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How I came to the Apache

My piece in The Economist this week is about Native Americans, and in particular about the puzzling concept of their national “sovereignty” as individual tribes.

I had a great time researching this one, mainly because I ended up visiting the White Mountain Apache tribe in remote Arizona.

But why did I go to the Apache? I could have chosen from 334 reservations and 565 tribes.

Well, there were a couple of reasons, some journalistic, others logistical. Also, just getting an interview with any tribal leader can be difficult — the tribes have been burnt so often by us whites, including by white hacks, that they don’t trust any of us. As Ronnie Lupe, the chairman (≈ chieftain) said to me:

“We see a white man snooping around, we all have the same thought: is he good or bad?”

I was the one snooping around.

But this post is really about the other reason why I chose the Apache, which is meant to be a bit frivolous and yet sentimental.

You see, it’s because I, a dual citizen, was once a … German boy!

All about Winnetou

Being a German boy means, statistically, being very likely to be obsessed with American Indians in general and the Apache in particular. Let’s just take my case.

In this grainy shot above from the mid 1970s, my friend Patrick and I (left) happened to be Sioux, Cheyenne or Arapaho. This is obvious from the:

  • teepee (not wigwam or wikiup), and
  • feathers

You see, we German boys took take these details quite seriously. When playing, one just does not mix genres between, say, the Iroquois/Mohawk and the Great Plains or southwestern tribes. God forbid.

But most of the time we did not wear feathers. Instead, Patrick and I looked more like this:

Here Patrick is dressed as Old Shatterhand and I (left again, with wig and paint) am the Apache chief Winnetou. (Our moms made the outfits, since you ask.)

Who are Winnetou and Old Shatterhand? I will tell you. But first, here is how we imagined them:

Click for credits

This is a poster for one of the Winnetou films that we were watching in the 70s. Here you see them, the two enemies-turned-blood-brothers and best friends, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. To us, they were the noblest heroes.

See if you can spot how Patrick and I tried to approximate the look of the characters (played by Lex Barker and Pierre Brice).

But long before those films, German boys had been reading the novels. They were written by Karl May, perhaps the best-selling German author of all time. (Take that, Luther, Mann, Nietzsche, …) May died 100 years ago this year.

In his imagination May dreamed up exotic worlds and heroes that have enthralled millions since. The best comparison I can think of for you Anglo-Saxons is this: Karl May was really Germany’s J.K. Rowling.

Here May is dressed as he imagined his hero, Old Shatterhand:

In any case, what does any of this have to do with my research for this week’s article?

Well, boys become men, and then sometimes foreign correspondents, based in the southwest. But they’re still boys.

I knew my story was fundamentally about a tragedy: the context and background is always the poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, diabetes and crime that is the fate of so many Native Americans on reservations. I was determined to see that reality, and yet to see, in my mind’s eye, another reality at the same time.

As I drove through the Salt River Canyon (picture the Grand Canyon but without people) to enter the vast Apache reservation I was of course imagining Winnetou again. Perhaps I was Old Shatterhand this time, riding to meet my friend.

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