When Winnetou rides through the prairie with Old Shatterhand, he also likes to use Lakota or Sioux vocabulary. “According to the books, Winnetou is an Apache. That shows that they don’t have much to do with reality,” says Michael Paul Hill. If anyone can judge that, it’s him. The 48-year-old is a San Carlos Apache, political activist, reservations attorney, applied anthropologist and medicine man. Although he and his community do not usually refer to themselves as Apaches. “Apache means ‘enemy.’ I only use the word because it is common knowledge, but we refer to ourselves as Nde or Ndee. It means ‘The People’.”
Winnetou’s vocabulary is not the only indication that the Karl May novels are just that: novels, that is, fictional stories. “The way the culture is materialized in the books and productions just isn’t right,” says Hill. This includes the clothing, the appearance of the characters and more.
Life on the reserve
When Hill talks about his culture, society and what moves him, he laughs a lot. His humor is also reflected on social networks, where he likes to share memes. Among them, for example, a picture of a chief with the sarcastic caption: “I agree with Trump, we should get rid of ALL migrants.” Because the land that would actually belong to Hill and his community does not belong to them. At least not officially. Like many other tribes, he and 10,000 of the 16,000 or so San Carlos Apaches live on a reservation; i.e. a piece of land that the government makes available to them. “It doesn’t belong to us because the government refers to the conquest,” says Hill dryly. This is just one of many injustices that have befallen his and other tribes over the centuries.
Part of the reservation belongs to the Sonoran Desert. When they hear the term “desert”, many people think of endless expanses and sand dunes. However, the landscape of the Sonoran Desert is characterized by giant cacti and other plants and shrubs. “It’s hot every day, especially now. Although it’s also monsoon time at the moment,” explains Hill. As a result, San Carlos Lake is well filled with water again – water that Hill and those around him don’t drink because the soil is poisoned, Hill said. More on that in a moment.
unemployment and addictions
The reserve where Michael lives is bordered by barbed wire. People who do not belong to any tribe are not allowed to enter it. Hill: “There aren’t many job opportunities here in everyday life, so the government tries to distract us from the real problems with small parades, skate parks or other entertainment options.” By this he means, for example, the unemployment rate of 75 percent or the alcohol and drug addiction that spread: “The crime rate is high and we have to deal with many diseases.”
When asked what these diseases are, Hill’s face turns serious. Along with obesity and diabetes, it’s cancer, Hill says. The Los Angeles Times reports how the rate of tribal cancer in the US increased dramatically between 1990 and 2009. “Winnetou would die of cancer today. How do people like that?” asks Hill. He attributes the increase to a herbicide. The chemical Agent Orange gained notoriety through its use in the Vietnam War. What few people in this country know, but which the LA Times has also reported on: eyewitnesses report how a similar chemical was probably tested on the reservations in the 1960s. Even after the article was published, there was no public outcry. Hill and his compatriots continue to fight for justice – and avoid the groundwater.
However, the example of Vietnam shows that this fight is not easy. In May last year, a court dismissed the lawsuit filed by a woman of Vietnamese origin. She had demanded damages from the Agent Orange manufacturers. The pharmaceutical and agrochemical group Bayer, which took over Monsanto, said it had great sympathy for the plaintiff and all the people who suffered as a result of the Vietnam War. “However, it has been recognized by courts for many years that wartime manufacturing companies for the US government are not responsible for any damage that may occur,” it said. Hill also demands that Monsanto and other companies take responsibility. He points out that Bayer is a company from Germany – one of the countries that Winnetou reveres so much.
Struggle to preserve sacred places
Not only Hill’s community, but also other tribes are plagued by a series of problems that are elegantly ignored at Karl May festivals or film adaptations – after all, they do not fit into the romantic picture that the author illustrates with his stories. Lack of internet access, water rights disputes, child mortality and poverty, to name just a few. The San Carlos Apaches also have to fight to preserve their holy places – including Mount Graham, on which satellite dishes have been placed. A desecration from the point of view of the indigenous people.
“Another sacred place is Oak Flat, which is soon to be exploited by a mining company and will therefore disappear, right on this place there will be nothing more than a huge hole in the ground,” says also Angelica Froch, which is part of the Vienna-based Indian Working Group and campaigns for the rights of the indigenous peoples of North America. “Anyone who knows the Apaches’ connection to the land knows what a tragedy this is for them.” All of these issues are not about pity for Hill, they are about raising awareness. With these challenges, Karl May fans are also challenged, says Hill.
Which Karl May was right about
But May was accurate about one thing, as the 43-year-old thinks: “Friendship and justice; these values are important to us, just as they are important to Winnetou.” Just like the religious rituals that have found their way into the present despite the oppression. Incidentally, he first heard about the books in the 1980s – through guests from Switzerland, which his father welcomed back to Arizona: “I was just like, who is this guy?” Back then, Hill says, racial stereotypes weren’t the focus. His first reaction to Winnetou? “No wonder all Germans love him. I would love him too.”
In general, he looks forward to the distorted representation of Indian culture in the novels: “Because it’s pure fiction.” It is important that the readers are also aware of this. Hill sees the side effects of this much more critically: “In Switzerland I saw that there are Winnetou ice lollies. There you have your Indian on a stick? No, please don’t do that.”
And cultural appropriation is also problematic, especially when money is made from it: “I keep seeing offers for six-week shaman schools and just think to myself: How is that possible? It is very inappropriate for people to take things they know nothing about. Countless hours of work, perseverance and teaching are behind it. Therefore, a clear no to cultural appropriation.” What he appreciates about the discussion about Karl May: without Winnetou, this exchange as it is currently taking place would not exist at all.