Saskatchewan·Q&A

'An amazing, bizarre thing': Documentary looks at German interest in First Nations culture

Drew Hayden Taylor's latest work looks at the Germany's 'Indian Week' and the large German interest in North American First Nations culture

Drew Hayden Taylor said there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation

Drew Hayden Taylor's new documentary explores Germany's fascination with — and treatment of — First Nations culture. 

Searching for Winnetou looks at the fine line between appreciation and appropriation of Indigenous traditions.

You may have heard that many Germans have a strong interest in First Nation's culture. Author and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor looks at this in a new documentary and finds out it often goes way beyond "strong interest." 8:35

Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger said the documentary was an eye opener and asked Taylor what he learned while making it. 

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Drew Hayden Taylor: Where to begin? 

It all goes back to the writings of a man named Karl May in late 1800s, a German writer, practically the most successful German writer in history. He wrote a series of Westerns idealizing a native Apache warrior named Winnetou and his adventures with a German side kick named Old Shatterhand.

These books were so successful they were turned into movies, they were turned into huge elaborate plays that just permeated the last six or seven generations of German people and became so ingrained in the culture that they just sort of makes certain facets of the German culture want to dress up as Indigenous people, participate in German powwows, all these different things.

But the irony is the vast majority of them sort of dress up as 1880 Indigenous people.

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright, novelist and filmmaker. (drewhaydentaylor.com)

Stefani Langenegger: What's it like to see a bunch of Germans putting on a powwow?

DHT: It's quite surreal because here in Canada — North America in general — you have this whole issue of cultural appropriation, of non-native people taking elements of our culture and profiting from them or utilizing them for their own needs.

In this particular situation, you're sort of going back and forth between is this appropriation or appreciation, sitting here watching the Germans in full headdresses and elaborate beaded regalia. In fact, there are three North American Indigenous people who are brought over and paid to be there and intermingle with the visiting audience who basically say that a lot of the German beadwork and regalia making is as good — if not better than — North American.

SL: So what did you find that other Indigenous people felt about this?

DHT: Most Native people that I've talked to about this, there's a certain whimsical rolling of the eyes and laughter. Like, those wacky, silly Germans. There's not really the same sense of appropriation you would get here. Usually it's sort of a bemusement if nothing else.

It's difficult to explain because the thing with cultural appropriation is people taking something without permission for their own specific use either to profit from it or have a good time or whatever. With the Germans, it's actually seriously some form of hero worship more than anything else.

There are some First Nations people who just kind of have a complete dislike and have issues with the whole thing in general on principle which is very understandable. But the vast majority of Native people I've met who have been to Germany or have met Germans just sort of, as I said, roll our eyes and laugh at this sort of form of hero worship.

A Bavarian farmer is fascinated by Native North American culture, like many German.s 0:59

SL: Did anything surprise you to when you were making this documentary?

DHT: You see these departments that they have at the Indian week. There are two-storey wooden teepees that you can rent for something like €160/night.

One of the other interesting things I found was this woman who has a company, this German woman who doesn't speak any English, and the company basically builds teepees for all of Europe. You tell her how much square footage you want, she has these machines that cut and sew canvas and she can have a teepee out to you in less than a week. It's just weird.

SL: What do you hope people take away from watching your documentary on this?

DHT: Well I know there's a natural sense to feel violated or insulted by this and I fully understand that. As I said it's a complicated issue.

The spirituality behind the eagle feather and behind a lot of the regalia that dancers have, the Germans don't really have it. They're copying it very excellently but without the understanding of where it comes from. So that is a bit problematic for a lot of First Nations people. For me, for a lot of Native people it's just an amazing bizarre thing.

What I hope people will come away with is just sort of knowing, we were dealing in Canada very very frequently with some of the problems, some of the difficulties of being First Nations in this country, and the racism, etc. Over there, to the best of my knowledge, it's a completely different perception of First Nations people, almost a sense of hero worship.

I just wanted Canadians on a larger scale, both Native and non-Native, to understand this sort of weird window into the German psyche.

Stream Searching for Winnetou in its entirety here. (Available within Canada only)

With files from The Morning Edition