Update 2017: The Karl May continue refusing return of all of the remains. They only agreed to return ONE human remains to a tribe. The others they consider themselves caretakers of, and refuse to respect multiple requests to return our relatives for respectful burial.
Two years ago I was interviewed by Deutsche Welle TV on the topic of Native American scalps being held at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany. An American visitor had remarked and challenged the display, contacting me and several other Native American individuals and groups in an effort to have the scalps repatriated. I wrote articles for Indian Country Today and at my own website to help drawn attention to the situation, as well as educate others on why it is so important that the scalp(s) be identified and returned.
Native American culture, which is in fact plural, not singular, as there are thousands of different tribes many having their distinct languages, traditions and beliefs. The common denominator historically is almost all share the devastating results of invasion by Europeans. In Germany, Native Americans are popular, but mostly in past tense, as relics, as objects, just as they view these scalps. Stereotypes, caricatures, curious beings or things.
The German public by majority when asked rather laughed at the idea that anyone, even natives, might want these old scalps returned. Besides the fact those ones didn’t even consider the ethical or moral obligation, obviously, they have little or no education on how to respect other cultures and beliefs except on their own terms. In other words: since it means nothing to them, it couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone else unless they’re crazy or strange. A shocking attitude, but such a dismissive, ethnocentric belief is similar in scope and depth that excused brutal European acts of genocide and ethnocide not only in the Americas, but anywhere they went around the world. Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia.
Despite talks, despite protests and calls from natives, and their previous agreement of returning the scalps, the Karl May Museum has reneged and again refused. They claim original ownership can’t be determined, so they do not know who to properly return it/them to. Well, the original owner had it on their head. IT WAS THEIR SCALP. Whoever bought or sold, that part is now irrelevant. It needs to be repatriated.
Returning the human remains to the person’s tribe is ethical, moral and right, so that it can be properly respected, cared for and returned to the earth but all the Karl May Museum can think of is material goods, ownership. They also don’t want to be set the precendent (DESPITE international human repatriation laws) that start the push for the many museums, hobbyists and private collectors to return their “objects of curiosity” and morbid thrills back to native tribes.
The Karl May Museum is absolutely in the wrong, and no amount of their posturing, blustering or supposed concern for “doing the right thing” makes their attitude okay. They’re wrong. The scalp(s) need to be returned. This is an yet another ugly example of how the collecting of “native goods/items/remains” or cultural appropriation by Indian hobbyists or museums and the like can continue historic trauma to Native Americans or other indigenous peoples besides creating an international issue.
My other articles on the topic:
- Agreement Reached Regarding Scalps At Karl May Museum
- “Karl May Museum Refuses Return of Native Scalps”
- Public Statement: The Karl May Festival, Museum & Repatriation Situation
- Battle Over an Ojibwe Scalp
On cultural appropriation & hobbyists (Off site interviews/comments):
- Im Wilden Osten at STERN Magazine
- Last of the Munichans at Mother Jones Magazine
- Cowboys & Indianer at Ex-Berliner Magazine
- Dressing Up as Cowboys and Indians Is Big In Germany at Global Post
- Red Haircrow at PULS (Interview)
- Hirnloser Trend oder bewusste Provokation? at PULS
On cultural appropriation, native/indigenous history & knowledge (On site articles):
- “Pretendians”: Why Offensive to Indigenous As A Whole
- Indian Hobbyists Again “Glamorized” in STERN Magazine
- Native Misrepresentation in Film
- “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” in Germany: Confronting and Informing the Ignorant
- The Same Story, The Same People: Cultural Misappropriation
- “You’re All the Same!” American Indians From a European Perspective