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Karl May Museum Kopfhaut
Image: Mark Worth

Karl May Museum hangs on to Native American scalp

Ben Knight
February 2, 2016

The Karl May Museum in eastern Germany is hanging on to a Native American scalp in its collection, despite a Chippewa claim. A new report questions the story of the scalp's acquisition that its co-founder wrote.


Despite a media controversy, appeals from German celebrities and lengthy talks with Native American representatives, the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, eastern Germany, remains reluctant to return a Native American scalp in its collection.

This is according to an interim report commissioned by the museum to look into the origins of the scalp, published in December. The report was sent to the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and said that the museum believes there is no solid evidence of the story of the acquisition of the scalp - written by the museum's own co-founder and former director Patty Frank - so there was no way of ascertaining which tribe it belonged to. Until the controversy began, the museum itself had been advertising the scalp as being Ojibwe, another name for the Chippewa Indians.

Robin Leipold, the researcher leading the museum's investigation, claimed that working out the origin of the scalp required complicated, in-depth research of written sources. "A claim should be taken seriously," he told DW. "All indigenous groups have the right to claim back their artifacts when they're human remains, but first we have to find out what they are and where they come from."

The Sault Tribe's repatriation specialist Colleen Medicine was clearly disappointed. "The Karl May Museum report seemed focused on disproving the Sault Tribe's claim to repatriation. Although that was to be expected given their attitude towards the idea of repatriation," she told DW in an email. "Instead, I was hopeful for the report to be working towards proving the claim in order to do the right thing for the human Ancestral remains at hand."

Karl-May-Museum Radebeul bei Dresden
A US visitor to the museum alerted the Chippewa officers to the scalpImage: DW/B. Knight

Dignity after death

The Sault Tribe's former repatriation specialist Cecil Pavlat suspects that the museum does not want to return the scalp because "they don't want to set a precedent," but Leipold insists this isn't true. "It's not about that," he said. "It has nothing to do with whether we are generally against returns, or against repatriation. There is still the question what kind of repatriation it should be. There are so many different forms of it nowadays, it doesn't have to be a return. The question is who has the right to claim things back? That's the crucial point here."

For the Sault Tribe, the museum is deliberately obfuscating the issue - they argue that ascertaining exactly who the scalp belonged to is beside the point, because they have the support of other tribes to bring home the remains. Indeed, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has signed a resolution acknowledging the Sault Tribe's responsibility to try to return them. According to Pavlat, that means "every Tribe in the United States has agreed that our Tribe accepts responsibility to bring these Ancestors home. So, with this support, their argument of not wanting to give to the wrong Tribe doesn't fly."

"It is a human rights issue,§ said Colleen Medicine. "And we believe that every human has the right to an appropriate and respectful burial. I understand the tight position that the museum is in, but I cannot see how they can keep denying a human being the right to a burial. Not only denying this human the right to a burial but also finding every reason why that decision makes sense."

Unreliable story?

The scalp in question was once part of a collection belonging to Ernst Tobis, AKA Patty Frank, an Austrian traveler, sometime acrobat, a student of Native American culture, and an ardent fan of the German author Karl May, who penned a set of hugely popular Wild West adventure books in the late 19th century. Tobis gave his collection of scalps to May's widow in 1925 before co-founding the museum with her in 1928.

The history of the Karl May Museum, published on the Karl May Foundation website, detailed how Tobis bought the first the scalp in 1904 - what he called "the most sought-after collector's item." On a night-time trip to an Indian reservation, Tobis held "tough negotiations" with Dakota chief Swift Hawk, "who had won the scalp in a fight with an Ojibwe," and bought the "trophy" for two bottles of whiskey, a bottle of apricot brandy, and $1,100 (1,000 euros). Now the museum claims that this story may have been invented.

Around five years ago, a US visitor noticed the scalps on display in the museum and drew them to the attention to the US embassy and a number of Native American groups, including the Ojibwe Nation.

A minor media furore ensued, and one former actor from the German film adaptation of Karl May's books called for the scalps to be returned. In response to the protests, the museum removed the scalps from display, agreed to meet the Sault Tribe, and promised to set up an investigation into the origin of the scalps.

Prärieindianer-Familie ausgestellt im Karl May Museum
The Karl May Museum contains many Native American artifactsImage: Karl May Museum Radebeul

A number of independent experts were enlisted to investigate, including Peter Bolz, an ethnologist who had managed the North American collection at the ethnology museum in Berlin. "In his statement, Peter Bolz questions the information in Patty Frank's story, because no evidence can be found for it," the report said. "Bolz rates the truth content of the story as not provable, and considers an invention of the story as plausible."

But the Sault Tribe prepared its own report, which included an assessment of the scalp by Wesley L. Andrews of the Odawa Indians, who concluded that while its precise origin couldn't be proved, it was "almost certain that it is of a Native American person." "[The Sault Tribe's] lead in this endeavor is important to achieve the goal of maintaining the cultural integrity and well-being in our relationship with the ancestors to whom we owe a deep debt. It is also the right thing to do, and I hope that the German people will walk this path with us," Andrews wrote.

Long-term work

Leipold admitted that Germany still has a long way to go when it comes to repatriating cultural artifacts. "Germany slept too long," he said. "Australia and the US are much further." Germany, unlike the US, doesn't have laws to regulate such cases - instead, it has only recommendations from the German Museums Association which Leipold says the museum is following.

German ethnologist Andreas Schlothauer was sympathetic to the museum's problem, and trusted that they would work transparently and conscientiously. "The museums are generally worried as soon as anyone expresses themselves in public," he told DW. "Most of the major German ethnological museums have scalps. Of course, they're all keeping quiet now. They're glad that it's hit Radebeul and not them."

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