Have you ever heard of a Native American chief named Winnetou?
Head of the Apache and Mescalero tribes, he was a great warrior and owner of the famous Silberbüchse, a double-barreled rifle decorated in silver studs.
Together with his blood brother Old Shatterhand he has been the subject of countless stories and legends, and to many people is the personification of the Wild West.
He is also entirely fictional, cooked up by Karl May, a German who had never been to America before he wrote the novels, much less the western frontier.
May and Winnetou were two of many subjects discussed by Southern Oregon University professors Ariel Tumbaga and Christiane Pyle during their Thursday lecture about depictions of Native Americans in communist societies – specifically the communist dictatorship in East Germany.
Tumbaga, an assistant professor of Language, Literature & Philosophy at SOU, began the lecture by briefly discussing depictions of Native Americans in contemporary American culture.
There are two main myths about Native Americans, Tumbaga explained. The first is the “indigenous warrior” myth, where Native Americans are regarded as warriors of exceptional prowess and cunning. Tumbaga pointed out that while some tribes did have aggressive tendencies, such as the Yaqui people during the Yaqui-Mexican War, it wasn’t accurate to apply those characteristics to all Native American tribes.
The second is the “noble savage” myth, which Tumbaga explained was the assumption that all native people are more in tune with nature and the earth, and have an enhanced sense of spirituality. While this may partially be true, Tumbaga said, “to assume that all Native American tribes and all Native American peoples are in touch with the earth is overly simplifying it.”
Tumbaga then turned the podium over to Pyle, an SOU German instructor, who explained the German people’s fascination with Native Americans.
It all started, Pyle said, when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to England in 1887 to perform for Queen Victoria. Among the audience was the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was so impressed by the show that he had several hundred Native Americans imported into Germany from reservations in the United States. These people, Pyle explained, were then set up in human zoos and told to act like Native Americans. These exhibitions were open to the German public day and night, so they could come by at any time and see how Native Americans ate or slept.
“[But] Germans were not just obsessed with Native American shows,” said Pyle. “They also ate up stories from the west and from the frontier.”
Pyle went on to talk about Karl May and his characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, who were wildly popular at the turn of the century and remain so today. May’s books have spawned countless television shows and movies, and he was the favorite author of Einstein, Kafka, Albert Schweitzer, Fritz Lang, and even Hitler.
The obsession with Native Americans wasn’t limited to dime-a-dozen pulp westerns though. Franz Kafka, one of the most influential German writers in history, wrote “The Wish to be a Red Indian,” a piece from his book “Meditation.”
Clubs began forming across Germany devoted to recreating the Wild West, said Pyle. Germans would dress up as Native Americans or cowboys and live in tepees, dressed in colorful regalia. Usually each club modeled itself after a certain tribe, such as the Apache people, the Navajo, or the Comanche.
When Hitler came to power, Pyle said, he leveraged the German people’s obsession by appropriating Native American culture toward his own ends. Native Americans suddenly became Aryans, and came to represent the ideals of Nazi Germany. When it became obvious that Germany was losing the war Hitler had May’s books shipped to the trenches, Pyle said, in the hopes that it would raise morale.
After the fall of the Third Reich the country was divided into capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany. The communist dictatorship in East Germany took a page out of Hitler’s playbook and began associating their regime with Native American culture. Now Native Americans were the perfect communists, Pyle explained, brothers-in-arms who were oppressed and beaten back by the same imperialist menace that was threatening East Germans.
As a result groups of “Hobby Indians” began cropping up all over East Germany, a throwback to the cowboy and indian clubs from the pre-war years. The region of Saxony in particular was a hotbed of activity, said Pyle, and one participant said there were over 20 groups throughout East Germany. There were events where tens of thousands of East Germans would gather from their respective “reservations” and camp out in parks or football fields for several days. A new term was also created for the academic study of Native American culture and society: “Indianistik.”
“To obtain authenticity in their imitations was the goal of their studies,” said Pyle. “It was very important to them that they were as accurate as possible.”
This activity did not go unnoticed by the Stasi, the infamous state security of East Germany. All the Native American “tribes” in East Germany were infiltrated by Stasi agents, Pyle said, keeping an eye on the movement.
“There were whole special units who would spy on these tribes,” she said. “One ‘Cherokee’ from Leipzig said he really believed in the blood brotherhood, but that when the wall fell and he got to look at the Stasi files he found out that his best friend had been spying on him.”
“They had collected 800 files on him,” she said. “He wasn’t a politician, he was a plumber.”
The Stasi were in a precarious position. Although the agency usually took a no-tolerance approach for activities that deviated from the state-sanctioned norm, the Hobby Indian movement was different. High-level members of the communist party were involved in the movement, and state propaganda heavily promoted the idea that Native Americans were the ideal socialists.
Then the wall came down. The East German state was practically bankrupt, and many East Germans suddenly found themselves without work, their savings worthless, and in the middle of a capitalist world they were ill equipped to handle.
“After the wall fell, a large part of the population of East Germany went west,” said Pyle. “East Germany had nothing, they were broke.”
“After the wall fell many [Hobby Indians] became very disillusioned,” said Pyle. “Some went to America and saw how things actually were here.”
Pyle told a story about one German man who flew to Canada to visit representatives of the Inuit tribe. The Inuit man waited for the German visitor dressed in a suit and tie. When the German man got out of the plane, he was wearing the full regalia of his “tribe” back in Germany.
“They could not believe that the Indians here did not live in full regalia,” said Pyle. “There’s a huge disconnect among the Hobby Indians.”
Today, many of the Hobby Indian clubs have disappeared, either due to disillusionment among club members or lack of money. It’s a painful reality for many former Hobby Indians.
“They really wish to go back to the ‘Red Times’ as they call it,” said Pyle.