institutions despite the popular interest.

Indeed, it was only after unification when popular interest became critical for the funding of German ethnographic museums that those institutions began harnessing American Indians and their artifacts for pedagogical purposes, popular entertainment, and increased revenues.²⁶ Thus, when I returned to Germany to begin this project in 2001, I not only found Peter Bolz’s impressive exhibition on American Indian material culture and German cultural clichés in the Berlin museum;²⁷ I also found Hamburg’s ethnographic museum encircled on one side by teepees and a sweat lodge, while on the other side, in front of the corner closest to the street, the museum had acquired a new twelve-meter-long totem pole fashioned by David Seven Deers out of a six-hundred-year-old cedar tree. In those teepees, the director of the museum, Wulf Köpke, faced with an impending funding crisis,²⁸ had begun hosting overnight campouts for children, complete with authentic Indian tales, dance and drum lessons, a sweat, a mock bison hunt, and buffalo soup. The kitsch was astounding: With the old ceremonies and the smoking of the pipe, their advertisement promised, the children will be admitted into the Morningstar tribe.²⁹ Combined with that kitsch were overbearing gestures toward science, cultural exchange, and well-worn notions of authenticity—a Blackfoot artist from Montana painted one of the teepees for the museum.³⁰

In its bookstore, I was also able to buy one of the remaining copies of the picture book issued to accompany the most recent exhibition on the museumgoers’ favorite topic: Plains Indians.³¹ That controversial exhibition, which ethnologist Christian Feest deemed disgracefully underwhelming,³² touched all the most popular cords. It took place while Seven Deers, acting as his own living display, was completing his totem pole in the museum’s courtyard, and as the exhibit came to a close at the end of August 1997, his pole was set in place in front of the building with great fanfare.³³ To distance the exhibition of historical artifacts from the (some argued) dubious character of the Western sciences that had brought them to Hamburg, to decrease the protests of local activists, and to increase its claims to authenticity and political correctness, the exhibition was consecrated by a prayer from Buster Yellow Kidney, characterized as a wise, old medicine man from the Blackfoot nation in Montana, who had advised [the museum] during the creation of the exhibition. Yellow Kidney also granted the museum two interviews for the exhibit’s accompanying guide, in which he discussed his background and spiritual viewpoints, expressed his gratitude for being included, and explained how he, his wife, and David Seven Deers had prayed for the museum. He also discussed his concerns about Germans, whom he felt were in the midst of losing their traditions, and helped create a popular show out of a disgracefully underwhelming exhibition and boost visitor numbers, catalog sales, and the museum’s revenues as well.³⁴ It took museum directors in Germany much longer than other people to realize that they could effectively utilize Germans’ fascination with all things Indian for their own purposes. That action has been hotly debated. Yet there is no question that their successes spurred me to explore what was behind this enduring fascination: what were its origins, its characteristics, and its implications? The answers were more complex and poignant than I anticipated.

Elective Affinities

Many American Indians have long been aware of Germans’ interest in them.³⁵ For generations, American Indian performers have returned from Germany delighted with their substantial salaries and exceptional treatment.³⁶ They spread the word. At the same time, however, even residents of Canadian reserves and American reservations who never left their hometowns have also become keenly aware of Germans’ peculiar fascination for all things Indian—and not just through travelers’ tales.³⁷

Feel free to try this experiment: Ask a random selection of non-Native Americans about Karl May and his books and note the number of people outside of a university setting who have heard of him (probably not many). Then travel to one of the major reservations in the United States, such as the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and ask the same questions.

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