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I have been touring a number of US museums in the last two weeks in order to prepare exhibits in Saxony, for networking, and for pleasure.
The first tour stop was Oklahoma. I returned to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at Oklahoma University in Norman. From my earlier visit, I remembered their vast collection of art on the American West. This section, based on the Eugene B. Adkins collection, combines non-Native American, Native American, and European representations of the West to explain its role in American history as an idea, a symbol, a story, and a sacred place. The collection contains paintings, basketry, pottery, and jewelry. Among the featured artists are Americans and Europeans from the Taos artist tradition, as well as Native American artists such as Fritz Scholder and Harry Fonseca.
I was also excited to learn about the tradition of brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from Oaxaca, Mexico, the so-called ‘alebrijes,’ especially since our museum in Leipzig currently works on a special exhibition about mythical and fantastic animals throughout the world:
Particularly fascinating was the temporary exhibit “Misunderstood! Indigenous Art and Poetry as Political Resistance”. It featured political cartoons, poetry, drawings, and paintings. Topics ranged from the Red Power movement, representation and racist stereotypes, to contemporary politics.
I also took the chance to visit the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City. The 45th was a National Guard unit in the Southwest, formed in the 1920s. During World War II, it consisted of c. one third Native American soldiers. They landed in Italy in 1943, and again in southern France in August 1944, before moving through southwest Germany and liberating Dachau concentration camp and Munich in April 1945. The division then served in the Korean War and the early phases of Vietnam.
Notably, the unit at first used shoulder patches showing a yellow swastika on red to represent a pan-tribal spiritual symbol, abandoning its use to dissociate from Nazi symbolism in 1939, in favor of the Thunderbird, another pan-tribal symbol.
Two Native American soldiers, Ernest Childers (Muskogee/Creek) and Jack C. Montgomery (Cherokee), were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Italy campaign 1943. The 45th Infantry Division, or “Thunderbirds”, is a vivid example of the role of modern military service for self-determined and renewed military traditions and group identity among Native American communities.
I recently returned from the American Indian Workshop, the annual meeting of scholars in Native American studies in Europe, bringing together scholars from literary and cultural studies, cultural anthropology, and history. This year’s meeting, the 35th, was held in Leiden, the Netherlands on 21-25 May. Only belatedly (embarrassing for a historian) I connected the dots when a university dignitary said during the opening “Welcome to Leiden, where it all began”: the Pilgrims spent a few years in exile in Leiden before making their trip on the Mayflower and eventually establishing Plymouth colony (apparently because they felt that their children were becoming “too Dutch”). The local museum dedicated to the Pilgrims was closed both times I went to see it – maybe I should have memorized the opening hours the first time I stood at closed doors. More lucky colleagues told me a lot about the small but very intriguing collection of furniture, clothing, and books.
After a conference at Plimoth Plantation in 2011, I have now visited several places “where it all began”; and I might also add the Canary island of La Gomera, where Columbus’s ships took water before making the long haul across the Atlantic. There is even a well in the island’s capital San Sebastian de la Gomera proclaiming that “this water baptized America.“
Back to Leiden and the AIW (I might come back to discuss my impressions of the old town in a later post) – I was curious about a new feature on the conference program. The organizers had set up a poster session in which MA-level students, but also a Dutch company and, if I’m not mistaken, NGOs presented their work. This piqued my interest because, as of now, I had heard about and seen poster sessions only in the natural sciences and social sciences, but not in the humanities. In the conferences I co-organized, we discussed the format as a way to accommodate an extraordinary number of presentation proposals but eventually decided against it. We were concerned that, particularly in literary and cultural studies, it would be impossible to express complex ideas with eye-catching visuals and that, eventually, posters would become what the German language calls a “Bleiwüste” (text-heavy; literally, a “desert of hot type”).
The posters I saw at the AIW, however, were nothing of the sort. Many presenters neatly structured their posters into research questions, short notes on methodology, data collection, and conclusions. Some included photographs from field work or from their cooperation with local Native American scholars and communities.
Most important for the presenters was that, although you do not have a lot of space to formulate your argument in complex language, you had about two and a half hours time to get in contact with your audience and discuss your work in depth. A traditional conference presentation is 15-25 minutes long and you will have only about 10-15 minutes for Q/A which does not allow for in-depth discussion. Here, you could take the time to challenge, ask, or comment, in a one-on-one discussion
without having to fear that going deep at this point will dominate the floor and discourage other comments. I enjoyed this format very much and had the impression that the presenters were glad about the opportunity for such detailed feedback. It might also have helped that the session room also hosted the birthday cake – keynote speaker Henrietta Mann turned 80 that day and was presented with a song by all participants (sung in their respective languages), and with this wonderful Dutch cake. This is how I like academia: merrily munching and chatting away!
I went to Tübingen on 6-7 May to hold a guest lecture on Wild West shows in Europe. Tübingen, a small town near Stuttgart in the region of Swabia in Southwest Germany, is one of the reputable traditional university towns. As Leipzig is proud of Goethe’s time as a student at its university (most of which he apparently spent partying), Tübingen is proud to have many German Romanticists, such as Hölderlin and Hauff, as well es the philosopher Hegel, among its former faculty, students, and residents.
The lecture on Wild West Shows addressed several aspects of German perceptions of Native Americans (and vice versa) that I explored in my dissertation, such as German impresarios’, newspaper reporters’, and the audiences’ expectations and reception of Native American show performers, but also a perspective on the Native experience and motivation to join these shows. My presentation was integrated in Prof. Astrid Franke’s lecture on “Issues in American Literary and Cultural History from the Civil War to the First World War” and was videotaped. I will post a link to the video as soon as it is published. It was a great opportunity to return to my general research interest in German/European representations of Native America. I will probably post more entries in the future to discuss anecdotes and examples of Indian imagery popping up in German history and current everyday life.
Whenever I come to a new town, I like to walk around to get a feeling how it is laid out: what are the distances and major landmarks, how do these landmarks look from different perspectives and how does the structure of the town relate to them (e.g. in the line of view). It is always exciting to see the “underside” and subcultural aspects of a place as well, so I look for graffiti, stickers on lamp posts, and posters, no matter if they advertise festivals, political events, or garage sales. I will take some time in future entries to post pictures of signs from different places I came across and found remarkable.
“Walking the map” of Tübingen, I happened upon a little bridge, called the “Indianersteg” (Indian’s Footbridge). It’s simply a small pedestrian bridge connecting the southern part of town with an oblong island that parts the Neckar river across from the old town and is laid out as a park.
Tübingen’s official wiki states that the name comes from children playing Indians at this bridge. The title’s first occurrence in official records is from a 1871 report on an accident. This fits nicely into my presentation topic: Discussing ethnographic exhibitions (Völkerschauen) and Wild West shows, I explained that, although “Indianthusiasm” as a phenomenon developed since c. 1800, these shows helped turn it into a feature of popular mass culture during the 1870s and 1880s. The fact that children met at this bridge to play Indians in the 1860s and early 1870s tells us that this cultural practice was already widespread at a time when the popularity and high frequency of these shows as just starting, several years before Buffalo Bill first toured Germany (1890) and Karl May published his first Winnetou novel (1893).