Should We Be Offended That Germans Are Obsessed With North American Indigenous Culture?

There are more feathers and buckskin floating around those Teutonic hills than you’d think possible. Drew Hayden Taylor, Author

Jerry Lewis used to say that he lived in America, but France (where he was adored) was his home. Sometimes I feel the same way, except with Canada and Germany. During the last 25 years, I have toured Germany sixteen times, lecturing on topics including Indigenous theatre, literature, storytelling, humour, culture and sexuality.

In fact, I have more than likely seen more of Germany than most Germans — from the Baltic to Bavaria, Potsdam to Trier, and everywhere in-between. It’s a beautiful country with fabulous people. And like all fabulous people, they can have their own…idiosyncrasies.

I know of no other people in the world with a greater fondness and interest in North American Indigenous culture than the Germans. They have their own theatre about us, their own movies and even their own powwows. Thanks to that famous German sense of know-how and efficiency, sometimes it seems like they could ‘out-Indian’ us. Almost.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: 'The people doing this are not bad people. Maybe a little misguided.'
A Fandom Unique to Germany

It’s fandom on the scale of Harry Potter mania, but on a national level. I dare say there are more feathers and buckskin floating around those Teutonic hills than you’d think possible. Sure, it’s quite flattering and amusing. It’s also a little…odd. Even off-putting. Imagine Germans fancy dancing during grand entry into their own pow wow. Faux Lakota and Apache warriors sharing some schnitzel and pilsner while discussing their local soccer team. Dream catchers and medicine wheels hanging from vendors at Christmas markets. I have seen all of these things, and each time, if possible, my jaw drops lower.

Appropriation vs Appreciation
Cultural appropriation is the taking from another culture, without permission, and reducing their history, art, and rituals to mere fashion or toys. The key word is permission. Yellow-face for Halloween is gross appropriation. Signing up for a Tai Chi class is not.

All this began almost 140 years ago when a man named Karl May wrote a series of adventure books called Winnetou that detailed the adventures of an Apache warrior, along with his good buddy, a German sidekick named Shatterhand. Together, over several volumes, they fought bad guys – both white and Native, travelled the wild west, became blood brothers, and set the stage for a multi-generational fascination for an entire nation.Thus a craze was born. It should be pointed out that famously, this German supposedly never made it across the pond to visit the land he wrote about so successfully. His Native people were creations of sheer imagination peppered with bits and pieces of the odd research.

Germans dress like they imagine Indigenous people do

Every trip I have taken to Germany has increased my amazement concerning this...dare I say…fetishism. I have met people who eagerly dress like they imagine Native people do…albeit not in jeans, t-shirts, sneakers and a fitbit watch we all recognize today on your typical First Nation member. Instead, they dress in outfits more recognizable from the mid-1800’s. Or, more accurately, more recognizable from a movie set taking place in the mid-1880’s. Frequently, as is in real life, the fantasy clashes with the reality. And just as frequently, I am often the bearer of bad news.

Leiderhosen vs Headdress Why is one okay and the other not? It comes down to historical power dynamic. Bavarian Germans have not suffered systemic racism in the same way the First Nations have. Parodying or mocking oppressed people is fundamentally different from parodying and mocking powerful people.

Let’s take race out of it: Doing sketches on TV about how dumb and out of touch millionaire president Donald Trump is are funny. Doing sketches about how dumb and out of touch a laid off auto worker is just mean...and not funny. Racism flows down, humour flows up.

As part of my travels around the country, I feel that I need to provide some basic education in Contemporary Indigenous Culture 101. I/we do not live in teepees, I tell them. It seems that is disappointing. We do not hunt buffalo. Again, disappointing. Most of us do not ride horses. Really disappointing. The horrible truth is, only a few of the hundreds of nations scattered across Turtle Island did any of those things. We come from varied and differing communities, all with their own ways of living on Mother Earth. This is like saying all Germans were Bavarians. And of course, the ultimate irony is, I actually look more German than Indigenous. That raises the confusion level somewhat substantially.

New generation, new understanding

One of the things I find interesting is the difference in perception between the younger generation and the older one. It is those who are in their late 30s or older that hold on to those romanticized images. It’s they who populate the pow wows and the theme parks. After all, that romanticized image is what they grew up with.

It’s the younger generation I find myself speaking to in universities that have a genuine interest and understanding of the Indigenous identity. Their perceptions are more modern and flexible. They are the ones who know about the problems concerning land issues, cultural erosion, social and political difficulties. I once attended a conference in Marburg which featured talks about complex issues like Quebec-Mohawk relationships (it was the ‘90s), the impact the James Bay Agreement had on the Cree and Innu, and other matters that were far above my little playwright’s head.

I love my trips to Germany and hope to continue spreading the gospel of Native existence as long as they will continue to invite me. My sad conclusion is, in many ways, Indigenous people are more accepted and embraced there, than a lot of places over here.

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning author, playwright and columnist who writes about Indigenous issues.  He travels to Germany in Searching for Winnetou.