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German ‘Wild West’ museum to repatriate Native American scalp

  • November 24, 2020

A museum in eastern Germany dedicated to the work of legendary German “Wild West” writer Karl May has agreed to repatriate a Native American scalp after a six-year struggle.

It began with a complaint by the Chippewa tribe in Michigan, which then led to a specially-commissioned study, a new ethnographic specialist at the museum, and finally mediation by the US State Department.

In a board resolution passed on the weekend and seen by DW, the Karl May Foundation in Radebeul, Saxony, was keen to stress that the repatriation was being undertaken “voluntarily and without any obligation, either legally or morally, but solely for ethical reasons to re-humanize and repatriate the scalp … in a dignified manner.”

“The human remains will be handed over to an official representative of the US government for internment on American soil since the indigenous descendants could not be ascertained,” the statement concluded.

The last line hinted at the reasons for the long battle over the scalp. In 2014, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan sent a letter of complaint to the German museum after a US visitor brought the tribe’s attention to the display.

Scalp on display in the Radebeul museum

According to the Chippewa report, the feathers and amulets attached to the scalp are consistent with Sioux tradition

But for many years, the museum refused to return the scalps on the grounds that it could not be ascertained which Native American tribe they belonged to. In an interview with DW in 2014, then museum director Claudia Kaulfuss said: “We have four scalps on display, and it’s not even clear which tribes they belong to. We have two from white people, two from Indians — one of them is more or less just a plait of hair, and whether any really belongs to an Ojibwe Indian we don’t know.” (Ojibwe is the original spelling of Chippewa).

Read more: Why Germany can’t quit its racist Native American problem

Disputed history

But at the same time, the museum had posted its own story of the scalp’s origin on its website: The scalp had been donated in 1926, shortly before the museum opened, by Ernst Tobis, an eccentric Austrian traveler and sometime acrobat who went by the pseudonym Patty Frank, and who bequeathed his collection of Native American artifacts to the museum as a Karl May enthusiast.

  • Author Karl May (Foto: picture-alliance/akg-images)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Germany’s first best-selling author

    This pictures dates from 1910, at the height of Karl May’s success. The author wrote 70 books, which sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. At the beginning of the 20th century, his characters were as famous as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.” May’s stories accompanied generations of young Germans on fantastic journeys to distant worlds.

  • Winnetou I (picture alliance/United Archives/IFTN)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Winnetou and Old Shatterhand

    In America’s Wild West, Old Shatterhand, a German engineer, unites with his blood brother and the wise chief of the Apaches, Winnetou, to fight against rascals and crooks. They’re portrayed here by Pierre Brice (left) and Lex Barker (right) in a 1963 film version. May’s interpretation of the Wild West was a fantasy, however: at the time the story was written in 1875, he had never left Germany.

  • Karl May's home (Foto: picture alliance / ZB)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Home in Hohenstein-Ernstthal

    Karl Friedrich May was born on February 25, 1842, to a family of poor weavers, in this green house in Saxony’s Ore Mountains. Nine of his 13 siblings died as young children. May wanted to become a teacher, but minor thefts landed him in jail several times. Afterward, he survived on occasional jobs and as a con man – until he was first published in 1874.

  • Karl May as Old Shatterhand (Foto: Karl-May-Museum Radebeul)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Getting into character

    May wrote serialized novels for magazines, blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. As narrator, he chronicled the trips he would have liked to have experienced. Getting into character, he had costumes made and posed for photos. Here, he’s seen as his alter ego, Old Shatterhand. The leather jacket, lasso and animal tooth chain are on display at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul.

  • Karl May and Emma Lina Pollmer (Foto: Karl May Museum)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    First wife, first novel

    In 1878, May began living with his girlfriend, Emma Pollmer. They married two years later. May spent his days and nights writing, and soon earned enough money for the couple to move into a rented apartment in Dresden. He began work on his first successful novel, “Das Waldröschen,” which sent its main character, the German doctor Karl Sternau, around the world.

  • Karl May towards 1892 (Foto:picture-alliance / akg-images)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Successful author

    In the 1890s, May began publishing the books that made him rich and famous: “Treasure of Silver Lake,” the Winnetou trilogy, “Durchs wilde Kurdistan” (Through wild Kurdistan) and more. The imaginative con man had become a successful author.

  • Karl May as Karab ben Nemsi (Foto:gemeinfrei)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    A German abroad

    Written from a first-person perspective, May’s series of stories depicting travels through the Ottoman empire feature another of his alter egos: Kara Ben Nemsi. Although the books reflected the period’s typical colonial views, they still promoted dialogue between societies. May’s first real trip abroad was to the Middle East, when he toured Egypt in 1899.

  • Karl May and Klara Plöhn (Foto: Karl May Museum)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Off to America

    When May married his second wife, Klara Plöhn, in 1903, he was a rich but controversial figure. He was regularly accused of fraud and plagiarism, and the disputes affected his health. He nevertheless set off with Klara for his second major trip abroad in 1908, to North America. He didn’t reach the Wild West, however – his westernmost destination was Niagara Falls.

  • Karl May green books (Foto: picture alliance / dpa)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    German classics

    May died on March 30, 1912 in Radebeul, near Dresden. His works have become classics of popular literature, and these green volumes were proudly kept on the bookshelves of German households for several generations. For many years, however, East German citizens weren’t allowed to read them – the lands depicted in these tales were not “socialist brother states.”

  • Briefmarke Karl May mit Winnetou Pierre Brice (Foto: Imago/Schöning)

    Karl May, creator of Winnetou, born 175 years ago

    Enduring popularity

    In West Germany, the Winnetou films in the 1960s triggered a renewed interest, and May’s tales are still performed live on stage to this day. In 1987, Deutsche Post created another tribute to the author’s most famous character to mark the 75th anniversary of May’s death. This special stamp allowed the wise chief to travel over 28 million times through Germany – for a mere 80 pfennig, or pennies.

    Author: Susanne Spröer (eg)

The story went that, on a night-time trip to a Native American reservation, Tobis held “tough negotiations” with Dakota chief Swift Hawk, “who had won the scalp in a fight with an Ojibwe,” and bought the “trophy” for two bottles of whisky, a bottle of apricot brandy, and $100. That story was then repeated in the foundation’s 1929 “year-book,” which the museum used as a source.

But the museum took down that story after the Chippewa claim arrived from Michigan, and in the new resolution, the Karl May Foundation now admits, “The truth of this story cannot be ascertained.”

In the interim, the museum and the tribe agreed to undertake studies into the origins of the scalp, but they could only come up with the best guess about which Native American tribe it belonged to. According to the Chippewa report, finished in 2015, the feathers and amulets attached to the scalp were consistent with Sioux tradition, which made it possible that it was “an Ojibwe person killed in combat,” as the Ojibwe and Sioux were frequently at war from the early seventeenth century to 1858.

Read more: How African activists try to force the return of colonial-era artworks

‘Broken spirit’

The report by the tribe concluded: “We come to you humbly and peacefully to ask for our Ancestor back.” Even though the scalp’s origins could not be determined, the Native American authors wrote, “We do however know that this individual was taken without the authority to do so, and placed in a museum to be shown like a picture on the wall. We do understand how this individual’s spirit is now broken and is crying out for its people to come and safely bring them home.”

“Today, in this moment we are making history,” the report said. “Together the Karl May Museum and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians can come together to mend the broken spirit of our Ancestor.”

Nevertheless, the museum took another five years to accede to the plea. The then curator, now museum director, Robin Leipold, explained that it had taken a fundamental sea-change in attitude to what a museum should be to come around to the repatriation.

“Times have changed,” museum director Leipold told DW. “The Karl May museum has got older and has to re-invent itself and reform. And that only works in contemporary times if you engage internationally and build up partnerships. If you have a so-called ‘Indian’ museum, then it only works if you work together with indigenous people.”

Read more: Opinion — White privilege and the responsibility to enact change

The Karl May Museum, which sees 50,000 visitors each year, is privately run and is dedicated to the work of a hugely popular writer of Wild West adventure stories, whose works were filmed many times in Germany and created childhood heroes of several characters like Old Shatterhand and Winnetou.

At the same time, Leipold explained, the museum sees its collection as an archive of Native American culture — which meant the board had to weigh up the question of what was more important: to keep the scalp as a cultural artifact or honor the museum’s partnership with Native Americans and its idea of what a modern museum is.

To help the transition, the museum invited the ethnographical director of Saxony’s state collections, Leontine Meijer-van Mensch, who had conducted repatriations from state collections.

The museum still has a number of other scalps, some belonging to white people, whose origins are yet to be ascertained. Leipold says the museum will now decide on a case by case basis how to deal with the scalps.

The Chippewa cultural repatriation department will be releasing a press release next week.

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