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Native Americans: Between "Indianthusiasm" and American artistic reality

FROM TILL C. JELITTO most read

An Austrian Science Fund FWF project is currently examining how indigenous artists have responded to idealised representations of Native Americans in German-language novels and films.

Proud, noble and in close touch with nature: Karl May's Winnetou continues to influence the image of the Native Americans ("Indianer") in German-speaking countries to this day. "It is a cliché which does not in any way correspond to the reality of indigenous peoples in North America. But people find it hard to turn their back on the memories and dreams of their youth. This is reflected in record attendance at the Karl May Festival as well as the success of films such as 'Der Schuh des Manitu'", says Nicole Perry of the Department of German Studies at the University of Vienna. But how have indigenous artists themselves critically responded to this persistent image of the "Indianer" in an attempt to call into question such widespread yet obsolete perceptions? Perry is now pursuing this question as part of her scholarship funded by the Lise Meitner Programme of the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

The "Indianer" as a projection of yearning and nostalgia

The project examines cliché-ridden representations of the Native Americans in novels by Karl May and other German-language authors, and looks at the responses these have provoked from artists: "The history of how the 'Indianer' has been depicted as a noble savage in close touch with nature provides insights into the ideologies being propagated, as well as the differing political and sociocultural environments. Karl May's success – even the first edition of his books achieved sales of over 400,000 – derives partly from the fact that he was skilled at echoing the underlying emotions and yearnings of his era", explains Perry. These included the yearning to create a nation, colonial fantasies and also the romantic, anti-modernistic desire for a return to nature. Literary indigenous figures served as a projection for all these notions. A romanticised sense of attachment to nature led to the depiction of Native Americans as representatives of a dying, pre-modern culture whose rescue lay in their conversion to European values and Christianity.

"Primitive Men" as fictional characters

The project mainly focuses on a series of case studies as examples of resistance to this stereotyped image of the "Indianer". Indigenous artists have homed in on this image for some time, shifting it into new contexts so as to stimulate debate and provoke a critical rethinking. The case studies examined by Perry include Canadian artist Kent Monkman who appears as his alter ego "Miss Chief Testickle", a fictional character comparable to Conchita Wurst dressed in high heels and a feather headdress. Monkman operates skilfully through various media and undermines common gender stereotypes of the "Indianer" as a primitive, yet stoic, man. Another case study examined by Perry's project is that of musician and filmmaker Bear Witness, who adopts a rather different approach. He uses a montage technique to contrast Karl May film scenes with images of "Wolf Hatfield", an indigenous fighter figure from the video game "Virtual Fighter V": according to Perry's study, this reveals the artificiality of both representations. Perry also takes a detailed look at the artist Darryl Nepinak, who called his film "Zwe Indianer aus Winnipeg" ("Two 'Indianer' from Winnipeg") after a 1960s German pop song of the same name. In contrast to the story narrated in the song, however, the two leading characters in the film are not baptised as Christians in "Lake Sebastian Schweinsteiger" but are converted to Native Americans instead. In another case study, Perry analyses Drew Hayden Taylor's play "Berlin Blues". The plot here revolves around a theme park for German tourists being set up on an Ojibway Reservation: according to Perry, this reflects the desire for a performance of the cliché "Indianer" image rather than a truly authentic depiction of indigenous culture.

Reactions to these reinterpretations have been controversial, as Perry takes care to emphasise: "Cinematic explorations of the 'Indianer' image were shown at a moderated screening with discussion – the 'Culture Shock Panel' forum at the Berlinale film festival – and prior to this at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto. The reception in Canada was enthusiastic, but debate at the Berlinale was controversial."

The FWF project provides, for the first time, an analytical basis for examining the response of indigenous artists to the cliché-laden depiction of "Indianer" – a phenomenon that is not yet well known in German-speaking countries. The overriding aim is to critically question the ideological notions of a national, cultural and gender-specific identity that underlie such stereotypical representations.

Scientific Contact:

Dr. Nicole Perry

University of Vienna

Department of German Studies

Universitätsring 1

1010 Vienna, Austria

T +64 / 9 / 373 7599 - 87671

Austrian Science Fund FWF:

Marc Seumenicht

Haus der Forschung

Sensengasse 1

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

Copy Editing & Distribution:

PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education

Mariannengasse 8

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44 - 8111


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Article published on 01.02.2016


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