Lost in Translation: Germany’s Fascination With the American Old West – NYTimes.com

Lost in Translation: Germany’s Fascination With the American Old West – NYTimes.com.


RADEBEUL, Germany — Hans Grunert is no stranger to requests from Native Americans regarding the display of sacred items among the headdresses, moccasins, jewelry and hundreds of other artifacts at the Karl May Museum, housed in a faux-log cabin behind a stately 19th-century villa in this eastern German town.

Since the museum’s opening in 1928, a Blackfoot medicine man has held a smoke ceremony for the peace pipe collection, and Lakota have made recommendations on how to display the contents of medicine bags in a way that appeases the spirits.

“We have always been concerned about the sacred objects, and careful that our displays respect native peoples’ wishes for their treatment,” said Mr. Grunert, the curator of the collection of 840 Native American artifacts from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.

But he never thought anyone would take offense at the collection of mostly Native American scalps, including one said to have been acquired by a German member of the Barnum & Bailey Circus for $100 and three bottles of liquor. That is, until the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians sent a letter in March demanding that their ancestors’ remains be returned for burial.


Hans Grunert, the curator of the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

“Up to now, scalps have always been considered war trophies,” Mr. Grunert said.

The tussles over ownership of the scalps have come to reflect a broader cultural clash between the changing mores surrounding the care and repatriation of human remains in the United States and the fascination of many Germans with the mythology of the American West, celebrated to this day in countless summer festivals and literature.

In the guidelines drawn up last year by the German Museums Association recommending how to care for human remains, a reference to scalps from “the indigenous people of America” who “fashioned trophies from the heads of their killed enemies” is listed under exceptions to human remains acquired in a context of injustice. “Killing one’s enemy and making use of his physical remains were socially accepted acts in those cultures,” the recommendations say.

Though public sentiment in the United States has slowly shifted since the 1960s toward supporting the right of indigenous peoples, especially the American Indians, to reclaim and define their own cultures from museums and institutions, no such transformation has taken place in Germany.

A handful of museums, including the Museum of Medical History in Berlin, have recently returned bones and skulls to the native peoples they were taken from. Yet many institutions still view restitution as a threat to their collections and reputations.

Not least, such demands also threaten cherished myths of the American West that resonate strongly in Germany. Generations of children here have grown up on the adventure stories of Karl May, whose books feature the fictional characters Old Shatterhand, a gallant European, and his Apache chief blood brother, Winnetou.


The museum, in a faux-log cabin, houses artifacts such as Native American scalps and headdresses. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

May, who died in 1912, wrote dozens of books about the American West, portraying the Indians as noble savages fighting the injustice of European settlers. More than 100 million of his books have been sold in Germany, and they have been translated into 33 languages, according to the Karl May Foundation.

When Cecil Pavlat, a cultural repatriation specialist for the Ojibwe Nation, part of the Sault Tribe, arrived in Radebeul in early June to discuss the repatriation issue, the city’s annual Karl May Festival was in full swing, complete with horses, cowboys and country singers. Children and adults alike paraded about in colorful feather headdresses and brightly painted faces.

Mr. Pavlat said he took no offense. “I chuckled at people here and there and what I’ve seen,” he said in a telephone interview after returning from Radebeul, where he met with the museum director, curator and local officials.

About the remains, however, he was upset. When Mr. Pavlat first learned from an American living in Berlin that the museum possessed 17 scalps, most of them from Native Americans, including one said to be Ojibwe, he fired off an angry letter accusing the museum of being “disrespectful, insulting and unconscionable,” and demanding their immediate repatriation.

“This is such a serious and emotional spiritual issue for us, we wanted to make our point clear,” Mr. Pavlat said. “We believe in being stewards to all of our ancestors.”

Offended at what she described as the harsh tone of the letter, for which Mr. Pavlat said he later apologized, Claudia Kaulfuss, the museum director, insisted in her response that the display of four scalps — the Ojibwe remains not among them — “has a memorial character to the past when white settlers and trappers did not think anything of human rights.”


An imitation scalp on display at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Ms. Kaulfuss went on to explain the muddy history surrounding the acquisition of the Ojibwe remains, based on a story told by Patty Frank, one of the museum’s founders, who loved to sit before the fireplace dressed as a cowboy telling tall tales of his adventures traveling across America with the circus.

One of his tales included how in 1904, he rode to a reservation where he persuaded a Dakota chief named Swift Hawk to sell an Ojibwe scalp acquired in battle and decorated with feathers and a beaded lizard for $100, two bottles of whiskey and a bottle of apricot brandy.

At their meeting, Mr. Pavlat and the museum representatives signed a letter of understanding, pledging to begin exploring the veracity of the tale in an effort to determine ownership of the remains. But the language itself reflected the clash of cultures, with the museum emphasizing archival material and scientific research, and Mr. Pavlat insisting on the inclusion of oral history as a source of information.

“We don’t want to give this back to one tribe, and then another one comes and insists that it was theirs,” said Mr. Grunert. If the remains can be identified as Ojibwe, the museum will return them, he said, but he is equally adamant about their historical significance and their importance in the collection.

“Our obligation as a museum is to preserve and protect,” Mr. Grunert said. “We don’t know what will happen in 100 years.”

The trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian have taken a different approach. They decided shortly after the museum’s founding in the early 1990s that all human remains in their collection should be repatriated for burial. If the remaining two dozen, including a few scalps, cannot be identified, they will still be given an appropriate burial, said Kevin Gover, the director.

“In the case of human remains, I don’t understand an argument that I as a museum professional should have greater say over the people where the remains originated,” said Mr. Gover, a Pawnee. “That’s a little mind-boggling to me. We don’t see any advantage of retaining the remains that justifies the cultural insult involved.”

History of The Cherokee Language

History of The Cherokee Language.

The Cherokee is the most southern branch of the Iroquoian language family. Linguists believe that the Cherokee migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Southeast over three thousand years ago.

In 1540 the Cherokee lay claim to a territory comprising of 40,000 square miles in the southeastern part of what later became the United States. This area included parts of the states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

In the winter of 1838, the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from what was left of their original lands in the East. 20,000 people were forced along the “The Trail of Tears” to the Indian Territory of northeastern Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokees died. The journey was know by the Cherokee as nu-na-hi du-na tlo-hi-lu-i, the “trail where they cried.”

Several hundred Cherokee evaded removal by hiding in the mountains of North Carolina. In 1849 they were given the right to remain on lands purchased in their behalf. It later became the Qualla Reservation.

At the time of the first contact with Europeans, the Cherokee occupied three distinct geographical regions. Three distinct dialects were spoken: Eastern, Middle and Western.

The Eastern or lower dialect is now extinct. Its chief peculiarity is a rolling “r”, which takes the place of the “l” of the other dialects. The Cherokee speakers of the Eastern dialect occupied what is now South Carolina and made the first contact with the British. Due to the wars and conflicts of the 1800’s, the few remaining speakers were absorbed into the other Cherokee groups further inland.

The Middle dialect (Kituwah) is spoken by the Cherokee now living on the Qualla reservation in North Carolina. In some of its phonetic forms it agrees with the Eastern dialect, but resembles the Western in having the “l” sound.

The Western dialect (The Overhill) is spoken by the Cherokee Nation in the West. Because of their isolation, the Kituwah dialect was less impacted by the influence of other Indian cultures and the many conflicts the Western Cherokee encountered. The Overhill dialect is the softest and most musical of this musical language.

The name, “Cherokee,” occurs in fifty different spellings. In this form it dates back at least to 1708. From the Eastern dialect came the form tsa-ra-gi, the form with which the English settlers first became familiar (a rolling “r” took the place of the “l” of the other dialects). Thus came the word “Cherokee.” The Spaniards, advancing from the south, became familiar with the other form (Middle and Western: tsa-la-gi) and spelled the word as Chalaque. Today Cherokees both East and West refer to themselves in that form: tsi-tsa-la-gi (I am Cherokee).

The proper name by which the Cherokee call themselves is: yun-wi-ya. It comes from yun-wi (person) and ya (real or principal). When referring to the tribe, the prefix ani is added: ani-yun-wi-ya.

Cherokees are the only Native American People who possess a writing system equivalent to the European alphabet. The Cherokee syllabary is the only alphabet in history attributed to be the work of one man, George Gist, known to the world as Sequoyah. Although he did not speak or read the English language, he understood the power of the written word. After twelve years of dedicated work, Sequoyah finished the Cherokee syllabary in 1821. He spent the rest of his life teaching his people how to read and spell.

The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary of 84 characters in which each letter in a word stands for a whole syllable.

There are six vowels: a-e-i-o-u including a vowel which does not exist in English (v). The (v) vowel is decidedly tonal and is pronounced like the “u” in “huh”, nasalized.

The remaining seventy eight characters consist of combining consonants and vowels with one exception, the consonant “s”. It stands alone as the only single consonant represented as a character. Adding “s” to other syllables as a prefix or suffix eliminated the need to create seventeen more characters to the syllabary. There are no equivalent sounds for the English consonants BFPRVX. (Overhill uses the “j” sound when pronouncing the “ts” syllables; Kituwah uses the softer “z” sound.)

Across the United States, the native peoples are involved in preserving their aboriginal languages. Unfortunately some of these languages have all ready been lost. In Qualla and the Cherokee Nation, dedicated Cherokee linguists are working diligently to ensure the Cherokee language survives.

Increasing numbers of Cherokee descendants are renewing their ties with their traditions, history and language. With this renewal comes the understanding that their Cherokee heritage must be preserved and passed on to the next generation.