- Revisiting WinnetouThe Karl May Museum, Cultural Appropriation, and Indigenous Self-Representation
Yes, the Indian is a sick, a dying man, and we now stand at his miserable bedside feeling sorry, with nothing left to do but to close his eyes. It is serious enough to witness the death of any human being—how much more serious, then, is it to see the destruction of an entire race! . . . The dying Indian could not be integrated into the white world, because of his unique character. Was that reason enough to kill him? Could he not have been saved? But what use are such questions in the face of certain death? . . . I can only lament, but change nothing; only grieve, but not bring a single dead back to life.—Karl May, preface to Winnetou I (1892)
The last several years have been significant ones for Native activists in North America, from the Idle No More movement (see “The Manifesto”; Kino-nda-niimi Collective); to the Keystone Pipeline protests, which have helped bring attention to land rights (e.g., Simmons-Ritchie; Khan; “Rosebud Sioux Tribe”); to the Walking with Our Sisters commemorative art installation, which honors missing and murdered Indigenous women (Belcourt).1 But protest and attention have slowly been spreading to less immediately tangible but no less important issues; the protests surrounding the Washington, dc, football team mascot and other “Indian” mascots are perhaps the largest example. Rather than demanding change regarding physical assaults on Native lands and bodies, the mascot protests challenge the very rhetorical frame: the damaging narrative of Indians as noble savages, things of the past, that perpetuates itself in mainstream popular culture and has very real deleterious effects on Native self-perception (Fieldman). The decades-long struggle has proven that this kind of challenge is one of the toughest to make in large part because [End Page 25] it strikes at the very root of where these misrepresentations of Native peoples come from: long-held constructions of Native American peoples that exist to serve European American cultures, the “white man’s Indian” (Berkhofer). In spite of their less immediately tangible existence, these constructions are still important to dismantle because of their influence on the thinking and action of people who use them. Native sovereignties in any form are hard for European American cultures to recognize if the rhetorical frames these cultures call on to understand Native peoples create distortions, and so these stories need critique and dismantling just as much as degrading environmental practices or discriminatory law.
This essay is a critique of one of those stories.2 The narrative of the 2014 scalp repatriation controversy at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany, was covered in multiple news outlets, including Native outlets such as Indian Country Today Media Network and Native News Network; German outlets such as Der Spiegel and Die Süddeutsche and even tabloids such as Bild;3 and most recently in US mainstream news in a special feature entitled “Lost in Translation: Germany’s Fascination with the American Old West” for the New York Times (Eddy). Once it was revealed and confirmed that the Karl May Museum was in possession of Native American human remains in the form of scalps and that some were on display, a repatriation outcry led by Cecil Pavlat (Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) and backed by the global organization Survival International began in March 2014 (Haircrow, “Tribes”). Since then, Pavlat, Ray Halbritter (Oneida Nation), and other delegates have traveled to the museum to meet with staff there and negotiate the process of at least seeking the provenance of the scalps in question and, if possible, begin the repatriation process (Haircrow, “Agreement”). For the moment, a kind of truce has been reached. The actual scalps have been removed from display and replaced with replicas, though curator Hans Grünert has repeated that the museum owns the actual scalps by German law, and under German law the museum is obligated to do nothing unless provenance can be established without a doubt (Eddy).
While the protests and negotiation over repatriation have galvanized discussions and brought media attention to the Karl May Museum, I would argue that...