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.
“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.
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.”
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.”