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.

16 thoughts on “How I came to the Apache

  1. Winnetou! Yippeee!!! Isn’t it funny how most Americans have never heard of the most famous native American of ’em all?

    That said, I believe Karl May did, in fact, travel to the Middle East (where he reportedly suffered two nervous breakdowns), and he also spent six weeks the New York and MA, the latter experience of which he worked into his lesser known later novel Winnetou IV.

    If I were a journalist doing a story on native Americans, I’d focus on the Apaches as well. No doubt about it.

    Here’s a Winnetou shot of myself, puffing on my little peace pipe in the living room. (Somewhat uncharacteristically for an Apache warrior, I couldn’t get up because had my right leg in a cast following a skiing accident.)

    • Well, the White Mountain Apache I visited DID have a ski resort.

      You make a fine Apache warrior.

      But that’s the first time I hear that May had been to American. His whole mythology is sort of based on NOT ever having been there.

    • Well, he didn’t travel until fairly late in his life, by which time his most well-known works had already been published. And his U.S. journey didn’t take him beyond the North-East, i.e., far from any Apache hunting grounds. So for all practical purposes, he had indeed written his most famous stories without ever having been there.

    • Well I’m a hobbyist of the Time Between The Wars, and also a devoted reader of Donna Barr’s drawn books (I think it’s in the “Desert Peach” #11 that she includes an American Indian serving in the German army, which I gather actually happened, with some authorial commentary about Winnetou in one edition or another). I’ve known *about* Karl May for decades, though I confess to never having read the books. Always was more of a sci fi than a Western type.

      I used to work for a part-Apache (also half Navajo and a quarter Zuni) who scrawled the words “treaty paper” on the wall over the toilet roll in the shop’s bathroom. I thought of her when I got to the description of Chairman Lupe flipping the bird.

    • I hadn’t thought of it in years. She had a whole book of political cartoons too, published on some small press, lampooning the untrustworthiness of the white man’s dealings with the tribes. I wish I could remember a single one.

  2. Two years ago, with my wife, I visited the West Rim Hualapai part of the Grand Canyon. Much better than the North Rim National Park. We actually could SEE the river. A few tourists to be sure but we are barely visible in the natural landscape.
    A cooperative enterprise, it has created jobs for the Hualapais and economic opportunity. And they make, in Peach Spring their capital, a wonderful chocolate.
    Paul C.

  3. The growing sovereignty of Native American Tribes has positively affected their people. The corollary is also true-as they have generated political clout, slowly eroding the paternalism of the Federal Government, they have made significant progress (although there is still too much abject poverty).

    The irony is that with the current expansion of the Federal Government and belief that the Feds can solve all of our problems with money and endless legislation, we are experiencing social, political and economic devolution across the country. Leave us alone please! I guess it is poetic that we might feel a bit like the Native Americans have felt for years.

    The most recent example of the all-knowing and all-fixing Federal Government, is the announcement that the Secret Service will now send chaperones to watch over the agents and make sure they don’t get in trouble. Give me a break.

  4. Your experience with the Apaches notwithstanding, it’s true, isn’t it, that all Economist reporters know how to “blend in,” as Marcus Brody does here:

  5. Here is a scabrous word for although you love alcohol clear praise and rabid self evidency I am condescending to be censored or omitivly pruned by your wicked blog or be treated to a reader who hates meaty engagement and thoughtfulness. Edward Said showed us that what we say about others in our dumb ass books is just as false as what others say about themselves, so that in the end , nobody knows shit. Your quote makes me wonder whether the chief imitates your story books. A legacy-chauvinistic & appallingly racist attitude that sizes up men by their color (“White man”…John Wayne, Jeffrey Amherst? Sterotypes, as science reminds, have a bad name, they are useful,nicht?)coupled with a Manichean ethic (is he good or bad…so pragmatic…)? Pitiably savage, obviously based on historical conditioning, repugnant. Makes you almost admire the destruction of identity in the hyper-modern and meaningless global world. It’s not as if any group, educated in secular schools as ‘Native Americans’ (those strange things) sometimes are or do they (that other kind of animal) keep their children in a state of infantile sequestration from modern science (of course not!), nobody the modern milieu, no matter how artificially guarded, actually has the slightest bit of classically authentic life left in them, what a sad and necessary sham. For stronger reasons African Americans (those creatures of the plantation) should be awarded by their torturers and slavers, instead of jail sentences, fifty thousand a year for life. But if this is considered paternalism then let everyone simply eradicate identity in the manner of a hollowing out of the bullshit instead racism is sold wholesale at the universities as multiculturalism / new age segrigationism. Also you know already how Strindberg denounced your mother magazine about house law.

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