When in Doubt, Ask a Native Author! The Winnetou Debate

By Maryann Henck

After a storm of protests from enraged par­ents con­cern­ing issues of (mis)representation and cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion in the new children’s movie, The Young Chief Win­netou (2022), the Ger­man pub­lish­er, Ravens­burg­er Ver­lag, with­drew the com­pan­ion book and puz­zle to the film. Soon there­after, the main Ger­man TV sta­tion (ARD) announced they would no longer broad­cast the pop­u­lar Win­netou movies from the 1960s based on Karl May’s nov­els. Every­one seems to have their take on the cur­rent con­tro­ver­sy; yet, there’s been some crit­i­cism regard­ing issues of pater­nal­ism due to the lack of Native voic­es in the debate. That’s why the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog has gone direct­ly to the source and inter­viewed Drew Hay­den Tay­lor acclaimed Cana­di­an Anish­naabe author, fre­quent fly­er to Ger­many, and cre­ator of the doc­u­men­tary, Search­ing for Win­netou (2018).

MH:  I can’t believe I’m inter­view­ing you about Search­ing for Win­netou again. Could you tell me a bit about some of the respons­es in Cana­da and abroad?

DHT: The response to our doc­u­men­tary has been over­whelm­ing. I do believe it’s one of the most pop­u­lar on CBC (Cana­di­an Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion), and that was some­thing like five or six years ago. Prac­ti­cal­ly every week, because it’s avail­able on the CBC stream­ing ser­vice, I’m con­tact­ed by peo­ple who are either Ger­man or have Ger­man rel­a­tives who came to vis­it Cana­da – and they all seem inter­est­ed in Indige­nous cul­tures, or what they believe to be Indige­nous cul­tures. I’ve done pri­vate screen­ings in Cana­di­an Ger­man clubs who respond with a com­bi­na­tion of joy and embar­rass­ment. I even screened it in Brazil.

MH: What feel­ings does the name “Win­netou” evoke for you as a Native person?

DHT: It’s odd, I’ve heard the name bounced around in our com­mu­ni­ty. A group of Indige­nous women per­form­ers called The Spi­der Women, put togeth­er a show explor­ing the con­cept sev­er­al years ago. Per­son­al­ly, I thought it was an off­shoot of the word, man­i­tou, which means spir­it. After my work on this film, I guess Win­netou means a devot­ed but inac­cu­rate appre­ci­a­tion of Native culture.

MH: Now that Win­netou and Karl May have been can­celled to a cer­tain extent in Ger­many, what is your take on the cur­rent controversies?

DHT:  This is a tough top­ic. Can­celling some­thing, whether it’s a book or a stat­ue, doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly solve the prob­lem. Some­times you have to embrace and explore the prob­lem. I tried to do that in my play, Dead White Writer on the Floor. Recent­ly, I wrote a play about our first Prime Min­is­ter, Sir John A. Mac­Don­ald, a man pret­ty much reviled in the Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ty. At first, I was tempt­ed to walk away, but I thought more could be learned and under­stood if I accept­ed the chal­lenge and wrote about it. I think the Karl May/Winnetou issue should be reassessed but not destroyed.

MH: There’s a fine line between cul­tur­al appre­ci­a­tion and cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion: Where do you draw it?

DHT: That’s what our whole doc­u­men­tary was about. That’s a line that every­body has to find them­selves because it varies from per­son to per­son. And I’m not the per­son to tell peo­ple what they can and can’t think. The thing with Indi­anthu­si­asm is that these peo­ple don’t real­ly believe they are or will be us, it’s just that they want to tag along on the ride in any way possible.

MH: Can you imag­ine using the cur­rent con­tro­ver­sy as a cat­a­lyst for a new artis­tic endeavor?

DHT: A lot of great art comes from chaos and con­tro­ver­sy. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if new inter­pre­ta­tions of the Indige­nous mythos were to come from this. The appetite is there, it just needs bet­ter food. I myself am work­ing with a the­ater com­pa­ny in Dres­den to see if there’s some­thing new and inno­v­a­tive we can cre­ate togeth­er. And I’m very excit­ed about the possibilities.

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