Film 'Forget Winnetou!' studies German idealization of Indigenous culture

Images courtesy of Forget Winnetou!

"I make pretty good kimchi," Red Haircrow tells me from his apartment in Berlin. "I grew up with Asians -- Chinese/Hawaiins, Koreans…and, I kind of adopted a Japanese amma [grandmother] too." Kimchee is a spicy Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables.

Haircrow, who is part Black and part Apache/Cherokee (Black American with Apache and Cherokee heritage), tells me growing up in Alabama was difficult. Indigenous people tended to view him as "not fully Native" while he was shunned by both Black and white communities. Fortunately, his Japanese amma was married to a Cherokee man and that's who taught him the language.

Now, he's in Germany and working on a documentary, Forget Winnetou!, with a local filmmaker about the German idealization of Indigenous peoples and the "tradition" of dressing up and pretending to be Native.

It all stems from the novels of Karl May who published his first book about a character named Winnetou in 1870. By then Germans had already had a fill of what they thought were Indigenous cultures through Wild West shows brought to them by Americans.

The many books about Winnetou, an Apache man, and his adventures with his white friend Old Shatterhand, sold 200 million copies. Hitler, a fan of the reservation system, gave the books to his generals.

"He is part of German pop culture," explains Haircrow. "It's a perceived cultural ideal for them. Winnetou is a hysterically defended figure, especially for the generation born after the Second World War -- they could step outside their Nazi history as children and escape into this other world."

Haircrow's co-director Timo Kiesel, agrees: "For me, it was normal to dress up as Native…. just for fun." Kiesel says the popularity of Winnetou is likely to due to the fact modern Germany -- in the 19th century -- had no founding myth… so they adopted one, so to speak.

Kiesel grew up near Stuttgart, outfitted in headdresses for parties, painting faces and crafting bows and arrows.

"I never dressed as a cowboy, I always wanted to be an American Indian," he told me in an email. "My parents were in the eco-movement and liked being in nature…fitting my notion [that it was connected] to Native Americans."

German appropriation through popular books

For two years, the pair have been developing and filming Forget Winnetou! They are currently raising funds to do post-production and distribution. Plans are to have screenings in North America and Germany at the start.

The feature-length film examines May's character and German appropriation including the hobby culture around Native Americans. Hobbyist groups in the country gather in teepee camps every year, each individual having taken on a tribe, doing research and informing others of the customs, foods and history of their "tribe." One of the sources interviewed for the film is Canadian photographer Jen Osborne who has been documenting this phenomenon.

"[The hobbyists] will argue to me that they know more [about Indigenous] culture," Haircrow said. "It's unreal."

"[The hobbyists] have told me: This isn't for you. This is for us. They see it as -- the Natives shouldn't have allowed Europeans into their country, they should have defended their land [and culture]."

According to Haircrow, that's why Indigenous people are highly exalted among the alt-right in Germany -- they are symbolic of something noble, pure and thus, fetishized.

Haircrow decided to move to Berlin after a holiday in 2003. He is pursuing an MA in psychology, focused on Native healing and mental health. He's been here with his son for 10 years.

"It was so hard for my son in Alabama…the kids were being bullied and mocked."

Haircrow said school therapists would tell minority children they should "become more white and therefore, they'd have less problems."

Forget Winnetou! team L to R: Red Haircrow, Timo Keisel and Natasha John

'You're not a nice Indian'

Haircrow, whose father was Black and whose mother was Native American, was born on the U.S. military base in Frankfurt am Main. His family moved back to the U.S. when he was four.  He was always intrigued about his birthplace.

However, Germany poses a different kind of challenge.

"They want you to be the stereotype here [and] then they'll treat you like a rock star," he said. "Germans will tell a scalping joke and I'm not laughing and tell them it's not funny. They will say to me 'you're not a nice Indian.'"

Haircrow will attempt to explain why and sometimes they will understand and tell him they'll never talk like that again.

"It's a different kind of oppression here -- I can handle it because the racism was like 100 times a day in Alabama," he explained.

Kiesel says there are many German books "written from a white perspective" about Indigenous peoples.

"I read about 60 volumes of [Karl May's] books and my view on Native topics and realities was highly influenced by his descriptions," he divulged.

That was until he grew up and travelled to the Middle East and read Edward Said's book on Orientalism. Kiesel decided to quit his studies in Berlin and pursued an MA in Postcolonial Studies at Goldsmith's College in London.

"[I was] confronted strongly with my liberal white supremacy and privileges."

Kiesel, in teaming up with Haircrow on the documentary, seeks to dig up the history of "German Indianthusiasm" (a term coined by German professor Harmut Lutz) and also to undo the reductionism done to Native culture. They are hoping to finish post-production later this year -- so fundraising now is very important.

"Throughout Germany history, we can see that every regime used the imaginary ideal of Natives for their own purposes," noted Kiesel.

Haircrow realizes the film could stir up controversy and uncomfortable reactions.

"For me it's about reaching people who want to do better," he points out. "It's an opportunity and possibly an example for Canada and the U.S. because here there's not hundreds of years of that genocidal history [albeit Germany has enacted different genocides]… unlike North America."

He's been following the appropriation controversy in Canada closely and is resigned: "That's what white supremacy really is. It's not hate crimes. It is… simply society letting you do things like that and letting you get away with it because you're white."

Haircrow adds this antipathy towards Indigenous people is ingrained in North America -- it's very hard to un-do. Germany, though, could be a different story.

"I believe that if Karl May were alive today, he'd be more politically active and would probably want to get rid of his books," declares Haircrow.

For updates on the film, follow its Facebook page.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Images courtesy of Forget Winnetou!

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