Respect, admiration or cultural appropriation? A visit to Brandenburg’s Wild West theme park raises questions about Germany’s ‘special’ relationship with Native Americans.
We hike across a grassy field to the faint strains of Johnny Cash, eyes on the Confederate flag in the distance. As we near the gates we pass a man in an all-black sheriff’s uniform leaning against a post, poking at his smartphone. Inside, a wide, dusty road leads us past a saloon, a bank, a clothing store and a telegraph station to a tepee encampment.
Technically we’re in Templin, Brandenburg, 80km from Berlin, Angela Merkel’s childhood home. But every summer for eight years now, this has been the Westernstadt El Dorado, a theme park where the imagined vision of the mid-1800s American West that has captivated Germany for over a century becomes reality.
“An adventure, like in the movies!” boasts the placard in the Alexanderplatz U-Bahn station. There are outlaws. Horses and carriages. Gold mining. Above all, cowboys and Indians.
This weekend, 5000 visitors have come for “Das große Indianertreffen”, a four-day celebration of Native American culture featuring a group of real, live Native Americans flown in from the US, Canada and, as in the case of one Navajo performer, Paris’ Euro Disney park. Their €7000 airfare has been footed by the aforementioned sheriff: park manager Malte Schatz, nephew of El Dorado and Filmpark Babelsberg owner Friedhelm Schatz, who dresses like Wyatt Earp’s brother Virgil when he’s on the grounds.
The idea, however, comes from Quentin Pipestem, a world champion hoop dancer and member of the Tsuu T’ina Nation from Alberta, Canada who has worked at the park every season since 2008. Hiring him was a major coup for El Dorado, as they don’t hesitate to remind us: during our tour of the grounds, when the press officer refers to him as “our house Indian”, and on their home page, where “Indianer” is nestled prominently between gastronomy and driving directions.
It’s half past noon, time for the Indianershow. Normally Pipestem performs traditional songs and dances solo, but today he happily lets his friends take centre stage. Ten of them assemble in front of the tepees, wearing brightly coloured regalia replete with fringes, beads and feathers, taking turns performing as the others beat drums and sing. There’s a Mohawk smoke dance and a hoop dance by a pair of Hopi brothers from Arizona. At the end, the kids in the stands rush onto the field for a circle dance, weaving between the tents as music plays.
Everyone seems like they’re having a great time, not least the announcer who explains the history behind each dance and takes pains to let us know we’re getting as ‘authentic’ an experience as possible.
There are just a few not-so-authentic parts. Like the generic Native American plush mascot ‘Yoki Ahorn’, a tie-in to Templin’s nearby Ahorn Hotel designed by Schatz’ wife, who lumbers onto the field and attempts a clumsy dance of his own. Or when the announcer introduces the individual performers and one of them, decked out in a stunning homemade costume, turns out to be a Bavarian named Bernhard.
Germany’s obsession with Native Americans goes back to the late 1800s and the novels of Karl May, a con artist turned bestselling author who chronicled the thrilling adventures of the Apache chief Winnetou. That May never actually visited the US until shortly before his death in 1912 was a negligible detail.
Years later, East Germany’s state-owned DEFA became an active promoter of the Indian cause with the so-called “Red Westerns”, a popular take on the Western genre in the 1960s-70s, in which the Native American hero (memorably played by Serbian-born actor Gojko Mitic) always triumphed over the imperialist, white cowboys.
Simultaneously with a series of Karl May adaptations in West Germany, the films cemented a passionate if one-sided kinship that many Germans continue to feel to this day – even if they were born long afterwards, like 24-year-old Bernhard Stahl. “We played Cowboys and Indians when I was a kid, and I was always an Indian,” Stahl says. “I guess it was a natural attraction.”
In his teens, he began making regular visits to Pullman City, another, larger Westernstadt close to his hometown in Cham. During a yearly Indianer celebration there, he approached Pipestem and a few other Native Americans and asked them to help him learn dances. His curiosity and eagerness to do things “the right way” earned him their trust and eventual friendship.
Besides his headdress, purchased online, Stahl’s regalia is all his own design, down to the intricately beaded heart shape on his collar. “My specialty is the prairie chicken dance,” he says, and goes on to explain its origins in the Blackfoot and Cree nations.
“Bernie was always asking us, ‘Is this right? Can I do this?’” recalls Pipestem. The key, he says, is that Stahl focuses on social dances as opposed to spiritual ceremonies – and that, unlike some park visitors Pipestem has encountered, Stahl has no delusions about being a “real Indian”.
Stahl is one of an estimated 40,000 Germans (according to hobbyist society charters) who spend their spare time dressing, singing and dancing like indigenous Americans. Many of them do so at ‘pow-wows’, weekend-long celebrations that, unlike El Dorado’s Indianertreffen, feature few if any Native Americans.
Those that do show up, whether invited or curious, might actually be turned away for violating what Germans feel is ‘proper’ pow-wow protocol – in a 2003 article on the subject, James Hagengruber described a pow-wow where German attendees became upset at Native American dancers for wearing underwear beneath their breech cloths.
“Native Americans come to Germany, they have culture shock already, and then to see all these white people dressing like them… they’ll say, who gives you the right?” Carmen Kwasny is chairwoman of the Native American Association of Germany, a non-profit that connects Native Americans living in and visiting the country, and educates Europeans interested in Native American culture.
“They’ll be doing something like a gourd dance, which not all Native Americans can do, or setting up camp in buckskin dresses, getting them dirty…” The organisation used to organise pow-wows, but after their 2007 decision that only Native Americans were allowed to dance in regalia at their events, they had to stop: not enough participants.
“Here you have a lot more interest from people trying to know you, be around you. In the US, people tend to see Native Americans as a problem, not a people.”
Kwasny is 100 percent German – but, like Stahl, has always felt a certain connection. She became close to the community after befriending a Native American military family in 1989 in Stuttgart and, she says, had a breakthrough moment after her friends held a picnic with plastic cutlery.
“People expect them to be really close to nature, spiritual… but most Native Americans are in Germany because of the US military. Often people think, ‘If you’re in the military, you’re not a real native.’” She has been involved with the NAAOG since its founding in 1994 and became its chairwoman in 2005. They needed a fluent German speaker, she says, and “nobody else would have done it.”
Red Haircrow, born in Frankfurt to Cherokee and Apache parents who worked in the military, is a writer and a psychological counsellor in Berlin. He’s written several articles speaking against cultural appropriation, which, he says, has earned him “death threats”.
Haircrow doesn’t believe Germans should dress in regalia or participate in Native American dances, no matter how sincere their intentions. “There’s no need to do it, that’s my personal opinion, shared by many other natives. With regalia, every piece has a certain meaning. There are some things, like eagle feathers, that not all natives are allowed to wear in the US, but the Germans wear them here.”
When he brings this up with hobbyists, he says, the communion they feel with Native American culture becomes something uglier, a sense of ownership. “I get this very particular, across-the-board response from Germans: we’re doing this to honour you, it’s none of your business,” says Haircrow.
He has lobbied against the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, offended by a display of Native American sacred objects next to a crushed Budweiser can and whisky flask representing alcoholism. “The exhibition director said, almost verbatim: ‘Your people have more problems to deal with than something like this.’”
Even in the case of well-meaning, educated enthusiasts like Stahl, Haircrow rhetorically asks, “Why, if you have your own culture, would you feel the need to go into someone else’s?” The question practically answers itself. Many German folk traditions remain off-limits till this day by their association to the Nazi past; German folk dances, for example, virtually disappeared during post-war de-Nazification.
Perhaps there is in the Germans a further desire to identify with an exotic people who were themselves the victims of genocide – whom Karl May had already mythologised as being heroic, natural and pure.
Meanwhile, some Native Americans find the Germans’ fascination a welcome change from the out-and-out stigma encountered in North America. “Here you have a lot more interest from people trying to know you, be around you. In the US, people tend to see you as a problem, not a people – just another minority,” says Haircrow. “The first time Native Americans come here, they say, wow, these people have so much respect!” says Kwasny. “Then they see what’s really going on, but they’re guests here. They don’t want to make the others feel bad. So they stay quiet.”
Back at El Dorado, the show ends and the crowd disperses: the men in cowboy hats, the women in rented fringed suede dresses, the children with feathers tucked into headbands, faces striped red with paint.
“I love all these dressed-up people,” enthuses Malte Schatz. “The more they’re dressed up, the cooler the park looks.” Have Native Americans complained to him about Germans appropriating a culture that they don’t fully understand or respect? “I never heard of something like that,” says Schatz. “I guess I’m just in my small El Dorado world… neither Quentin nor the others ever told me that.”
Does Pipestem think there’s anything the park could stand to improve on, culturally speaking? “No. Well, maybe in the beginning… but, no,” the performer says. “They’re trying to be authentic, and they’re doing the best they possibly can.”
The next time we see him, it’s as part of the stunt show, in which he and a group of ‘Native Americans’ team up with a saloon owner’s daughter to fight back against some corrupt US cavalry officers. As they take their bows, the main stuntman’s black, braided wig, held in place by a feather-adorned headband, slips off to reveal a Teutonic shock of blond hair.