“Winter Pow-wow 2014” took place in Berlin, Germany on February 15th in the Fritz-Reuter Oberschule gymnasium. Sellers of native-inspired items lined the walls, hawking some goods imported from the Americas—hand-tooled leather items, clothing, beadwork and decorations—but most of the items for sale bore a “Made in China” sticker.
Surrounding the central dance circle—unmarked except for towering stage lighting and a few rows of chairs—I saw drums like those from home, but each were “mixed,” men and women drumming together, an unacceptable practice for many tribes of the Americas. Dancers milling in the middle of the area were dressed in a combination of new-age garb or a mishmosh of world cultures, though most sported American Indian style costumes: grass, men’s traditional, fancy shawl and jingle. Such can be found for sale on eBay and similar sites any day of the week, even in Europe.
Many of the participants waiting for the event to begin were wearing as many breastplates, bear claw necklaces, feathers and bone jewelry as they seemed able to physically support. In the crowd of perhaps 200, many visitors wore their “Indian” or western garb, whether it was a single feather, moccasins or face paint, yet save for my son, myself and Robert Packard, a Yankton Sioux who has lived in Europe for over 30 years, there were no other Natives here. In fact, there were no other minorities whatsoever, and glances in my direction varied from curious to challenging.
Alerted to the event by Packard, who had been invited, my son and I arrived shortly before “grand entry,” which was presaged by a very lengthy discourse by the “MC” and “head-women.” Several prayers and new age chants were offered and repeated in different languages and interspersed with a few Lakota words (the Native language of choice in Germany), followed by a very modified rendition of “pow-wow etiquette.”
As an inter-tribal song began (ironic, as there were no tribes here), one of the stewards singled me out to explain that I must remove my hat, as it was the respectful way at pow-wows. I stopped him right there.
“I am Native American and I know what is proper at pow-wows. This is not a pow-wow anyway, and you’re not telling them to remove their hats,” I pointed out the Germans with covered heads. “Why are you talking to me?” He quickly moved away.
“Look, real Indians!” a young man exclaimed, eagerly taking photographs of Germans living their fantasy of being Indians with the single-mindedness and attention to detail for which Germans are known. This could be considered an admirable quality, but at this so-called “pow-wow,” Native misappropriation was rampant on a grand-scale.
Contest dancing, hoop and jingle, fancy shawl and grass were all represented, and audience members were permitted to join in at any time. These were just dances without the symbolism and sacredness, an apparent free-for-all. Plenty of movement but none of it like what I’d grown up with. I could see the excitement and pleasure on faces, the seriousness of the show of pageantry, the elaborateness of the costumes, but it was no more than a show, playacting, and a “hands-on” interactive cultural science display.
Some historical facts were presented or explained at the pow wow, but much of it was slanted to showcase the reason for such hobbyist “reenactments,” particularly the misinformation that Natives were sinking into extinction—these hobbyists were said to be trying to keep the spirit of those past noble people alive.
All this reminded me of an article in ICTMN 14 years ago. Lindbergh Namingha, a member of Hopi tribe who lived in Germany, wrote of the hobbyists, “They are like a living museum and I find it very offensive, especially when they refuse to let true American Indians participate in their events. They say we’re too modern and believe we’ve lost our Native Americanness. They can’t seem to understand that our culture, just like theirs, has evolved from the 17th century to the 21st.”
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With the bluntness of youth, my 16-year-old son put it another way: “It is not their culture. They are stealing from others, but don’t want to admit it. That’s why they didn’t want us there, because they know we know what they are doing is wrong.”
This hadn’t been a pow-wow. It had been the meeting of a fan club and its admirers in no way different than enthusiasts of Star Trek. Those activities are based on fantasy worlds and people. Native Americans are real, and have a present and future, not just a past.