In a World Created by an Indigenous God: A Native Writer’s Take on Karl May’s Winnetou

By Maryann Henck

Pho­to Cred­it: Robert Fantinatto

It goes with­out say­ing that the Ger­mans’ unri­valled fas­ci­na­tion with the Native peo­ple of North Amer­i­ca is not exact­ly a well-kept secret. Case in point: the annu­al Karl May Fes­ti­vals in Bad Sege­berg and Elspe. But I’ve always won­dered whether this fas­ci­na­tion might be mutu­al. Spoil­er alert: It is.

In 2017, Anish­nawbe writer Drew Hay­den Tay­lor set out in search of Win­netou. What he found ranged from the amus­ing to the unset­tling. In oth­er words, the per­fect mate­r­i­al for his doc­u­men­tary film, Search­ing for Win­netou, where the fine line between appro­pri­a­tion and appre­ci­a­tion becomes a bit blurred. Curi­ous about the mak­ing of? Then click on our exclu­sive inter­view with the writer.

MH: Drew, thanks for tak­ing the time to tell us a bit about your lat­est documentary.

DHT: My plea­sure. It was such a delight to research and shoot. And the response has been overwhelming.

MH: So, where did it all begin? When did you become fas­ci­nat­ed with Karl May and his Apache hero, Winnetou?

DHT: Well, at the time we shot the doc­u­men­tary, I had been to Ger­many about 16 times, lec­tur­ing on Native the­atre, lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture and humor. And from the begin­ning, I was puz­zled by this con­stant inter­est, espe­cial­ly with some­body like me who admit­ted­ly looks more Ger­man than Indige­nous. Any­way, dur­ing every one of my vis­its, I kept com­ing across ref­er­ences to this char­ac­ter Win­netou and his author, Karl May. And I would meet oth­er First Nations peo­ple who had been to Ger­many and told me they were fre­quent­ly com­pared to Win­netou and then judged on their indi­gene­ity. So it’s been an ongo­ing fas­ci­na­tion. The more I would learn, the more inter­est­ing the top­ic would become.

MH: When did you decide that you absolute­ly had to make this doc­u­men­tary? What was the dri­ving force?

DHT: Dur­ing one of my trips to Ger­many and the Czech Repub­lic, I was tour­ing with a play which fea­tured and was direct­ed by a good friend of mine, Kurt Spen­rath. I casu­al­ly told him about this unique fas­ci­na­tion the Ger­mans have. As luck would have it, Kurt also makes doc­u­men­taries. Sev­er­al years lat­er, he – along with a pro­duc­er bud­dy, Paul Kemp – man­aged to con­vince CBC (Cana­di­an Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion) to finance a doc­u­men­tary on the top­ic. I had always toyed with the idea of doing the doc­u­men­tary myself and had approached sev­er­al pro­duc­ers over the years, but with lit­tle luck. So Kurt and Paul con­tact­ed me, I said yes, and the rest as they say is history.

MH: Can you tell us about an unex­pect­ed dis­cov­ery, some­thing new that you learned while research­ing the top­ic or dur­ing the interviewing/filming process?

DHT: We met this woman in Bavaria who makes teepees for the Euro­pean mar­ket. Also, she is a pow wow dancer. She start­ed out as a tra­di­tion­al dancer but saw a grass dancer and became fas­ci­nat­ed by the style and beau­ty of the dance. She want­ed to dance grass, but the prob­lem is grass dancers are always male. Frus­trat­ed, she approached an elder (I don’t know if this elder was Ger­man or North Amer­i­can) about her dilem­ma. She was told she should dance how her heart tells her to. So she became a grass dancer which prob­a­bly would nev­er hap­pen over here. The true irony of the sit­u­a­tion is that she has been barred from par­tic­i­pat­ing in pow wows in Poland and the Czech Repub­lic because of this. Evi­dent­ly, they are stricter in those coun­tries about their pow wow dancers.

MH: Were there any bizarre or sur­re­al moments dur­ing the doc­u­men­tary-mak­ing process? Do tell.

DHT: I learned about a con­tro­ver­sy at the Karl May Muse­um. It seems they are in pos­ses­sion of four actu­al scalps, and there is a legal bat­tle about the repa­tri­a­tion of those scalps back to the Indige­nous Nation they sup­pos­ed­ly come from. But there is some ques­tion about whether they are actu­al­ly Native or non-Native in origin.

MH: Where one project ends, a new one begins. Will there be a Win­netou II in any way, shape, or form?

DHT: Not in that shape or form. I’ve had a pro­duc­er express an inter­est in devel­op­ing some­thing about it but noth­ing real­ly at this point. Of course, I always have hope The Berlin Blues will become cin­e­mat­ic in some way.

Curi­ous about find­ing Win­netou now? Then feel free to watch the offi­cial trail­er. Or if you hap­pen to be in Lüneb­urg, Ger­many, on Novem­ber 1, North Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty is host­ing the Ger­man pre­miere of Search­ing for Win­netou at 6:15 p.m. in Audi­to­ri­um 4 on the main cam­pus. See you there?!

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