Drew Hayden Taylor is an award winning playwright, novelist, filmmaker and journalist. Born and raised on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario, he has done practically everything, from performing Stand Up comedy at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. to being Artistic Director of Canada’s premiere Native theatre company, Native Earth Performing Arts. Recently, he has celebrated the launch of his 30th book, and is currently directing/editing a documentary about the German preoccupation with North American Indigenous cultures.
Back in Canada just in time for our September 13 event, Drew visits the blog with
the guest post below!
In the last 25 years I have toured and lectured in various parts of Germany at least 16 times. I have travelled from along the Baltic coast, down to the Swiss border, east to Trier and west to Berlin, and most places in between. Frankly, if the place has a university, chances are I have eaten schnitzel and drunk beer in that town. I have seen more of that lovely country than most Germans. As a result, I have learned to say ‘Ich ben ein Ojibway’.
During those visits, I would lecture predominantly on Native theatre, literature, culture, humour, sexuality, with a few other topics mixed in. You have to understand, many German universities have a Canadian/American studies program and jump at the chance to bring in an author or reputable source on something specific to Canadian culture. And there are few things more Canadian than its First Nations. And there lies the conflict… if it can be called a conflict.
Crossing many different generations, there is a palpable and persistent interest in North American Native culture in Germany, albeit an inaccurate one. Germans have held and treasured a romanticized view of Aboriginal people for a hundred and forty years or so. It all goes back to a writer from the tail end of the 19th century. A man named Karl May made a name and fortune for himself writing highly romanticized stories about the Orient, Arabia, and more interestingly, the American West.
In a series of highly popular novels later adapted into movies and plays, he created what has become an iconic character in German pop literature – an Apache warrior named Winnetou – noble, brave and mighty. All men want to be him. All women want to be with him. Pure pulp, his novels set the stage for entire generations of Germans to embrace and idolize the Aboriginal mystique, though oddly enough, the writer himself had never been to America until several decades after writing his books. And never to the American southwest.
The character of Winnetou and what you could call the spirit of Winnetou has popped up repeatedly in German culture and in observations of German culture. In the movie Inglourious Basterds, a group of German soldiers are playing, ironically a form of Indian poker. They all have cards on their foreheads with a literary character written on each individual card, including the name ‘Winnetou’. The one with that card asks the others something to the effect of, “Am I an American savage?”
There is also a popular cultural saying inspired by the novels: “Always remember, an Indian knows no pain.” Actually they do. I can attest to that.
Admirers of Karl May’s writing include Adolf Hitler, Albert Schweitzer, and Albert Einstein, to name just a few. That’s one hell of a book club meeting.
As a result of this infatuation, many interesting and enthusiastic offshoots have arisen, demonstrating the devotion to a fictional Indian character. Tourism to Canada (and America) has increased with amazing numbers of German tourists flying across the ocean to participate in what they think is the Native experience. During the summer there is a non-stop flight from Frankfurt to Whitehorse every weekend bringing hundreds of Germans to experience the north and its Native people. Indigenous arts and crafts stores across Canada are usually the first stops for these visitors.
In German towns like Bad Segeburg, plays based on May’s work are produced every year with casts of dozens, including horses and eagles, and special effects that make the most experienced Indigenous theatre professionals weep. Frequently, they get between 200,000 and 300,000 patrons a year, to see Germans dressed up as Apache warriors, frequently living in teepees complete with totem poles, for the most part culturally incorrect. But what the hell… most older Germans want the dream, not the reality.
And of course there are what are called hobbyists – individuals who are so enraptured by the image of our culture, they dress up in outfits they made themselves, learn traditional dances, make amazingly authentic crafts, and even hold pow wows. Additionally, there are clubs that go out into the forest, attempting to live as 19th century Native people supposedly did – trying to live off the German land, and frequently raiding each other. Because, I suppose, that’s what we used to do. I must remember that.
The mania is so persuasive, they often have issues with actual First Nation individuals who want to attend or visit these camps, usually out of curiosity. Some refer to us as Coca-Cola Indians, i.e., we have been corrupted by the 20th and 21st century and cannot claim to live authentic Indigenous lives. Like them.
So frequently, my appearances at the universities, looking more German than Ojibway I’m told, can be perplexing. Luckily today’s younger generation is more interested in the real world of Native people. Thus the purpose and interest in my various lecture tours. Up there, in front of a good chunk of German youth, I have tried to dispel the persistent image of all Canada’s Native people living in teepees, riding horses, hunting buffalo. I do not believe I have done any of these.
Just a few weeks ago, I went with a documentary crew and spent 10 days filming this fascination. It has been a dream of mine for a long time. It’s so interesting, so bizarre. I wrote a play about it – Berlin Blues – but felt the actuality of it had to be seen, not just dramatized.
Germany – a leading economic and political powerhouse in Europe. Also, a wacky place.
Drew Hayden Taylor visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Fathima Cader, Nancy Kay Clark, Saidah Vassel and a special guest talk, “From Blog to Book: A Work in Process”, by Kerry Clare!