In The News: German ‘Indianthusiasts’ fuel Aboriginal tourism

It’s a long way from Berlin to Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede, but for a growing number of German ‘Indianthusiasts’, experiencing traditional Aboriginal culture first-hand is an essential element of their passion.

Also known as ‘German Hobby Indians,’ the movement claims 80,000 members, many of whom journey to Aboriginal culture sites in Western Canada. Dr. Siegrid Deutschlander, a University of Calgary sociologist and German expatriate, recently completed her PhD thesis on this unusual phenomenon, which has its roots in the
19th century.

“Many Canadians are surprised to learn that the Germans hold First Nations people in very high regard,” Deutschlander says. “They especially value their spirituality and their respect for the Earth, but they are also very interested in the traditional ways of doing things, such as learning how to raise a teepee, tan hides or do beadwork.”

Much in the same way as members of the Society for Creative Anachronism focus on 17th century authenticity, German Hobby Indians seek out unique cultural experiences such as powwows, sweat lodges or sun dances, which often lead them beyond the officially designated tourist sites. The more authentic the better, but what
constitutes authenticity is also a matter of heated debate.

While the cultural performances of First Nations have become much more visible at official occasions in Canada over the last few years, some Canadians may not necessarily share this interest in preserving traditional indigenous practices. For them, the adaptation of First Nations to mainstream Canadian culture is of
greater importance.

“First Nations people are often seen as not wanting to adapt to Canadian culture and as maintaining practices that are no longer useful for life in modern Canadian society,” Deutschlander says. “So we have these two divergent views of North American Indians – the Canadian view and a romanticized European view.”
The European concept has largely been shaped by the 19th-century German writer Karl May (pronounced My), who produced a series of books chronicling the adventures of Old Shatterhand, a German teacher who emigrated to Boston and then traveled west, and his “blood brother” Winnetou, an Apache elder. Winnetou is wise, noble, good-looking and can do little wrong.

“If you went to Germany and asked anyone on the street, ‘Have you heard of Winnetou?’ they would say, ‘Yes, of course.’ It’s just part of German popular culture.” May’s books have sold millions of copies and been translated into 30 languages.

Uschi Knaab-Love, who is not part of the hobby scene, but who has grown up in Germany sharing this interest in Native North American cultures, enjoys visiting Indian Village.

“Horses have always fascinated me and I love riding, even as a child. For me, they also symbolize freedom and adventure,” two things that for her are related to North American Indian cultures. She continues: “I have been at a powwow before and the fact that Indian people try to maintain their dances and rituals is a sign that they value their traditions. Western societies, including German society, no longer
place a value on the collectivity, family life and support for each other. Together with spirituality, we still find this among the Indians.”

Some estimates say that more than half a million Germans visit Western Canada every year, many of whom are not from the German Hobby scene, but nonetheless, bring with them a strong curiosity about indigenous culture. Some researchers estimate the size of Europe’s Aboriginal tourism market could be as large as three
million people. Deutschlander notes that Aboriginal tourism in southern Alberta promises significant economic opportunity for First Nations people and suggests that all aspects of tourism must be under their control.

“No one should tell First Nations people which cultural traditions or ceremonies they should open up to tourists,” Deutschlander says. “It’s their business to determine where to set their boundaries.” Some communities are split, for example, on whether sacred ceremonies such as sun dances should be open to the non-native public.

“On the one hand tourism does open up a dialogue between two peoples and helps to preserve cultural traditions. But on the other it can perpetuate a romanticized, stereotypical view,” she says. “It is important for Aboriginal communities to decide how they want to represent themselves and to be aware of how they may be
perceived by outsiders.”

Deutschlander’s thesis is titled In Search of Winnetou: Constructing Aboriginal Culture in the Tourist Encounter.

For more information about Deutschlander’s research, or to arrange an interview with her, contact:

Greg Harris, U of C media relations, at (403) 220-3506 or cell, (403) 540-7306


In The News: German ‘Indianthusiasts’ fuel Aboriginal tourism