'Old Bull' and friends honor culture an ocean away

Germans maintain a century-old fascination with native Americans, popularized in fiction.

Saxony is a long way from the badlands of the American West, and most of the Germans decked out in native American tribal gear have never set foot in the United States. At a tourism fair, they draw a curious crowd of onlookers as they dance to traditional Sioux drumming.

Native American culture, it turns out, is one of the main attractions of Radebeul, this small town outside Dresden in southeastern Germany.

Karl May, the German writer who popularized the American Indian in Europe, spent the last years of his life here. Now, his estate is a museum dedicated to his legacy as the most-published author in the German language. Since his tales of the fictional Apache chief, Winnetou, were first published in 1875, May's adventure books have captivated millions of Germans. Dozens of films made in the 1960s and 1970s further glorified native American culture, to varying degrees of accuracy.

"We generally spend our vacations outdoors with our tepee," says Gerhard Fischer, chief of a club called "The Buffaloes." At the Radebeul fair, 20 club members perform tribal dances from the Great Plains. Mr. Fischer wears a Sioux headdress, leather leggings, and embroidered moccasins and vest. The whole outfit is worth at least $5,000.

Fischer, a retired painter, says Indians have fascinated him since the age of 5, when he picked up a "Buffalo Bill" comic. Later, he read Karl May and advanced to serious ethnological works on native American culture. His wife, the daughter of an American serviceman, is part native American. During a visit to the US, Fischer was given the name "Old Bull" by the members of the Yakima people.

"Karl May was a poor man. He could travel only with his own imagination. And that's how it was for us in East Germany," says Fischer, referring to the tight travel restrictions before unification in 1990. May, who died in 1912, didn't travel to America until he was nearly 60 and had written most of his Indian books.

In the closed society of East Germany, actor Gojko Mitic also played a significant role in turning citizens into native American devotees, appearing in 12 movies over 18 years. When his first film, "The Sons of Great Bear," was released in 1966, it had 11 million viewers in East Germany, a country of 17 million. "I was always the Indian. I tried to correct the Indian's image in early American westerns," says Mr. Mitic, who as a boy growing up in Yugoslavia watched John Wayne movies. "Only when I read Karl May's books, did I begin to see Indians in a different light." When he turns up in Radebeul, fans line up for autographs.

Mitic was a star across the communist world, filming on remote sets in Soviet Central Asia and Mongolia. Authorities appreciated the implied anti-Americanism of the films. Audiences thirsted for relief from the trials and tribulations of daily life.

Still, it would be wrong to characterize the fascination with Indians as a solely eastern phenomenon. West Germans, who held the rights to Karl May's works, elevated the Indian novels to cult status in the 1960s in a series of films.

The more than 100 "Indian clubs" in Germany are spread throughout the country. And Mitic now spends his summers playing May's Winnetou character at an open-air theater in northwestern Germany.

Mitic says work still needs to be done to bridge the gap between the mythologized Indian of Karl May's books and real native Americans of today. Two years ago, he made his first visit to the US as guest of honor at a Makah powwow in Seattle. "I asked myself if I was dreaming or if it was really happening," he says. Recalling when a local chief presented him with a turquoise amulet, he says, "In that moment, I knew it was worth having made all those films."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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