Not really the last Mohican: Chingachgook and The Curious Case of East Germany’s Indian Movement 1956-1989

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the 17ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2009.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 77-81).

Copyright © 2011, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Some years ago, Hugh C. McDougall treated the Cooper Conference and Seminar to a showing of an East-German movie based on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer: Chingachgook, die Grosse Schlange, released in 1967. Watching the movie was a strange experience: its hero was, as the title indicates, the handsome and powerful Mohican, played by the Yugoslav Gojko Mitic, not Natty Bumppo. The latter, played by Rolf Römer, was a homely, plain, slight, and wimpy-looking man, definitely not hero material. Furthermore, the movie’s message was relentlessly anti-imperialist. Sitting in the audience, I could not help wondering what had possessed the East German film-makers to produce this version of Cooper’s tale, let alone film one of Cooper’s novels at all.

The Germans have long ago been bitten by the Western-bug, or, Das Western-Hobby: “Western” towns — fake towns built on fictional representation — complete with saloons, sheriff’s offices, general stores, churches, etc. are familiar sights in several regions and visited by large numbers of people each year. This interest, however, did not at all explain the political focus of the movie, but I mentally filed the experience away under “oddities.” There it languished, until a chance article in a Norwegian newspaper, the Dagbladet, 28ᵗʰ January 2009, brought the movie to the foreground. The article, with the titillating title “East Germans lived in tepees and went naked,” turned out to be a review of Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer’s 2008 book Sozialistiche Cowboys — Der Wilde Westen Ostdeutschlands. And the article provided the political context for the movie. Sozialistische Cowboys — I of course had to purchase the book immediately — explores a particular East-German phenomenon which, according to a review in the Berliner Zeitung, was little known even in West Germany, “stunning the outsiders” (Harmsen). From 1956 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, under the aegis of an increasingly repressive communist state, people formed Indianistik collectives to study and re-enact life on the nineteenth-century American frontier. Most importantly, though, these groups were vehicles for political indoctrination. Die Grosse Schlange, then, is an example of East-German anti-imperialist propaganda via its Indianistik movement, a state-sponsored and state-controlled program designed to shape East-German youth into good communists. The movie was the second of 14 Western movies produced by the country’s state-owned movie company, the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft, or DEFA. And in East Germany, unlike in the west, the Native Americans, not the European settlers, were the main characters, the heroic victims of imperialist and capitalist forces.

Through interview with members of various East-German Indianer groups, the authors, who traveled the country from one end to the other, lay bare the communist state’s Indian movement in its manifold manifestations, revealing its specifically political nature. Three different main groups of Ost-Indianer emerge: 1) the Karl May enthusiasts who had been involved in the Cowboy and Indian-culture before World War II, had served in the war and were, more often than not, anti-communist; 2) young people who had grown up fully immersed in communist indoctrination; and 3) the non-conformists who, be they anti-or pro-communist, refused to follow the government line in this particular matter.

To group 1 belonged the original members of the famous “Old Manitou” club, the first Indianistik club in East Germany. Most of its members were older, many were self-employed, and therefore highly suspect in the communist state. They were, even when they bent over backwards to accommodate the East German rulers, “class enemies” (von Borries & Fischer 128-129). The government tried disciplining and reeducating them, and eventually the old leader was forced out, and the group brought more in line with government rules for organizations.

The majority of East-German “hobby Indians” belonged to group 2. They had grown up under communism; East Germany was the only home they knew, communism the only ideology they had experienced and to which they were fully committed. They had grown up with the words of Marx and Engels, had read the politically correct Indian novels of Liselotte Welskopf-Heinrich and Anna Jørgen; they had watched the popular DEFA movies. They believed in political structure, committees and order . Their activities were always more than a mere hobby: they became a living testimony to anti-imperialist struggle — it was a political-ideological tool, a way of showing solidarity with and revering Native Americans. They were not only committed communists, they were also purists: their absorption with Native American culture led to the acquiring of remarkable skills such as the curing of hides, the making of warbonnets, weapons, beadwork, and the like. To gain knowledge, they taught themselves English, translated and copied and distributed texts not available to the general public. They also instituted the so-called “Indian Week” — better known as “die Week” — which survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. As with group 1, they were kept under surveillance by the secret police, the Stasi. And they were allowed their hobby as long as they did not turn it into a full-time occupation.

Group 3, the dissenters, read the same books and watched the same movies as group 2; however, all the indoctrination had a different effect: they began questioning their government and saw Indianistik as a way to live outside government control full time. This was, of course, not possible: no-one in East Germany avoided scrutiny by the secret police, the Stasi. Some managed a certain freedom at least part-time. One group, the O-hij-jo from Brandenburg, was not content with the state-mandated system and the officially sanctioned “weeks” and arrangements. They wanted to live as Indians full-time, built lodges, etc. With four other groups they in the mid-eighties formed the “Five Nations” and set out to live according to the Iroquois calendar. At festivals and celebrations they not only discussed traditional crafts but also the problems in East Germany. The Grabow Apaches, on the other hand, focused on ecology, wanting to live in harmony with nature and be part of the natural cycles of life, keep animals, hunt, grow their own vegetables, etc. Interestingly, some dissenters were staunch communists, who believed the state had distorted communist values. Von Borries and Fischer adds another group to the dissenter roll: the capitalists. They certainly exemplified extraordinary ingenuity in order to operate within the communist state! The chief of the Potlach tribe in Pasewalk, for instance, managed to persuade the authorities that he admired the Alaskan tribes because they really were Soviet Indians. After all, Alaska had been Russian until 1867, and the Northwestern tribes thus had been Russian far longer than they had been American. However, the tribe’s chief admired these tribes because they were successful capitalists, not proto-communists!

No matter what the group, though, all Ost-Indianer lived an uncertain life — straying from the approved path had serious repercussions — imprisonment, loss of jobs or education opportunities. They operated at the very intersection of conformity and rebellion and were always under suspicion. The Stasi had an extensive network and both intimidated and infiltrated Indian groups. But the state allowed a certain measure of “rebellion” as long as it could oversee its development. Enthusiasm was a plus — too much was a definite minus. A young high school student, after visiting the US consulate in Berlin three times, was denied higher education (von Borries & Fischer 131). Trying to leave the country, even to visit Native Americans in the US and Canada, was also even more damaging. Enthusiasts applying for permission to leave the country were banned from attending the yearly Indian week. The message was clear: if you wished to leave, you were no longer worthy of being an “Indian.” However, there was contact between the East German Indians and Native Americans in Canada and the United States. This was permitted as long as the activities did not challenge East German ideological and political boundaries.

The development of East Germany’s “Wild West” — and the German “Westernhobby” as a whole — may seem a bit excessive to people in other countries, especially since the life of the hobby Indianist is an activity for adults, not children. But enthusiasm for the American West has deep roots in German society. Immigration to the New World began already in the 17ᵗʰ century and the interest in America only grew with time. Letters, travelogues, and novels fueled the interest. Among the travelogues, Prince Maximilian of Weid’s Reise in das Innere Nordamerikas (1832-34) was well known. The text detailed tribal life in Dakota and Montana. Other travelers brought back artifacts still found in German museums. In fact, Berlin became one of the first centers for Native American studies (Theil). James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales had acquired an enthusiastic following. They also, Willard Thorp argues in a 1954 essay, inspired other writers: the monk Carl Postl (a.k.a. Charles Sealsfield) and Friedrich Strubberg among them. They even influenced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Novelle” of 1828! Later in the nineteenth century another star appeared on the Teutonic literary firmament: Karl May. May’s Cooper-inspired novels had a profound impact on readers in Germany and Austria. In fact, to many Germans, May’s hero Winnetou was, and still is, the ultimate symbol of German strength and ability (Kimmelman). Among May’s readers were Adolf Hitler, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, and Fritz Lang (Kimmelman).

Other factors also expanded German knowledge of the American West and fueled their romantic imagination: Carl Bierstadt’s paintings glorified the nature of the American west, providing a background for any verbal representation of frontier life. The popular Wild West shows, though, provided the actors to place on this stage and further fueled people’s imaginations. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show which arrived in 1890 — it counted 800 performers and 500 animals — impressed the German audiences. Riding the popularity wave, Hagenbeck’s Hamburg Zoo and Sarrasani’s circus brought in North American Indians. Sarrasani in 1906 introduced Black Elk to his audiences, and seven years later he brought a whole group of Sioux to his large Dresden circus building. The group’s chief, Edward Two-Two, died during the tour and was buried in Dresden. To this day, old “Indian-friends” hold yearly mourning ceremonies on his grave on the day of his death. For Buffalo Bill’s and Sarrasani’s audiences, Native Americans held the strongest appeal. Annie Oakley and Frank Butler may have awed audiences with their marksmanship, the cowboys with their riding skills, but the Native Americans outshone them all! The Plains Indians ruled! And the result of it all was, as Stephan Theil asserts, “Europe’s strangest culture” (Theil).

Such performances did not fully satisfy Western-enthusiasts. Cowboy and Indian clubs emerged early: already in 1913 the “Cowboyclub” in Munich was founded. Two clubs followed in Freiburg in 1919: the “Cowboy Club Buffalo” and the “Wild-West.” Johannes Hüttner, who in 1926 at age 12 saw a group of Sarrasani’s Sioux in Dresden and became fascinated by them, founded Dresden’s “Indian-und Cowboyclub Manitou” with a group of friends in 1930. This is the group that, when it was resurrected after World War II, started the East-German Western mania. In these Western clubs, the members practiced lasso-tricks and knife-throwing. They even performed for others, and in 1937 the three clubs traveled to the first Karl May festival, arranged by the Hitler-Jugend. In October Hüttner and his friends even met real Seneca-Iroquois, brought to Radebeul by Circus Sarrasani. However, all western club life in Dresden and elsewhere in Germany was suspended with the outbreak of World War II and the members were either drafted or volunteered. Manitou itself did not cease to exist until 3ʳᵈ February 1945: during the allied firebombing of Dresden the club’s equipment was destroyed. The club was down, but not out: from the ashes of the “Indian-und Cowboyclub Manitou” arose the East-German Indian movement.

And it all began when Johannes Hüttner, a.k.a. Powder Face, returned to Dresden after seven years in Russian prison camps and set out to revive his old club. However, as an admirer of Karl May’s work, he faced an uphill battle for legitimacy. Karl May, still popular in the west, also belonged to East Germany’s cultural legacy, yet the communist regime saw him as a “literary poisoner,” and, opined a Meissen librarian in the Dresdner Volksstimme, a dangerous seducer of the young (in von Borries & Fischer 18). In addition, as May had been Hitler’s favorite author, the librarian claimed the two were equal in “treason and lies” (in von Borries & Fischer 19). Communists claimed that the Nazi soldiers had learned their evil from Karl May! (von Borries & Fischer 19). Supposedly, Hitler gave his troops copies of May’s novels as professional training (Kimmelman). As a result, May became anathema in the east. Still, despite a continuous barrage of similarly negative opinions, May’s works were never officially banned in East Germany. However, his works disappeared from libraries and when out of print, were not reprinted — due to “lack of paper” (von Borries & Fischer 22). Streets named in May’s honor were renamed, the Karl May Museum in Radebeul became an Indianer Museum, and so on. Even today, when this museum has its original name back, Native American history has top billing on the museum web page. In the east, May was to be ignored to death, a fate worse than an outright ban (von Borries & Fischer 22).

Within this anti-May, anti-American climate, and given the fact that he himself was a self-employed pharmacist, a non-communist, it is remarkable that Hüttner succeeded in re-establishing the Old Manitou. It should have been dead in the water. However, to be able to do so, he had to learn to adapt to and use the political situation. Outer conformity was a must: all cultural activities had to benefit the people, not the individual. The situation was particularly difficult when a group was interested in life in the US — the archenemy. One government official, attempting to move Hüttner in a more appropriate, that is, politically correct, direction, suggested that the group focus on Siberian trappers instead, “at least they lived in something that looked like tepees” (von Borries & Fischer 24). But Hüttner and his friends persevered and on 26ᵗʰ April 1956 the group was registered as a “Culture group for Indianistik” connected to a glass and ceramics art collective. A political barter system was established: the club was allowed to exist but had to perform for and educate people about Native Americans. The state received some vicarious glamour from the exchange. The group performed weekends, often several performances each day, as they did in Dresden’s Zoo in 1956, and the shows were immensely popular. Old Manitou also went on tour in a country starved for any kind of entertainment (von Borries & Fischer 25). But the Stasi control never lessened, disciplining and re-education continued, their weapons were confiscated, etc. The group was finally taken over by a more orthodox communist youth faction, who were horrified at the lack of structure and also at the peculiar practice of being Indians by day and cowboys by night. After all, the latter were the very symbols of the American West!

The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, after hundreds of thousands of East Germans had fled to the west, severely impacted the Hüttner and other “Hobby-Indians.” Now, people should become “good socialists” untainted by Western culture. Shrewdly, the communist government decided to exploit the enthusiasm for Native Americans to win the hearts and souls of the people. They performed an adroit political u-turn: “Real Indians are Anti-Imperialists,” the government claimed. To justify their policy and bolster their argument, they could bring out the big guns: Friedrich Engels himself had praised the Iroquois for living a “communist life” in his work on The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Among the Iroquois, the community cared for all its members, there is no poverty and need (Engels 95ff, in von Borries & Fischer 41-42). Furthermore, to the East German leaders, the American Indians were victims of imperialist capitalist expansion — and, despite their failure to repel the invaders of their lands — examples of heroic resistance to imperialist forces. Cowboys had a harder time gaining acceptance — until some bureaucrat decided they were American’s landless proletariat, another group victimized by American capitalism. The first culture group for the study of the American land proletariat was founded and the cowboy was finally in from the cold.

Clubs were not enough to indoctrinate the youth, however. So to transmit the image of Indians as anti-imperialist communist prototypes, the government added literature and film, doubling the effect, as it were, by filming popular, and politically correct, home-grown texts. In these texts and movies, the focus was on Native Americans, not whites. One of the most popular and prolific of these politically correct writers was Liselotte Welskopf-Heinrich, professor in ancient history at the Humboldt Institute in Berlin. Her novel Die Söhne der grossen Bärin (1951) is the basis for the first of the DEFA Indian movies. Anna Jørgen’s Blauvogel (1950), another popular book, was also filmed. And these two texts became standard reading material for East German Indianists, exerting a profound influence on its readers. Cooper’s Deerslayer for some reason is the second — the only non-East German work in this repertoire.

The intense propaganda disseminated through literature and film had its effect: over 60 tribes were founded and deemed worthy communist enterprises — Apache, Mohawk, Mandan, Creek, Cheyenne, to mention a few. Initially, the interest had been on the Plains Indians, mainly because they were the ones first brought to Germany, but the more people learned about Native American life, the more they wanted to know about all the other tribes. The government eagerly steered young people towards these supposedly healthy groups. They were seen as the antidote to the antisocial hippie and later the punk movement, offering disgruntled youngsters a politically correct alternative. Regardless of tribe, though, the interest had to be justified and their inclusion into a cultural collective was a necessity. Again, the barter system established with Old Manitou came into play: clubs performed at various occasions, such as May 1 celebrations; they taught Native American crafts, performed traditional dances, etc. In return, they were not only paid — one performance netted the club a sum equal to one month’s pay for a skilled worker — they also received medals and commendations for their service to their country, and leave with pay for performances during the work week.

No matter which original tribe a club emulated, authenticity was the most important element — presumably next to the indoctrination. The club members complete immersed themselves in the life of the chosen tribe, its history, its crafts and skills. Also for the committed communists, there were hardships to surmount such as the acquisition of instruction materials. Even books in German were not readily available. People copied borrowed texts — even by hand — and distributed them to members. They taught themselves English — a subject not taught in schools — in order to translate foreign texts. They made their own clothes and even weapons. Crafts the real Native Americans had lost were revived. Some Ost-Indianer visiting the US after the Reunification claimed they had to teach young people the skills that had been forgotten.

If authenticity was a must, so was the Ost-Indianer’s solidarity with their American brethren: Native American concerns became theirs. Club members sent care packages to their impoverished brothers on the other side of the Atlantic: blankets, nails, school supplies, even beads for wampum. Not all of this reached the intended recipients due to import duty on the gifts. When the AIM leader Leonard Peltier was imprisoned for the killing of two FBI agents in 1975 and received a life sentence in 1977, the East German Indians wrote impassioned appeals to the US government, urging his release. The shooting of Pedro Bissonette at Pine Ridge also engendered declarations of solidarity and protest, and East German tribes took his name. Native Americans had from 1973 onwards been popular guests at Indian Week and other festivals — they were always treated as heroes. Many hobbyists identified closely with Native Americans not because they were a sort of ur-communists and victims of US capitalism, but because they themselves lived in the equivalent of a reservation, completely at the mercy of the state that had put them there. But not until the Reunification could the East German Indians visit America — the promised land and the origins of all they admired. Many experienced profound disappointment: instead of proud, healthy warriors living in harmony with nature, they found people plagued by alcoholism and other ills. Often, the visitors knew more of the tribe’s own history than did the actual Native Americans.

And what of the Ost-Indianer today? Many of the people von Borries and Fischer interviewed had a negative outlook on their situation. The red reservation is gone; however, living in the market economy is difficult. Grandiose plans of theme parks like the ones seen in West Germany have fallen through due to lack of investment money. Still, all is not lost: the yearly “Indian Week” remains and gathers large numbers of people. Stetson City near Dresden still operates. Steakhouses and saloons proliferate, as do “cowboy clubs.” Country and Western music, which reached East Germany in the eighties, remains popular. And some of the Western-enthusiasts have found a new target group — they have become Civil War re-enactors. Like the Native Americans, the people of the American South were losers in the fight against the US government, and like them, they put up a defiant resistance against a government that tried to strong-arm them into conformity, aiming to destroy their way of life. Interestingly, with typical German thoroughness, the re-enactors operate on a five-year schedule — fighting their way from Ft. Sumter to Appomattox. Once one five-year cycle concludes, another can start. There are other options as well for those who want to market their skills, yet not quite succumb to all aspects of reunified Germany’s Western-Hobby: medieval festivals provides a stage for many of the accomplishments honed over the years as Indianer.

Of course, the German interest in the Wild West persists, as does the interest in the texts of Karl May and James Fenimore Cooper. German authors still write derivative Indian novels. Western clubs proliferate. Movies like the 2000 Der Schuh des Manituhs draws appreciative audiences. American and Native American writers, scholars, media-people, and artists visit, trying to get a handle on this German love affair with the American West. One scholar, Ruth Gruber, even received a Guggenheim grant to study Western theme parks in Europe!

And all wonder: What is this strange “Westernhobby”?

A fetish? Self-delusion? Nostalgia? Empathy? Schizophrenia?

Who cares? As Gruber comments after a visit to a Bavarian theme park, “it’s infectious!” Or perhaps “addictive” is a better term? Perhaps some of us would very much like to profess, “Ich Bin Ein Indianer”?

Works Cited

  • Engels, Friedrich, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates. In Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke. Band 21.5. Berlin: 1965. 95ff.
  • Gilders, Adam, “Ich Bin Ein Indianer”. The Walrus, 10/2003 (online).
  • Gruber, Ruth, ”Deep in the Heart of Bavaria.” New York Times ( April 11, 2004
  • Hamsen, Torsten, “Rauchzeichen aus dem Reservat”. Berliner Zeitung (online). May 29, 2008 [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]
  • Kimmelman, Michael, “Fetishizing Native Americans: In Germany, Wild for Winnetou.” Spiegelonline, September 13, 2007
  • Magasinets Nettredaksjon, “Østtyskere levde i tipier og gikk nakne.” January 28, 2009
  • M”hling, Jens, “Das Rote Reservat: Wilder Westen in Deutschlands Osten. Ein Veteran und ein Buch verraten, warum in der DDR die Indianerkultur bl”hte”. Tagespiegel (online), June 1, 2008 [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]
  • Oehler, Felix, “‘Kriegsbemalung und Kriegsbeile’” — Indianer in der DDR.” [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]
  • Theil, Stephan, “The West Comes to Germany. Wie Sagt Man ‘Yahoo’?” Newsweek International (online). Aug. 19, 2002
  • von Borries, Friedrich and Fischer, Jens-Uwe, Sozialistiche Cowboys: Der Wilde Westens Ostdeutschlands. Bonn: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008