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Indianthusiasm in East Germany: (Native) American Studies before 1990

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In recent years, I have become involved in research on Native American imagery, representation, and Native American studies in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or communist East Germany. This helped fill a gap in my work, as my dissertation had started out looking into German perspectives on Native people and the emergence of Indianthusiasm in the 19th century, and its eventual implementation during the Nazi era. Later, my research investigated Native images in contemporary nationalist and anti-immigrant discourse in Germany and Europe (see the series of posts around the slogan “Indians Couldn’t Stop Immigration”).

In this new series of posts, I will discuss some work on Native American studies at East German universities and anthropological museums before 1990, and how pop culture shaped interrelations between the communist state, researchers, educators, Indian hobbyists, and the public.

At the GAAS annual meeting in 2021, “Participation in American Culture and Society,” my colleagues Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez (Leipzig) and Stefanie Schäfer (Vienna) invited me to participate in a round table titled “Im Osten nichts Neues? German American Studies in East and West Germany.” Presentation topics included networks of American Studies behind the Iron Curtain (Charlotte Lerg, Munich), African American studies in the GDR as a perspective on “the other America” (Astrid Haas, Lancashire), the history of the Dresden-based journal Zeitschrift für Anglistik/Amerikanistik (Michael Lörch, Mainz), and the work of the Rockefeller Foundation in early Cold-War West Germany and Eastern Europe (Renata Nowaczewska, Szczecin, Poland). My presentation “Indianthusiasm as International Solidarity” provided a brief historiography of Native Studies in the GDR.

English and American Studies in the GDR were closely tied to teacher training which, in turn, was framed by the strict centralized school curriculum. The bulk of teacher training was taken up by language practice and linguistics. The study of literature, culture, and history of the Anglo-American world, however, only had a peripheral role, and had to fit into the ideological communist framework: US history courses offered brief overviews, mostly skipping the colonial era and early republic, focusing on the Civil War and the US as an emerging global (imperialist) power and, after World War II, as communism’s major adversary in the Cold War. Literature courses covered classic texts and writers (e.g., Twain, Hawthorne, Hemingway), and then drew attention to “progressive” writers, i.e., representatives of the “Old Left,” social criticism, and minority literature, in order to represent the other, “better” America. This focus allowed GDR scholars to carve out a research niche because Western scholarship largely ignored works from within the labor movement, and much of “minority literature” until the late 20th century. Similarly, American-studies topics informed the GDR publishing industry. Apart from new editions and translations of literary classics, left-wing and minority writers were widely translated and published in East Germany.

Native American studies, while a marginal field of scholarly interest, fit into this system and enjoyed a degree of public visibility. Quite a few contemporary Native writers, such as N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich were featured by GDR publishing houses. Silko’s Ceremony was first translated into German by a GDR publisher. Interestingly, quite a few friends of mine who grew up in the West told me that, when they traveled across the Iron Curtain, they usually made a beeline to the next book store because East German publishers were reputed for their high-quality translations.

With just a brief window for my presentation, I could only outline my recent work and hint at fascinating interrelations between university and museum research in Native Studies, ideological directives on how the US and its minority politics were to be presented in museums and classrooms, and how all this tied in with Indianthusiasm. In our lively discussion we found several parallels in the academic treatment and public reception of Native American and African American topics, as both represented the “better America,” and their civil-rights movements were hailed as anti-imperialist currents with which the East German state wanted to identify. These topics also helped students and scholars justify a study interest in the US vis a vis the communist state whose policy-makers perceived any interest in “America” as suspicious.

Regarding Native American studies, I found it fascinating how the historical perspective illuminates current trends in the field – as in other recent discussions, I was asked about Native American reactions to East German Indianthusiasm, and in how far East Germans were aware of cultural appropriation in phenomena such as the many hobbyist clubs or in the DEFA “Indianer” movies. This discussion brought to the fore that cultural appropriation emerged as a concept (and an academic research interest) only in the late 20th century (probably starting with Vine Deloria’s works in the 1970s). Native Studies in East Germany before 1990 were progressive in their “cliche busting” (Glenn Penny) i.e., showing cultural diversity beyond feather-wearing, horse-riding Plains Indians, and highlighting the Red Power movement to show that Native peoples and Indigenous anticolonial/anti-imperialist resistance had by no means disappeared. Cultural appropriation as a concept, however, apparently wasn’t yet on the table, and none of my sources suggest that Native visitors and observers addressed problems we would discuss as cultural appropriation today. It would be interesting to learn, though, how Native visitors to East Germany (there were a few in the 1970s and 1980s, some leading figures of AIM, e.g. Russell Means, and some scholars and political figures, such as Ross Swimmer) reflected on their visits and encounters with communist state representatives, scholars, and hobbyists, once they returned back home.


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