Thanksgiving is perhaps the only holiday that celebrates the coming together of European and Native American culture - which got us to thinking about how Native Americans down through the years have been depicted - indeed, often caricatured - primarily through a European lens. One of the more unusual and enduring of such depictions came from German author Karl May, whose fans included Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler. May created romantic, majestic, and often embellished depictions of American Indians that would become ingrained in European culture. Ideastream's Brian Bull talked to Susanne Vees-Gulani, a German Studies scholar at Case Western Reserve, about how May mixed Teutonic rituals with his conception of native culture. Bull began by asking her about her earliest exposure to May's Old West world... through his books, and movies based on them.
Vees-Gulani: His “Winnetou” novels…those were the ones that really concentrates on this friendship between this German trapper called Old Shatterhand -- he was shattering everyone with his hand, he was so strong -- and the Chief of the Apache, Winnetou, played by a French man, Pierre Brice. Now of course, when I think of Native Americans, and when other Germans think of Native Americans, the first thing that pops up is this Frenchman dressed as a Native American. And in the third movie when Winnetou dies, there was no dry eye in the living room.
Bull: It’s also…these are characters and stories that are unfolding on other side of the globe, so I suppose there was that exoticness…that foreignness…
Vees-Gulani: Absolutely, and what Karl May was smart about, is he gave them characteristics that were very much German. He did translate some of these rituals and myths from the Germanic roots into the stories. There’s a big scene between Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, becoming blood brothers. Well, Native Americans don’t have a tradition of being blood brothers, but in Germanic myth, that is very much there. And people absolutely responded to that.
Bull: In your research or general experience, Susanne, bave you come across any Native people responding as to how they’re depicted in these books and movies?
Vees-Gulani: I can’t really say that I have run into many. However, there came a whole movement -- particularly in East Germany – where people started to get really interested in Native American culture. And they moved away from depictions that you had in Karl May, and really embraced actual Native American cultures. They developed a whole hobby culture around this, where clubs would get together on weekends, and they would live in teepees, and they would sew their own shoes. And knowing Communism, you know how hard it is, to get any materials. So this was huge endeavor to try to get all these original materials. This was not something that the East German government really liked very much, because obviously this was somewhat of a subversive way of withdrawing from society. They tolerated it because the movement was so large, but they absolutely didn’t like it.
Bull: Do you yourself remember playing with toy tipis, or canoes or –
Vees-Gulani: Absolutely! (laughs) Absolutely! I had a tipi, we were playing “blood brotherhood” all the time, obviously without a knife but we were reenacting that all time. But we clearly connected that to Native American customs, even though it’s obviously not true….
Bull: How does one play “blood brotherhood”?
Vees-Gulani: (laughs) You put your arms together, and you make a lot of very big statements about how your friendship will never die, and how you’re more than friends now, because your blood is mingling. It was very funny!
Bull: Susanne Vees-Gulani, I appreciate your time and thank you for coming in!
Vees-Gulani: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure!