My madcap adventures in Germany during my year as a Fulbright Scholar.

17 September 2006

and now for something completely different

I haven't spent all my time in this country at IKEA, despite the impression this chronicle might give. I've been to the Staatsbiblithek every day this week and accomplished a fair amount, and since I'll be out of town for a few days, I thought I'd give you something academic to mull over. In Das Kränzchen, one of the periodicals I'm studying, I came across a 1905 article called "From the lives of the Indians," about, you guessed it, American Indians. I found it well worth sharing.

It begins by describing the life of the "Squaws," detailing how they do all the work for the tribe except the hunting and the fighting and noting they are often mistreated by their husbands. The article then proudly declares that things have improved recently because the Indians are being "civilized." "Many red squaws like to play the 'great lady' just like Englishwomen, if their husbands have the means, something that is not uncommon in the so-called 'Indian territories,'" the article says. In the past Americans evinced an "utter disregard for the rights and requirements of the natives" but now are attempting "in every way to raise them morally and economically." This was achieved through endeavors like the Indian school at Phoenix, where Indians were given education and training to allow them to enter civilized society or to return to their tribes and better the position of women and "enable the spreading of Culture." The article then cautions that some students later return to "the old if [they] had never been introduced to anything better and higher," but encourages Americans to stay the course nonetheless because we "have an obligation to 'make good'" for what we have done in the past.

In all the pretty rhetoric don't lose sight of the fact we're talking about the systematic destruction of a race, a culture, a way of life. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to the school at Phoenix to be "civilized" and indoctrinated in the lifestyle of white Americans. You can read more about that here.

While I'm not denying the magnitude of what Americans have done to the indigenous peoples of North America, what I find most fascinating in this article is the striking moral certitude of the author. After all, Germans were not more enlightened about race; they just hadn't had the opportunity to show their destructive potential. Because German reunification happened relatively late (1871, thanks Bismarck!) it simply couldn't pursue colonies as aggressively as countries like England, Spain and France, but colonial literature and orientalist literature by authors like Karl May were unbelievably popular. You notice the article mentions "civilized" Indians returning to their tribes to "spread culture," a statement that fails to recognize that the Native American tribes already had their own cultures, which were systematically being destroyed by the very schools praised in the article.

I wonder they couldn't rely on empirical evidence, for the article was accompanied by photos of the saddest looking Indians I have every seen. Photos like this:

The most remarkable thing, though, is that my limited experience has shown me many Germans still share the attitude of that article's author and feel they have the right to sit in judgment of Americans for this aspect of our history. Now we can debate forever about who does and does not have the right to judge someone else for an atrocity, but that's not the point. What's weird and strange (and fascinating) is how Germans feel they understand the Indians, as if they are somehow culturally linked. It's the only explanation for the insane popularity of wackos like Karl May and events like this.


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Blogger Janet said...

"Das kranzchen" is the title page of a german language book I have. It appears to be a bound collection of articles from periodicals published in 1931-1932. 'Die Himmelsturmerin" by Emmi Gruhner is the first article and runs 16 pages, and further editions fill about half of the 800 or so page book. "Das Ferienschloss"?sp by Else Wibel fills most of the 2nd half. I think this is too important to let it sit on the shelf, but I don't know what it is, or who it would be important to. Any idea?

12:54 AM


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