Berlin, Germany

I will be in Berlin, Germany, for the next week viewing the Museum of Ethnography’s collection and recording data. Today, I met with Dr. Peter Bolz and we discussed how hobbyists of American Indian culture emerged in Germany.

The exhibit that Dr. Bolz has put together of the perception of Native American peoples by Europeans is incredibly interesting. He traces what he believes is the genesis of the hobbyists through early lithographs and photography in the 1830s-1890s. Works by these artists have been placed side-by-side to show that certain props were used to make the photograph more pleasing to the photographer’s audience. This early photography has been used by present-day hobbyists to replicate regalia.

Karl May was a turn-of-the-century German author who created the character of Winnetou. Although presently believed to be on the decline in Germany, the popularity of Karl May’s books has lasted until just recently. From these books have emerged a cult following, the German hobbyists, who participate in special powwows put on throughout the year in Germany. These hobbyists dress up in the replicated regalia of Plains Indian style dress and camp out in tipis by the hundreds. Several hobbyists meticulously research beadwork and quillwork patterns in museums throughout Europe to ensure that they have the finest and most accurate representation of American Indian culture in the 19th century. They see themselves as self-appointed preservation officers that protect Native American culture and art from this time period and fully reject the notion of modern-day tribal culture. 

Hobbyists also exist in America. Instead of manifesting in the way it has in Germany in “powwows with no Indians,” it has come about in a different way; through non-profit organizations that use the names of tribes and who have no ancestral connection to Native American peoples. Within American Indian circles, these groups are referred to as “wannabe’s.”

“So what?” someone asked, “they aren’t hurting anyone.” Well, the fact of the matter is that this is very harmful. Aside from the profit seeking motives that are self-evident, the representations  of American Indian people by hobbyists in both Germany and the United States is damaging to public perceptions of Native Americans. Because neither Germany nor the United States teaches Native American history and current events in the public education system, many children and influential leaders believe that 21st century Native American people either do not presently exist or exist as they did one-hundred or more years ago. Sadly, this is a failing of our education system.

Although standardized testing is extremely controversial, the incorporation of Native American history and current events would assist in addressing this failing. The states of Washington and New Mexico have incorporated Federal Indian Law as subjects in their state bar examinations. As a result, more students take Federal Indian law classes each year and have exposure to some of the most pressing issues in Indian country. This, in turn, has built awareness among attorneys in both states and helpful legislation has been passed. Similarly, the inclusion of Native American history and current events in standardized testing would force the education of students in this subject and make our country’s children and future leaders more aware of the present-day issues faced by our tribes and tribal members.