Excerpt: Native Provenance

The following is an excerpt from Native Provenance: The Betrayal of Cultural Creativity by Gerald Vizenor (September 2019).

From Chapter 4:

Natives of the Progressive Era: Luther Standing Bear and Karl May

The Progressive Era of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was a worldwide chronicle of activism and political simulations, an unreserved succession of cultural notions, institutions, scientific research and practices, and liberal government policies that renounced tyranny, political corruption, racial separatism, poverty, disease, the miseries of industrialization, and the abuses of labor.

The cultural sea changes that would advance science, economic systems, technology, public health, politics, music, and the ethos of governance, however, were stark ironies in most rural areas and in native communities. The tributes of progressivism became only the customary tease of the dubious enlightenment on federal reservations for Native American Indians.

Natives were not recognized as citizens of the United States of America, for instance, until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. The Society of American Indians, an association of educated and progressive natives, medical doctors, teachers, authors, and artists lobbied for decades to be recognized as citizens and for other rights that had been denied to Native Americans. The Citizenship Act declared that natives born within the territorial limits of the United States were citizens, and “citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.”1

Natives were mentioned mostly in rumors, stories of racial derision, gossip theories, encounters with the military, and cultural fades in national newspaper stories, and they were slighted in the imagination of newcomers and citizens in urban areas. Natives, the wild outsiders in the pick-and-choose of patois, were honored at times in national reviews. Natives were always relevant to liberal humanists but sidelined in the politics of capricious federal agencies.

Settlers in traditional native territories disregarded treaties, breached the borders of treaty reservations, abused federal policies with impunity, and were envious of native land and resources. Natives were seldom considered as progressive, a stereotype that denied the headway of education and stories of survivance. Poets and fiction writers created simulated natives in marketable stories based on the crude notions of a vanishing race, on cultural hearsay, racial speculation, and the gossip theories and catchwords of ethnography. Most of the scenes in popular literature were fantastic savagery, some nobility, but predictable romantic victimry.

Karl May imagined the marvelous and heroic character Winnetou, an Apache warrior and tribal chief with natural romantic rights, but not as a legal citizen of the United States. The Winnetou novels sold more than a hundred million copies worldwide during the Progressive Era. The first complete translation of Winnetou from the original German into English was published about forty years ago, but fragments of the novel were translated in the early 1900s.

May wrote about romantic, heroic natives but never visited a Western reservation, and he apparently never actually attended a Wild West show, but there are rumors that he had met Buffalo Bill. May avoided the shows and natives that toured Germany. He “defamed them as ‘outcasts from their tribe’ who played ‘vile, lying roles,’” declared Rivka Galchen in “Wild West Germany.”2 May was moody about the wild, romantic warriors and traditions he had concocted, and he was rather competitive. Surely the adventure novelist would never consider the spectacle natives as progressive compared to the simulated traditions and natives that traversed his stories. “Meeting travelling Indians might have been awkward for May, especially if he couldn’t speak their language,” noted Galchen, and it “goes without saying that both Buffalo Bill and Karl May purveyed farragoes of historical misrepresentations.”3 Klara May noted, however, that “Karl was introduced to the Indians and immediately started to speak to them earnestly in a foreign, presumable indigenous language.”4

9781496216717Old Shatterhand, the fictional alter ego of the author, related that Winnetou “impressed me deeply from the first sight. I felt that I met an exceptionally intelligent young man, who was equipped with special skills and talent. He also looked at me searchingly with his serious, dark, velvety eyes, which lightened up for a moment as if he was greeting me.”5 Christian Feest pointed out in Indians and Europe that the fictional name Winnetou was not gender specific, and a “partial explanation may be found in Arno Schmidt’s convincing theory” that the Old Shatterhand and Winnetou “relationship is nothing but a displacement of homoerotic drives.”6

May “claimed that with Winnetou he had attempted to create an idealized counter-figure to the show Indians who were routinely represented as bloodthirsty,” observed Julia Simone Stetler in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Germany.” Instead, he “wanted to idealize the Indian and make him a romantic symbol.” His “opinion about Native Americans was rooted in the German romantic tradition and thus his prototype was not reflected in the arena. . . . May’s Indian was born from the Romantic notions of the vanishing Indian that corresponded more with the German image of the Indian off-stage than with the violent one on stage.”7

Stetler noted that “Karl May festivals are all about smoking the peace pipe, dancing, and powwow style drumming, and not about conflict at all. The Native American image in Germany has always been one of harmony and peace instead of strife and conflict, as it was for Americans.”8 Jan Fleischhauer noted in “The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May” that May was driven by the “desire to dream his way out of the narrow confines of his real life, a unique mixture of genius and triviality.” He was an imposer, the “fictitious persona came naturally,” and “because he believed that he was the person he pretended to be, he became convincing to others.”9

Indian treaties, the obstacles and modern mainstay of native cultures, truly “affected the balance of power within the federal government in ways that created recurring conflict,” observed Stuart Banner in How the Indians Lost Their Land. Treaties were practical but not progressive because the political convention “committed the federal government to pay tribes in exchange for land cessions.” The treaties provided an allocation of money, and the legislature was thereby obligated to “appropriate money” without a choice. Indian treaties and the convoluted federal policies provided an obscure network of dominance, fraudulent intercession, and exploitation of native resources.



1. “Indian Citizenship Act, President Coolidge and Osage Indians Photograph, 1924,” Shaping the Constitution, Library of Virginia, accessed December 8, 2018.

2. Rivka Galchen, “Wild West Germany,” New Yorker, April 9, 2012, accessed
July 12, 2016.

3. Galchen, “Wild West Germany,” 7.

4. Christian F. Feest, “Indians and Europe? Editor’s Postscript,” in Indians
and Europe, ed. Christian F. Feest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
1989), 620.

5. Karl May, Winnetou: The chief of the Apache, trans. Mary  A. Thomas, Kindle ed. (Liverpool: CTPDC Publishing, 2014).

6. Feest, “Indians and Europe?,” 622.

7. Julia Simone Stetler, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Germany” (PhD diss., University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2006), 285, 286, accessed July 12, 2016.

8. Stetler, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” 286.

9. Jan Fleischhauer, “Germany’s Best-Loved Cowboy: The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May,” Spiegel Online International, March 30, 2012, accessed July 14, 2016.


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