German Indians

There is a bookstore in Novi Sad, the city in which I was born – a place that smelled of books, and of yellowing paper, and of aging book binding glue, and of silk paper bookends; a place with a hint of ancientness and mystery where old cloth-bound books felt rough with use under your fingertips, or worn smooth by the many hands that had held the book before yours, a place where people spoke in low voices, as though they were in a library or a temple. It was a treasure trove, books stacked on shelves and on top of shelved books tucked between book and the shelf above it, piled on the floor below, often with an attempt at order but all too frequently subject to serendipity.

They actually modernised that shop, in later years, and it became much more stiff and formal and – well – by-the-book, if you like, and a part of me mourned that – but I digress.

It was here that I picked up my first Karl May volumes, in translation, of course, when I was maybe seven or eight years old.

This comes to mind because of a fascinating Utne article in which Laura R. Graham and H. Glenn Penny examine German fascination with North American Indians. They note that:

“American Indians became deeply ingrained in German culture during the 19th Century, their stories became ciphers for modern struggles during the 20th…The unrelenting breadth and depth of this preoccupation is remarkable…By writing about American Indians, German novelists became best-selling authors…The most prominent of these was Karl May, whose books sold over seventy million copies by the 1980s.
German IndianGerman hobbyists call their effort to study, simulate and emulate aspects of North American Indian life “practical ethnology.” Photo by Fotolia/Shchipkova Elena

Back when I was that eight-year-old child, I picked his books up and fell into them, drowned in them, happily. I LOVED Winnetou, the Apache chief. I loved all of it, the set-up, the context, the milieu, the characters – so much so that my father bestowed upon me the nickname of Ntsho-chi, Winnetou’s sister. Other girls, other generations, might have grown up with a Disney Princess called Pocahontas who sang about the colors of the wind, but when I was growing up Ntsho-chi was the Indian Princess who was the lodestar.

Everything in those books was a wonder. It was one of the first books to totally immerse me, to hold me, to make me cry.

It took me YEARS to unlearn everything I thought I knew about the Apache, from reading this book.

Not least the fact that not everything good and advanced and (I hate to use the word, but that’s what was being portrayed) “civilized” came to the noble savages through the agency of a white Ubermensch, and specifically a German one. – actually, two German ones, one old and dying philosopher-type and then his inheritor, WInnetou’s gung-ho blood brother who sported sixpack abs and steely blue eyes and blond hair and went by the name of Old Shatterhand because of the way his handshake crushed people’s fingers into bone stew. The guy who could outride and outshoot and outswim and outthink anybody at all, Superman in fringed buckskin, and yet humble and full of humor and faith…the ultimate, in fact, of what I later learned to know as a Mary Sue character. A beloved incarnation of May himself who (as far as I know) never actually went near the pueblos of which he wrote or met a single Indian.
Karl MayKarl May booksEven back when I read those books for that first magical time, after I carted them home from that magical bookstore, there were things in it that bothered both the mystical and the pragmatic in me.

I could buy it all – everything – all the bits of window dressing, every tchotchke, every eagle feather on every warbonnet that everyone, of course, wore – ALL of it.

But there was one thing that made me grind my teeth, even back then.

The ending.

Where the “noble savage”, the heathen Indian, the man who ran around under God’s own sky and in His trees but called Him the Manitou instead of Jehovah and didn’t require anyone to die for his salvation, suddenly heard the sound of a church bell in a (you guessed it) German settlement of pious Christians, and for some reason all of it went away and nothing would do but Mary and Jesus from then on – the Christian faith, the Holy Holy Holy Christian faith, the thing that obviously trumped the ignorance and the innocence of the savage heathen who inhis last hours found his salvation (and possibly found himself, bewildered and with an odd sense of being cheated, trying to figure out St Peter and the angels of the heavenly choir while trying to find out where the Happy Hunting Grounds had got to…)

Nothing against faith. Nothing at all. A sincerely held faith is a beautiful thing.

But this was not that. It was possibly one man’s sincere faith, all right – but it was being stuffed into a character where it did not belong at all and where it could only mar and not enhance and the writer, the character’s creator, the one who had MADE the great and glorious Winnetou who ruled a number of my childhood dreams, could not see that he was ruining his creation for the sake of that faith. It stopped being a story. It began to be preaching and indoctrination and “thou canst not be saved and brought to the feet of (the only) God untill and unless thou first bow thine head in transcendent surrender when the first sound of a church bell reaches thine ears”.

And that is part of what the German re-enacters are actually buying into. They’re re-enacting the “noble savage” – but they know that they themselves are NOT that, cannot be that, because they are really those German settlers in the story who had built the church with the heavenly bell, they are really the manly man of Old Shatterhand who ruled the West just as solidly as Winnetou (and who was portrayed as belonging there as much if not more than his Indian friend and blood brother, the man who was born of that world and who carried it inside him to an extent that the white dude never did, never could….)

It’s a different kind of fairy tale, a novel one that caught and fired their interest, distant enough from their own home and from everything they know and understand to be fascinating, and knowing (as Karl May taught them) that they were the coming of salvation, the coming of God, and they could play both the pre-Christian innocence and nobility and the post-Christian saintliness and oh GOD (so to speak) it is just irresistible.

And in the meantime, still remembering with a melancholy sense of loss the sights and smells of that old bookstore and the dreams that dwelled within, I am stuck out here in the cold, unlearning the untruths behind the fairy tale of the Old West as told by a German dreamer who may well have sincerely and genuinely believed that – in one way or another – it was his destiny to raise the red man out of the Garden of Eden and straight into Heaven itself.

I will choose to remember the joy it gave me. I will choose to remember the frisson of delight that ran down my child-sized spine when my father called me lovingly by a fictional Apache princess’s name.

The rest… I will learn from the people who can actually and regretfully close the book on the dream… and tell me about what REALLY happened.

Meanwhile, read the Utne article HERE

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Quote of the day

We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
~ American Indian Proverb

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me

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