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Native Studies in East Germany: After 50+ Years, International Recognition
Part of my research on Native Studies in East Germany concerned the disciplinary history of cultural anthropology at the museums in Saxony (the state-run museums in Leipzig, Dresden, and Herrnhut, and the private Karl-May-Museum in Radebeul), as well as the development of university anthropology in Leipzig after World War II.Because the communist state controlled university enrollment and opened new classes only for as many students as were needed to staff museums and research institutions, there were only a few actors in the field between 1950 and 1990. Historiographical research quickly unveils disciplinary networks among colleagues and former fellow students. Most who studied “Ethnography,” as the discipline was called, at Leipzig or Humboldt University Berlin, later worked together at the museums in Leipzig and Dresden. Unlike developments in “the West,” there was no methodological and theoretical split between museum anthropology and university anthropology in the GDR, so graduates who moved on to different institutions often worked closely together. In addition, the Leipzig museum was a dedicated “research museum”―its research branch was fairly similar to research at the university.
As I dove into the historiography of GDR ethnography, an unexpected opportunity came up early in 2021: Dr. Allan T. Scholz, biologist at Eastern Washington University, approached me about a dissertation defended at Leipzig in 1965. Dietrich Treide’s work “The Organization of Indian Salmon Fishing in Western North America” had been written in German and was reviewed in American Anthropologist in 1966, where the reviewer, Wayne P. Suttles, expressed his regret that the text was only available in German. When Allan Scholz came across this 50-year-old review, he decided to have the German dissertation translated. He approached us at GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig about the rights and to obtain some biographical information on Treide.
I’ll document the bio sketch we provided below because it serves to explain the conditions under which a researcher behind the Iron Curtain created a work that, more than 50 years later, is still considered relevant to help build a sustainable fishing industry in the Columbia River basin in collaborative efforts between the US and Canadian governments, as well as the traditional salmon-fishing tribes of the region.
Here is the link to the full translation of the dissertation, with Allan Scholz’s foreword, at EWU’s open access site: https://dc.ewu.edu/scholz/1/
“Notes on the life of Dietrich Treide (25 March 1933 – 2 November 2008)
Dietrich Treide was a German ethnologist and university professor. He grew up in Leipzig and enrolled in the Cultural Anthropology program at Julius-Lips-Institute for Ethnology at Leipzig University in 1951. The institute had been rebuilt after the war by Julius Lips. His widow Eva Lips took over the chair after Julius’ early death in 1950, one of the first female tenured professors in Germany. The institute was one of two major training centers for cultural anthropology in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany). The Lipses had chosen exile from Nazi Germany for political reasons, and spent years in the United States during the war (at Columbia University in New York). They returned to Leipzig in 1947. After her husband’s death in 1950, Eva Lips led the institute into the mid-1960s and shaped the careers of East German ethnographers such as Treide through vivid exchange with researchers from “the West.” She worked to convey a realistic image of North American Indians, and instilled this ethic in Treide.
Unless one’s research focused on communities within the Eastern bloc, GDR ethnographers could rarely hope to receive travel permits for field work abroad, because the Iron Curtain and, after 1961, the Berlin Wall all but sealed off the country from the West. Therefore, a generation of “armchair ethnographers” emerged who were trained to anchor their work around the non-European material culture stored in vast pre-war museum collections (mostly at Leipzig and Dresden) and on diligent ethnohistorical research in the archives. Treide’s dissertation on Indigenous historical fishing economies and social structures along the Columbia River is an exemplary work in this category (1965).
Shaped by the Lipses’ philosophy, Treide’s dissertation shows the influence of American scholars such as Alfred Kroeber, Clark Wissler, and Julian Steward, rather than the ideas of Marxist evolutionary theory prevailing in East German scholarship at the time. However, his work reflects the East German, especially the Leipzig institute’s economic-historical approach to ethnography, and it shows the extensive training in languages and interdisciplinary area studies that became a marker of GDR ethnography. Even while finishing his dissertation, Treide already co-authored a popular survey titled Ethnography for Everybody (Ethnographie für Jedermann) which became a staple on the shelves in East German homes. Such efforts in popularizing academia served to dismantle the notion of scholarship as elitist, and to promote the study of other cultures as a way to diminish xenophobia and racism in post-war East Germany. It also offered a substitute to the wanderlust of East Germans suffering from Cold War travel restrictions.
Taking over the chair of the Leipzig institute in 1968, Treide was often confronted with demands to comply with communist policies on higher education, research, and culture. He was compelled to shift his research focus from “a few irrelevant Indian tribes” to broader – and politically more appealing – observations on the emergence of class and power structures in human history. Throughout his time as chair, he struggled to resist or dampen ideological attempts to steer research and teaching, or to shut down the institute and scatter its extensive historical library holdings. Possibly as a consequence of his inconvenient leadership, he gained tenure only in 1985.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Treide was elected to lead the reunified German Anthropological Association (1991), a gesture acknowledging his service to the field in East Germany. However, he also felt the shocks and painful changes in East German academia after reunification, which many observers today describe as a “neocolonial takeover” of East German institutes, chairs, and tenured positions by Western scholars and administrators. He lost the chair of the Leipzig institute, and retired in 1996. Together with his wife Barbara, a specialist on Pacific island cultures at the GRASSI Museum at Leipzig, he spent his remaining years on extensive research trips and field studies, and published on cultural identity among communities in the Pacific.
His senior authorship or co-authorship of 54 publications (he was sole author of 34 of them) during his tenure at Leipzig is a lasting testament to his scholarship. His treatise Die Organisierung des indianischen Lachsfangs im westlichen Nordamerika (The organization of Indian salmon fishing in western North America) is a prime example of his scholarship and his portrayal of realistic images of North American Indian cultures.
Indianthusiasm in East Germany: (Native) American Studies before 1990
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.
The History of East German Museums 1945-90, and Indian Hobbyists
In the context of my new job, I got involved in an international research project titled “Curating (Post)Socialist Environments” about museum work and (art) history in Eastern Europe, and how people in Eastern European countries built, organized, created, refined – i.e., curated – exhibitions but also urban landscapes and private homes.
The project gave me an opportunity to delve into the history of the Leipzig museum during the GDR, especially the museum’s relationship with diverse regional clubs of Indian hobbyists. I spent a few weeks at the museum library and archives to study old yearbooks, visitor’s books, documents, and exhibition scripts. In addition, I did a survey of references to Native Americans in East German TV shows from news to kids’ shows to ethnographic documentaries at Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German TV and Radio Archive) and looked at reports and documents on cultural and education policy at the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive).
All this generated more than enough material for several articles, and there are still documents to be perused. I finished the manuscript for an article that will be part of the research group’s forthcoming anthology titled Curating (Post)Socialist Environments (release in April 2021).
Last week, I attended the conference “Museums in the GDR” in Rostock, organized by the Richard-Schöne-Gesellschaft für Museumsgeschichte and the “Kunsthalle Rostock.” The conference also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Kunsthalle in Rostock, one of the very few museums constructed in East Germany 1949-90.
The conference addresses “questions regarding the organizational, political, and aesthetic development of museums in the GDR, provide answers, and debate[d] blank spaces in previous research.”
“[The meeting] looks into personal, cultural, and intellectual continuities of (East) German museum policy since the Kaiser era to identify unique developments in GDR museum culture, and to discuss international relations, not only with the Eastern Bloc but also the competition with West Germany.” (from the conference press release)
My own contribution introduced some Indian hobby clubs, pointing to Indianthusiast continuities since the 19th century. I emphasized that the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde and local hobby clubs built their relationship for mutual benefit: On the one hand, hobbyists approached the museum to gain reliable resources about Native Americans. They learned about exhibition concepts and practices, and sometimes could use the museum as a platform to present their own activities and skills to the public.
On the other hand, the museum fulfilled its mandate to serve as a link between the state’s ideological directives on education and culture, scholarship, and the populace. Supporting the hobbyists’ amateur ethnography was a welcome opportunity for the museum to implement the state’s doctrine of popular education (especially the so-called “Bitterfelder Weg”) and to gain further insight into the museum’s own collection from the hobbyists’ growing practical experience with reconstructing material culture.
By employing the term “experimental ethnography,” I argue that both the hobbyists (who had to justify their work with state officials to obtain permits for club activities) and the museum (which was supposed to support youth culture and non-professional interests) portrayed their mutual activities as serious work. Framing their activities as amateur research and exhibitions with a political motivation (anti-imperialist solidarity) apparently could demonstrate to the state that hobbyism went beyond mere horseplay, that hobbyists were not ‘just playing Indian.’