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Reporter’s Notebook: Idealizing a particular view of a culture

When you romanticize what you don’t understand, disappointment is inevitable

I learned a new word this week. “Indianthusiasm,” a term coined by author and professor Hartmut Lutz, describes people (often German) who have an exaggerated, ahistorical, romantic infatuation with North America’s First Nations people.

This was just one gem among many in Canadian author Drew Hayden Taylor’s short documentary, Searching for Winnetou. Winnetou is a fictional Apache warrior dreamed up by German Western novelist Karl May. May wrote all kinds of fantastic adventures for Winnetou and his German buddy, Old Shatterhand, in the American southwest. They hunted bison in the desert. Winnetou even killed grizzlies with nothing more than a knife. In the film, people call Winnetou the German Superman.

Germans are crazy about Winnetou. Each summer 200,000 to 300,000 people attend Winnetou-themed plays in Northern Germany, held in an outdoor amphitheater. Taylor, a playwright, noted the production values are outstanding. Costumed actors ride horses and shoot guns. The set and costumes look great. They even have a trained bald eagle.

It doesn’t end there. The books became films. And these days German hobbyists spend weekends, weeks, even months living like traditional First Nations people (or at least some facsimile of it). They camp out in tipis and do beadwork. They hold pow-wows.

Taylor sprinkles sly humour throughout the film. Upon finding tacky wooden teepees, he jokes, “I recognize this tribal teepee architecture — Eastern Ikea Nation.”

What does this have to do with agriculture? While there are some big differences between German appropriation/appreciation of First Nations culture and the general public’s perception of farming, there is a striking similarity. Some people outside of agriculture have an idealized, not entirely accurate, perception of farming’s history. Same with the German hobbyist view of First Nations history and culture.

But in both cases, it’s not that either group is completely ignorant of the cultures and communities they are romanticizing. They have bits of knowledge. Some have quite a lot of knowledge, in fact. Others, not so much.

What’s the problem with putting farmers or First Nations on a pedestal anyway? Well, it’s pretty easy to knock people off that pedestal if they don’t meet expectations, or if expectations change.

Holding on to perceptions

In an interview about the film, Taylor mentioned that some Indian enthusiasts hold so tightly to those romantic perceptions that they’re disappointed by the fact that most First Nations people drive vehicles instead of riding horses these days. It was that comment that piqued my interest, given the judgement heaped on farmers for employing modern agronomic methods.

Still, in some ways, the roots of Indianthusiasm are quite different from agenthusiasm. Winnetou was created around the time Germany became a nation, and this might be part of the reason he’s such a beloved projection of German ideals. Adolf Hitler was a Winnetou fan as well, which ushered in the darkest bit of the Indianthusiasm movement. Hitler was so enamoured with the Lakota people that he declared them honourary Aryans.

Indianthusiasm survived Hitler and the war. It really picked up steam once East Germany was under Soviet control. Germans wanted an escape from government control.

The hobbyist movement also snowballed as cities grew. Germans began looking for an escape from the city, a way to be more connected with the natural world. I think that’s a feeling many urban agenthusiasts would relate to.

Beyond all that, anyone talking to consumers about agriculture could take a page from Drew Hayden Taylor’s playbook. Although he’s funny, he doesn’t descend into mocking people. He’s never mean or scolding and always fair to the people he talks to for the film. That approach helped him build rapport with people, have meaningful conversations, and find out all kinds of fascinating things about the German hobbyist movement.

To watch the film online, go to the CBC Docs website ‘Searching for Winnetou’ or do an Internet search for “Drew Hayden Taylor documentary.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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