Cowboys Und Indians

A village of 390 tepees stretches along the valley floor, close by a gurgling stream. Squaws cook breakfast over open fires. Young girls play lacrosse. A pair of warriors skin a buffalo. Others have painted themselves with black ash and white chalk and donned their tribal finery. Today will be the Great Dance, with prayers for the grass to grow so that the buffalo may multiply.

Morning on the American Great Plains, 1850? No, Langenwetzendorf in eastern Germany, a sleepy town in the forests south of Berlin. The buffalo comes from a breeder in Nuremberg (yes, it's been tested for BSE), and 15 port-a-pots stand ready in a meadow. As for the thousand residents of the tepee village, not one claims a drop of American blood. Instead, these half-naked "natives" are lawyers from Leipzig, doctors from Hamburg and office workers from Oberhausen. Called Indian Week, the secretive, sealed-off camp with the strictest of dress codes is organized by one of the more than 200 clubs in Germany devoted to celebrating the long-gone culture of the American West. Across the country, some 40,000 Germans are aficionados of das Westernhobby. Once a year, and often more, they step out of their everyday lives--and into the role of Comanche or Hidatsa, trapper or trader, cowboy or sodbuster. They don feathers or chaps, practice archery or shout "yee-hah!" From the Lakota Friends of Dusseldorf to the Pony Express Riders of Berlin, they stage everything from country hoedowns and barbecues to painstaking re-enactments of life on the prairie, Langenwetzendorf style. And always they do it with true Teutonic flair.

Europe's strangest culture cult harks back to the famous Karl May, an oddball 19th-century schoolteacher whose fantastical novels about an Apache named Winnetou remain best sellers to this day. (May himself never visited America, let alone the West, and penned at least some of his romances while in prison for fraud.) Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1896 drew tremendous crowds when it toured Germany, fanning the love affair May had inspired. Nor let us forget Prince Maximilian of Wied, the German explorer and ethnographer who was among the first to record tribal life in the Dakotas and Montana in the 1830s. It was largely thanks to his influence that Berlin more than a century ago became one of the first centers for Native American studies--and his collection of artifacts remains one of the world's finest.

Westernalia still permeates Germany. Saloons and Western-themed restaurants dot the countryside, vying with beer gardens and bratwurst stands. There's Stetson City amusement park near Dresden, and Pullman City in Bavaria. Women seeking enlightenment chant naked in Indian-style sweat lodges, pounding drums, and a craze for country dancing has recently swept up young and old alike. This summer, like every summer, travel agents offer a bonanza of holidays at dude ranches across the West. And Lufthansa's flights from Frankfurt to Phoenix are packed.

When it comes to cowboys and Indians in Germany, it's always been the Native Americans who inspire the greatest devotion. At Indian Week, the only "white" men allowed were a couple of traders--in period costumes, of course, manning an outpost selling pelts and other paraphernalia near the parking lot. (We will not mention the NEWSWEEK correspondent hiding his Levi's and polo shirt under an Indian blanket.) The emphasis is on authenticity and keeping alive the skills of a "lost" culture. "I made all this myself," says Diethard Reps, a "Blackfoot" from Magdeburg, showing off his home-sewn and brightly painted tepee--along with a collection of handicrafts ranging from beaded boxes fashioned out of hardened deerskin to a stone ax with a handle of dried bull penis (a technique he picked up during a visit to the Ethnology Museum in Exeter, England). Right now, he's tanning a hide using dissolved cow brain, a traditional method from the time before chemicals. "It's an antidote to stress at the office," the 32-year-old construction engineer says. Whereupon his "Hidatsa" wife, whom he met at Indian Week 12 years ago, wraps up their baby in a papoose blanket and returns silently to their tent.

The coolest group call themselves Crow Owners, after a 19th-century Dakota warrior society. They are a dozen buff twentysomethings in body paint and skimpy animal hides, their shaved heads adorned with headdresses of green-dyed porcupine whiskers. Dancing themselves into a trance to rhythmic drums and chants, they would seem equally at home in a Berlin techno club. As standoffish as they are fierce-looking, they talk to no one else and recruit members as if they were some secret sect. Music is also the main draw for Oliver Diecke, 22, a dental assistant and rock-band singer from Furstenwalde, just east of Berlin. He came to camp with his father at the age of 1, but now has his own tepee for himself and his girlfriend. He sings tunes from the Cree and Dakota, he explains. His dream is to one day chant at a ceremony with real Indians in America.

Why all this longing for an all but extinct culture? Perhaps for the same reason that makes Germans the world's most-traveled tourists: something called Fernweh--the longing for an idyllic place far, far away from the narrow confines of German life. Perhaps nowhere does Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage" resonate as strongly as in Germany, where all kinds of back-to-nature movements thrive. (If the Indian cult grew even under Nazism and communism, it's in no small part because both regimes used the image of the Good Native to discredit America and Western capitalism.) Few want anything to do with today's Native Americans, however. "It'd be too complicated for the poor German soul to deal with contemporary Indian life, with all its complexities and problems," says Jorg (Joe) Diecke, the organizer and Oliver's father. Besides, he adds, Germans tend to be a bit prejudiced against real Indians, considering their culture to have been perverted by kitsch and casinos. It's no accident that Indian Week cuts off its dress code at 1890. The reservation era is strictly verboten.

Not always, though. Some years ago, when Joe Diecke and other hobbyists went to a powwow of the Crow in Winnipeg, they got to join their idols in song and dance. Diecke was so moved that he's trying to increase contact with joint visits and student exchanges. He's also trying to stop other Germans from re-enacting holy ceremonies, a practice that he regards as sacrilegious. "If we really respect their culture, we've got to stop living only in a fantasy world that doesn't exist anymore," he says. Well, maybe so. But judging from Indian Week, fantasy could be a lot more fun.

Join the Discussion