Karl May Museum’s Lastest on Human Remains? WE Decide, Not You. We’re in Control. #Repatriation

These photos were taken by and copyright to Mark Worth, used with his permission.

This photo was taken by and copyright to Mark Worth, used with his previous permission.

A “case study” by Robin Leipold, curator of the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany. Karl May is the German author who created the stereotypical “American Indian” character Winnetou, peopling his dozens of books and later films with fabricated, mythical, heavily distorted “Indians”, but “positive” characters, not the vicious or dumb savages churned out by the USA. That’s why some try to claim it’s not so bad, and No, it’s not the same, but the effects of stereotyping are.

Forum: R. Leipold: The “Recommendations for the Care of Human Remains” in Practice: Case Study of the Karl May Museum Radebeul
This town is Germany is the homebase for Karl May fans, and hosts an annual festival each May. A festival which some Natives are invited to and attend, and without fail and no sarcasm whatsoever, are treated close to royalty as many Germans were introduced to “native culture” through May’s work and natives who dress and are believed to be traditional and thus “authentic”, due to appearance based on stereotypes, most certainly are. One isn’t faulting them, most have been misinformed for decades. There are lots of sincere people in Germany about native concerns as they understand them, but behavior and practices of the dominant culture still remain: appropriation. We believe it’s a unique opportunity that can benefit both, but this particular situation is unacceptable.

This same musuem (and others in Germany, but especially this one because they say they’re celebrating native culture) has been holding and refusing to return Native American scalps for years. Dismissing or ignoring entreaties to return these relatives home for proper, respectful treatment and burial. I was contacted and alerted in 2013 and began researching and writing, and by 2014, when invited to the festival I declined to participate in a “Q&A” on Native spirituality, not just because I won’t take part in any such affair but because of their holding native captives. So, almost 3 years of talks, negotiated and bluster, this is the latest from the museum.

Full of Eurocentrized interpretations of Native American cultures and practices, dripping with colonialism and pure German rationalé: that since they haven’t yet written guidelines and established protocols using only their logic and reasoning, the human remains cannot be returned. The level of white privilege and white supremacist behavior, the objectification of Native peoples is so deep, I could barely read the whole. So much for those who call themselves “Indian” experts, knowledgeable of native peoples and cultures, because obviously they have no respect or understanding of the Peoples, or even of cultural bridges.

And part of all this is reinforced when Natives and other allies are told, because we’ve been repeatedly told these exact phrases by staff and directors from KKM:

  • “Natives have visited many times and THEY never complained about the scalps.” (How could they, they were your guests!)
  • “Oh, natives were battling each other all the time and taking these trophies, what is the issue of us having them?” (If you can’t see it, it’s because you don’t want to. Multiple Native individuals, nations and organizations have informed you.)

Or by Natives: “They don’t know. We must educate them” On topics like these? They KNOW, they chose to ignore. When you’re not here year round, aren’t aware of the issues and know what they’re doing otherwise, your presence validates and further exacerbates the continuing colonialism, racism and silencing of minorities and ethnicities’ voices so they can continue their privileged play. These aren’t generally interested villagers you’re dealing with but those who consider themselves experts and wish to remain in control as decision-makers. Unacceptable. There are people who you can reach and help educate, and that’s what our documentary Forget Winnetou-Going Beyond Native Stereotypes in Germany is about. We’ve been researching and working hard to bring it to the world, about the REAL story behind Germany’s fascination with Natives, and it’s fall-out. Help us reach our goal.

Learn more here.


My past articles and appearances on the topic of these human remains:

Karl May Museum Reneges on Agreement to Return #NativeAmerican Scalps


Karl May Museum Reneges on Agreement to Return #NativeAmerican Scalps

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.

These photos were taken by and copyright to Mark Worth, used with his permission.

These photos were taken by and copyright to Mark Worth, used with his previous permission.

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.

Karl May Museum hangs on to Native American scalp

My other articles on the topic:


On cultural appropriation & hobbyists (Off site interviews/comments):


On cultural appropriation, native/indigenous history & knowledge (On site articles):