There is a long common, however very unequal, history between Natives and Germans. The first encounters were definitely at times when the first Germans came to the Americas and took active part in the European project of conquest, mission, exploitation and genocide. Between 1820 und 1928 emigrated more than 5 million people from German countries to North America.
Long before that, however, Germans already had the opportunity to watch Natives in so called “Indian villages“”, that absolutist kings organized in the 17th century in order to show their power and attract their subjects. The heyday of ethnographical shows (Völkerschauen) in which Natives and other colonized people were exibited started after 1850. Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin and Munich were central places for them, but shows also toured through the whole country and attracted millions of visitors. Next to fulfilling exotic fantasies of the audiences, these shows were used for racial science in order to scientifically prove the superiority of white people.
Starting in the 1890s Buffalo Bill and many others toured with their Wild-West-shows through Germany and spread a Eurocentric and romanticised image of life in the US.
When Karl May published his first Winnetou book in 1878, he mirrored the zeitgeist and created idols and fascination for generations of Germans (and beyond). Of his books more than 200 million were sold, which makes him one of the most read German authors. Among his fans was Adolf Hitler, who distributed May’s books to his generals during World War II and read them to find solace in tense moments.
After World War II, the enthusiasm about Native topics continued in both East and West Germany. Concerning the German attitudes towards Native Americans, the period of so-called “denacification” was no interruption but rather a perpetuation of racism. Already in 1950s the first permanent Native & Wild West show locations (e.g. the Karl May Spiele in Bad Segeberg) opened their doors. Today, several hundred thousand people watch these shows every year.
With different ideological emphasis, the image of Natives played a crucial role in both East and West Germany. In films (not only about Winnetou), music and art, in ethnographic museums, education and advertisement: encountering images of Natives is inevitable in Germany, and most are racist and/or stereotypical. Through practices of dressing up and disguising as Native Americans in kindergardens and schools, for carnival or in so called hobbyist clubs, Germans identify with and reincarnate Native Americans, despite Natives being living, progressive peoples today. Wearing a feather headdress became an unquestioned fashion for everybody.
Many Germans are surprised to learn that while there are stereotypes and racist attitudes towards Natives in many countries, Germany’s density of Native stereotypes is unique and extraordinary. Psychologically, it is no coincidence that Germany, as a genocide perpetrating society, has a strong need to identify with Native Americans as victims and survivors of a “far away genocide”. However, already before the rise of national socialism in Germany, the German fascination of everything Native fulfilled a certain purpose. In the 19th century, Germany was about to become a united country after centuries of dispersed kingdoms. The image of the noble Native who was supposed to be pure, united and strong was constructed, used and supportive of German nationalism. The preoccupation with natives therefore started in a time where identities were at stake and a new national identity was being created.
Today, both the right wing and the left wing scene in Germany, misuse and draw on Native images and stereotypes. While many “right” Germans adore Natives for the constructed strength and purity, many leftist groups focus on the glorification of and identification with Natives as resistance fighters and last survivors of a good cause. In both cases, Natives are objectified and are made to serve messages and political interests that have nothing to do with or which do not help or include them except as idealized objects.
In the middle of all political spectrums, we find the spiritual scene with a lot of New Agers, Fakes & Frauds. In the USA, native nations and tribes are inundated with fake shamans, medicine men and women, New Agers mixing native beliefs in their activities, both as individuals and groups. But the sense of entitlement, the presumed right to take whatever one wants with little or no regard for the marginalized people from which they are stealing or plagiarizing goes further still in Germany, just like in North America.
Some claim native identities or heritage, while others simply say they are honoring or were inspired by native cultures to become spiritual leaders, selling and/or misusing sacred ceremonies. When confronted for their fraud, theft and unethical behavior, aggressive denial, attacks and harassment are launched at natives and their knowledgeable allies or supporters who try to protect native cultures and beliefs or educate in appropriate, respectful ways to show appreciation for native peoples and cultures. White privilege and the racist structures, policies and laws designed to protect and facilitate European interests enable even more non-natives to take, misuse, and rewrite native narratives. Ethnocentrism and egocentrism, envy and posessiveness of “nativeness”.
In Germany, these attitudes are also present along with resistance to change their native appropriative ways. There’s no surprise meeting disdain or disbelief that native nations object to such activities, despite many native nations having been forced to issue statements or even “declaration of war” against misusers of native spirituality. Largely being ignorant of or having ignored available historical and contemporary context or knowledge, the German propensity to debate whether or how such practices can be harmful to native cultures is also problematic. Attempts to educate on acceptable practices become even more difficult when opportunistic natives use European desire for an Indian connection to validate or support sellers of ceremonies, “New Agers”, “Pretendians”, and “Wannabes”. Their betrayal of native values is a deep sadness to their tribes, misinformative yet again, and negatively impacts growing movements of native revitalization and resurgence to reclaim their stolen identities and misused heritages, cultures and traditions.