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Karl May Museum returns Native American human scalp

April 13, 2021

The museum dedicated to the famous author Karl May has returned a scalp from its collection to the Chippewa Indians seven years after an initial complaint.

A scalp long exhibited at the Karl May Museum
A scalp exhibited at the Karl May Museum is being returned to the Chippewa tribeImage: Stefan Kuhfs/dpa/Karl-May-Museum/picture alliance

Back in 2014, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from the US state of Michigan sent a letter of complaint to the Karl May Museum in the eastern German state of Saxony. 

A US visitor to the museum had alerted the tribe to an item on display there: a human scalp. 

The museum, which is dedicated to the works of legendary German "Wild West" writer Karl May, initially refused to return it, saying the staff could not ascertain its origins.

"This individual was taken without the authority to do so and placed in a museum to be shown like a picture on the wall," stated a 2015 report from the tribe, which set in motion a series of changes: a specially commissioned study, a new ethnographic specialist at the museum and mediation by the US State Department, which is now the custodian of the human remains on behalf of the Chippewa Indians. 

Headdresses and US Indigenous-themed exhibits at the Karl May Museum
Native American exhibits feature at the museum on account of May's Winnetou books Image: Hans Zaglitsch

On Monday, the museum returned the human remains to the consul general of the United States in Leipzig, Ken Toko, and to the cultural attache of the US Embassy, David Mees. "We welcome the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Karl May Foundation to agree to the return of an object sacred to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. This is an important step for the Karl May Museum in Radebeul and we look forward to future cooperation," said Toko at the ceremony. 

In the spirit of international understanding

"Over the past six years, extensive research has been conducted into the provenance of the human remains. No evidence of any wrongdoing or colonial origin has been confirmed. The Karl May Foundation decided to make this transfer of its own free will in the interest of international understanding and good cooperation with the Native Americans," said Volkmar Kunze, chairman of the board of the Karl May Foundation Radebeul during the ceremony.

Barbara Klepsch, Saxony's minister of state for culture and tourism, who was also present at the ceremony, echoed his words, adding that the state government has always supported the amicable solution in the spirit of humanity and respect for other cultures, "entirely in May's sense." 

A portrait of author Karl May in front of the Villa Shatterhand
The museum is located in Karl May's former home, in Radebeul, SaxonyImage: Matthias Hiekel/dpa/picture alliance

The story behind the scalp

The museum had previously posted its own story of the scalp's origin on its website: It  is said to have been donated in 1926, shortly before the museum opened, by Ernst Tobis, an eccentric Austrian world traveler who went by the name of Patty Frank, and who claimed to have acquired the scalp in exchange for two bottles of whiskey, a bottle of apricot brandy and $100. The Karl May enthusiast had bequeathed his collection of Native American artifacts to the museum. 

But, following the claim by the Chippewa, the museum removed the story, admitting that its truth couldn't be verified. 

Studies conducted by the museum and tribe couldn't determine with certainty to which Native American people it belonged. But since the feathers and amulets attached to the scalp were consistent with Sioux tradition, as determined in the 2015 Chippewa report, it was found that it could possibly have been "an Ojibwe person killed in combat."

Six years later, the museum finally acquiesced to the tribe's plea to "come together to mend the broken spirit of our Ancestor."

The museum still has a number of other scalps, some belonging to white people, whose origins are yet to be ascertained. In a previous interview with DW, museum director Robin Leipold said that it would decide on a case by case basis how to deal with these remains.

Bestselling author of his times

May wrote 70 books, which sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. May's stories took generations of young Germans on fantastic journeys to distant worlds. 

Among his best known characters was Old Shatterhand, a German engineer who together with his "blood brother," Winnetou, the "wise chief of the Apaches," fought against injustice and crime.

With the growing awareness surrounding the problematic fetishization of Native people, May's legacy is also being critically revisited. The author's interpretation of the Wild West was purely fantasy: At the time the story was written in 1875, he had never left Germany.

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture