They call themselves “hobbyists”, a strange term, even derisive if you think about it, but keenly apropos considering what it is they do.
“Hobbyists” have an interesting approach to enjoying a culture not their own. They capture and cage it—feasting on the traditions of the “other” with ravenous delight. Not unlike like collecting spoons or stamps, these western European aficionados collect Indigenous North American customs like, well, it’s a “hobby.”
You can therefore imagine how curious it must be to be a Canadian Cree living in Germany, witnessing ersatz Natives donning braids, building tipis, and joining drum circles acting the very image of the noble, mystical Indian. Filmmaker Howie Summers, however disquieted, has produced a short documentary, Indianer, giving an up-front view of who the hobbyists are, and more importantly, what feeds their fascination.
“The North American Indian spirit, which they (hobbyists) wish to embody, is more than the picture of a proud and noble savage,” Summers explains. “…The distance between what’s real and what is pretend may produce a culture shock as we examine the white man’s preoccupation with the mythical Indian and compare it with the real, modern one.”
Summers interviews a college professor, Natives now residing in Germany, hobby Indians, and a blue-eyed blond dude calling himself “Winnetou” after the fictional character in the 19th century novels by German author Karl May.
Several of the Native ex-pats in the film are surprisingly tolerant. “At one point it’s kind of strange to me, on the other hand it’s good,” one interviewee comments. “They (hobbyists) look at our values and what we hold close to us and try to copy that.”
Others concur, simply resigned to the fact that any interest in Indigenous culture is preferable to benign neglect.
In a more academic analysis, Native Studies Professor Hartmut Lutz attaches a deeper pathology to the hobbyist’s zeal who he says propagate a false and cavalier image. Evidence? Whereas none of the Natives onscreen talks, walks or dresses in the savage stereotype, every one of the hobbyists is festooned in full regalia down to the last bead.
By seeing and listening to the bare-chested, feathered and oh-so-Aryan Germans playing Indians, the viewer is left dumbfounded at their naiveté and disgusted by their hubris. Some of these folks really do believe they make superior Indians.
“Even though they try hard to keep their culture, I don’t think they have enough strength or possibility to win that one,” says the blue-eyed “Winnetou.” Another hobby Indian goes even further. “A Sioux Indian who once came to me, took my hand and said that I was gifted for making Indian crafts. He said I should continue showing the people of Germany the Indian way of life.”
“The Indian way of life” ...as told by a white European.
In 24 minutes, Summers lets the camera tell the story of what it is to be a German hobby Indian. Never taking cheap shots, Indianer is, as much as anything, a microscopic depiction of our contemporary age—how it is that one group can assume the identity of another while blithely unaware or uncaring of how it is perceived by those they mimic.
It’s a phenomenon some believe benign, some believe disconcerting. But whatever the motives, collecting a culture like spoons or stamps is a strange, strange hobby indeed.
A DVD of Indianer can be purchased through: www.firstnationsfilms.com