Written by Anna von Ravensberg
Tuesday, July 14th
Our first full day in Jena was spent interacting with American Studies students and listening to their presentations on Karl May and the idea of “Indianthusiasm” in Germany. I can tell you right now, it was so strange. Essentially, Karl May was an author in the 19th and early 20thCentury, who was famous for his adventure novels, set in the American Wild West and the Middle East. However, the focus in his books was much different than what Americans associate with Wild West fiction. Instead of idolizing the cowboys as the saviors and the Native Americans as the savages, such as the American Western films we all grew up with do (think John Wayne), Karl May idolized the Native Americans themselves. Karl May, and the subsequent literature and film areas that grew from this infatuation with Indians, emphasized the “simplicity” of the Indian lifestyle, the idea of the “noble savage” and the close connection to the Earth. By the mid 20th Century, Indian Clubs were a popular hobby in Germany. “Karl-May-Spiele” allowed Germans to fulfill their dreams of “being an Indian,” by dressing up as Indians and performing powwows (note: the Karl-May-Speile still happens today). The division of Germany during the Cold War led to complications in the Indianthusiasm community, but the still the hobby lived on and is sill popular today.
After our long, but informative day in class, we were given a small city tour of Jena followed by a pub crawl organized by the student council at Jena. It was fun to finally get to know some the students at Jena in a more informal setting. One girl I talked to said she really enjoyed going to school in a “university town” like Jena, as she had the opportunity to focus on her studies without too many distractions, and knew that any young person she came into contact with was most likely a student. Going to school in Seattle, a much larger city than Jena where the University is not the center of the city, I found this perspective refreshing on what students look for in their education.
Wednesday, July 15th
Oh boy. Today was a long one. We awoke early to catch a bus to Radebeul, a small town about two hours away from Jena, and about 30 minutes from Dresden. It was here we visited the Karl May Museum, an estate previously owned by the beloved author converted into an informational center. The rooms were filled with first editions, antique furniture, and animal skins, a tribute to their noteworthy owner. However, behind the house stood a log cabin that now stands as an exhibition of different native cultures. What we were told was the first exhibit you see when entering the cabin depicts the stereotypical Indian life, as is described in most Karl May novel- Plains Indians with feathery headdresses, women in long braids, tepees, spears, horses, buckskin, etc. You get the picture. But travel further into the museum and you see that there is an attempt to express the vast diversity that exists among Native Americans, from the Northwest Coast to the Southwest to the Plains and everything in between. However, all displays used real artifacts on extreme caricatures of Natives. I’ll be honest, I was extremely uncomfortable looking at the displays, as I felt the information and artifacts really only scratched the surface on the cultures that exist among Native Americans, and the way it was presented seemed that these cultures were just another thing to put on display. I’m not alone in saying I was a bit disoriented by the experience, especially as German school kids ran around me with face paint and feathers in their hair, making stereotypical Indian sounds, and listening to stories from a German man in a wig outside of a tepee.
But there is an upside! After lunch, we were able to go Dresden, a city that I hope to return to soon, as the four hours we had there were simply not enough to take in everything it offered. It was gorgeous, and the old buildings were strikingly black, a testament to the fire bombings that ravaged the city at the end of WWII. We had a couple hours to explore, and a few of us spent that time looking over some galleries Manuela, our German guide, introduced us to. Manuela studied art in Dresden, and it was so refreshing to see her get so excited about showing us the art gallery she used to work in, and the artists that now use that space. Afterward, we got lunch and roamed around the city, taking in the River Elbe, Frauenkirche, and gelato. Before we knew it, though, we were on a bus back to Jena.