Many cultures, traditions and beliefs of the indigenous peoples of the Americas are based on generosity, kindness and love; with respect for others by first extending them consideration. These very qualities are ones which have most been exploited time after time by Europeans and then white Americans, and today: cultural appropriation is the new genocide.
As native nations and peoples are revitalizing, rising and resurging against centuries of oppression, they are rightly challenging, demanding and working hard to regain and represent and present themselves. This includes, among other things, righting the many wrongs, correcting the falsehoods and misinformation, and ending practices detrimental to native peoples.
Historically, Germany has had a long, but very unequal history with Native Americans, though enthusiasm and attraction to the original peoples of Turtle Island remains high. One of the main reasons for this phenomenon has been the works of German author Karl May (1842-1912), with his best known “Indian” character “Winnetou” having introduced “natives” to a wider European population. Although fiction, May’s “Indian” stories have played a major role in the perception of Native Americans. That reality being: their prevalent image is based on misinformation and idealization that objectifies, homogenizes and reduces them to fantasized images or mascots.
Whether Germans realize it or not, these practices continue the cycle of genocide and colonialism: the taking and using whatever one wants, even living peoples, for entertainment and self-gratification without regard of the negative impact to them. Behaviors include cultural appropriation, such as through dressing up as “Indians”, misuse and abuse of native spirituality, claiming native identity or connection and/or attempting to represent or interpret native peoples, which further serves to minimize, silence or erase actual native voices and realities.
In most German imagination Native Americans are almost exclusively placed in the past. In film, literature, music and art, contemporary Native life is absent, ignored or reduced solely to stereotypes such as the “drunken Indian” or other tragic figures. Alternatively, they are shown in colorful “costumes” in one-dimensional portrayals as dancers. Rarely, if ever are natives allowed to tell their own stories without heavily demanded Eurocentric expectations. Even more scarce are narratives of Natives as multi-talented, progressive peoples, many of whom despite ongoing oppression continue to keep their peoples’ traditions alive while moving forward in the 21st century.
All of these facts have massive effects on Native Americans living in or visiting Germany. While some may at first feel honored or freed from the sometimes daily racism and apathy endured in North America, those living or having been born and raised in Germany come to realize German fascination is not about them personally, but rather to satisfy German needs. Treatment of natives due to stereotyping, in real life and on screen, continues harming the very peoples and cultures many Germans claim to admire.
We live in a contemporary society heavily damaged by continuing colonial practices and privileged attitudes, but just saying so, even repeatedly isn’t enough to prompt change. We want Germany to understand the very real effects of its dismissive attitudes towards native stereotyping, and the misuse of native identity and cultures. We’ll show this through the lives and stories of Native Americans in their own words; through their presentation of their experiences and their cultures, as a means to hopefully inspire positive change in German society.
We believe Germany must and can do better.