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Why Germany can't quit its racist Native American problem

February 26, 2020

More than 40,000 Germans participate in "Indian hobbyism" — reductive reenactments of Native life in the past. This form of appropriation is excused as well-meaning affection as Native voices are systematically silenced.

A hobbyist in Frankfurt
Image: Imago Images/Michael Schick

Across the country, Germans spent the past week celebrating Carnival, known for its parades, drinking, and colorful costumes ahead of the Lenten fast. There is a pervasive attitude that for these five days, Germans can shed their rigid cultural norms and adopt an "anything goes" policy.

Every year, pictures of some of the more racist trappings of Carnival, such as the use of blackface or "Chinese" costumes complete with conical hat, tend to face backlash both from mainstream culture and the country’s growing Asian and Afro-German communities.

However, the same cannot be said of the abundance of "Native American" costumes, a wildly popular choice in a country that has had a robust infatuation with Native stereotypes since the 1800s, made more popular by the works of beloved writer Karl May and his Winnetou character, the archetypal 'noble savage, 'and the 20th-century films depicting the character.

With no significant Indigenous population to resist these stereotypes, even well-educated and open-minded Germans will defend both the Carnival costumes and Native hobbyism as "honoring" a group of people with whom they have usually never come in contact.

LeAndra Nephin, an Omaha activist living in the UK, explained: "As we only represent less than 2% of the total population in the United States, here in Britain and throughout Europe we experience even greater invisibility."

When asked if such Native hobbyism is indeed a racist fetishization, Nephin noted that "what would be met with uproar in the United States is met with indifference here in Europe. Fetishizing goes unchecked, because there is a lack of representation, education, and awareness."

Read more: Carnival party in Bavaria sparks racism debate

Anti-Semitic tropes on display at centuries-old Carnival

Stuck in the past

In Germany, storybooks about Native people (always set in the past and usually about Plains nations) are much beloved, and so widespread is the interest that people often consider themselves experts. Hobbyists may spend decades researching a particular nation during a particular time period, dressing in highly accurate handmade costumes and spending entire weeks in the countryside living out their fantasies in like-minded groups. There are also people who refer to themselves as "plastic shamans" who may have spent months or even years learning different Indigenous religion practices and then claim to be healers and spiritual guides.

These practices "relegate us to a historical myth and is a disavowal of the differences," among the hundreds of Indigenous nations in North America, Nephin said.

Shea Vassar, a Cherokee writer, agreed, saying "it places us forever in a historical and mythical context."

"The biggest issue is the overall simplification of our cultures and the erasure inherent in 'playing Indian,' as if we were something mystical like a wizard. It's not like dressing up like an ancient Roman. We still exist."

Read more: 'Where are you from?' — Race and identity in Germany

Nephin agreed, calling cultural misappropration "nostalgia" that functions like a "pick and mix — they highlight the positives but not the oppression. It's very reductive, our modern realities are being erased."

Indeed, Native people are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States, with a population of about 5 million people. But in Germany, Indigenous North Americans remain relegated to the past, riding horses and shooting bows and arrows. The limited coverage of modern Native realities in Germany only portrays more up-to-date stereotypes, describing issues related to alcoholism or the hardships of life on some reservations.

Vassar sees this as a larger problem of representation in popular culture, saying that it by and large propagates the idea that Native people exist only in the past. Often, even in the very rare instance that Native characters are played by Indigenous actors, the story takes places in the past. This is of course the case with the Winnetou films (in which the Native characters are played almost exclusively by European and some Middle Eastern actors), the most recent of which came out in 2016.

Actors Karin Dor (l.) and Pierre Briece in "Winnetou"
Winnetou was traditionally played by French actor Pierre Brice, and in the 2016 made-for-TV revival by Albanian Nik Xhelilaj. The chief's daughter character pictured here, Ribanna, was played by German actress Karin Dor. Vassar says the over-sexualization of Native female characters is another painful stereotype that needs to be addressed.Image: picture-alliance

Why Germany? Color-blind racism and trauma

So why is Native cultural misappropriation so much more common in Germany than other nations that do not have a direct connection to the genocide commited against Indigenous North Americans?

D.S. Red Haircrow is an Apache and Cherokee writer, educator, and psychologist who has lived in Germany for 17 years. He recently released the documentary Forget Winnetou: Loving in the Wrong Way, an exploration of the particular psycho-societal issues behind Germany's racist infatuation.

Haircrow puts it down, in part, to Germans fulfilling a desire to return to something they lost when Christianity swept through Europe destroying many ancient pagan traditions, a wish to be close to nature, to be perceived as brave and able to take on the wilderness. It is also indicative, he says, of "a desire to step outside of the problematic issues of their German identity and history."

If that is how the passion began, then why has it continued so long after the end of World War II, when Germany declared that "never again" would it return to racist ideologies?

Many expats across the country note that talking about race in Germany is generally considered taboo. Sociologists say that as a result, a sort of color-blind racism has sprung up and become a widespread phenomenon. In mainstream culture, many people like to declare that they don't see race or religious differences. While this may be well-intentioned or an instinctive reaction to right the wrongs of the past, it has led not only to a silencing of minority voices but to allowing those who consider themselves progressive to take their eye off the ball.

Read more: German bakery selling blackface pastries stirs racism debate

German Native hobbyists
Researchers estimate that between 40,000 and 100,000 people across Germany participate in Native hobbyism in some capacity. Millions more read Native stories, often written by Germans, as children and develop a lifelong interest.Image: Imago Images/suedraumfoto

According to Haircrow, there is a deep "lack of understanding of racial categories," because of this.

"An intense effort to prove that they are over racism and anti-Semitism has led to a lot of erasure that is still going on within German society, which creates an even bigger divide between people of color and people of European ancestry. It's made a whole generation believe there is no such thing as race anymore," Haircrow said.

Compounding this issue is a resistance to being told that behavior such as the wearing of "Native headdresses" and the historicizing of a living group of people is harmful and wrong.

"There is an almost hysterical reaction to criticism, because they have been criticized for so long, and subjected to stereotyping themselves as Nazis," Haircrow added, "they think because they have been traumatized, they are allowed to say what they want now."

German history, Haircrow says, has made people compassionate and empathetic, and their interest in Native cultures "is sometimes an honest love and sympathy to our plight...but too often for their own advantage."

For Haircrow, hobbyism and plastic shamanism are "teaching white supremacist behavior in an indirect way," and for Nephin, "a form of modern day colonization, taking our arts, our beliefs, our traditions, and now saying it's a part of your identity too."

So deeply does it become part of the identity of some hobbyists, Haircrow said he has received immense resistance and even death threats from enthusiasts who consider themselves experts on Native traditions and feel he is taking away something they think they deserve to have, and sets them apart from other people.. Furthermore, many people, hobbyists and enthusiasts alike, do not want to travel to North America or engage with real Indigenous groups, lest it shatter their illusions.

Read more: 'Always derogatory?' — Germany battles over the N-word

A possible end for cultural appropriation

Nephin, Vassar and Haircrow all agree that education, particularly for young people, should be the foundation of a path away from cultural misappropriation and toward more respectful cultural exchange. Nephin and Vassar also stressed the importance of ally-ship from non-Natives, and the need to empower Native voices.

"First, though," Haircrow said, "Germany has to face the truth about itself, which it is so far refusing to do."

Nephin said she is hopeful, as the reaction she gets when she gives talks has been largely positive. "People are becoming more aware that we're not historical relics people want to learn more, want to live in a mutually respectful space."

Vassar believes that programs "putting young Native people behind the camera and the keyboard," might help both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, regardless of location, realize "we have so much going on in our communities right now that people don't even know about."

"There are so many wonderful people in the world," Haircrow said, "but they've been taught so many wrong things and they don't know how to be better. Those are the people that need to be reached, so they can learn it is possible and necessary to improve."

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.