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American Indians: the view from Europe

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ROME, Italy - Over the last 500 years American Indians have become very familiar with European culture as hordes of people from that continent invaded and settled on tribal lands.

In the last 100 years America became the number one economic power on earth and after two world wars that left continental North America unscathed, American economic giants are completing a successful "invasion" of Europe.

From McDonalds at the Piazza del Spagna in Rome to a 24-hour Wal-Mart in rural Germany, Europeans complain about the soulless strip-malling of Europe. The American cultural permeation, however, is much deeper than a few corporate logos that look about as out of place as Prince Charles at a Maori festival.

Though publicly derided, American culture is ever present in the everyday lives of the average European, especially the culture of the American Indian.

From Amsterdam to Rome, the fascination with American Indian culture on the continent cannot be understated. In many ways, present-day Europeans are more familiar with American Indian culture than are modern European-Americans. Though their view is often romanticized, there is still an aspect of appreciation that is quite genuine.

To illustrate this dichotomy, in Pottenstein, Germany, a tourist town in the hilly section of Franconia near the Czech border, sits a typical little gift shop. Shelves are filled with typical beer steins and other German cultural wares one would expect such as the Bavarian flag and reasonably priced tour books. However, in stark contrast to ornate mugs and castle postcards is a display case hawking goods that would not be out of place in Pine Ridge, S.D.

There are overpriced models of tipis, kachina dolls, dream catchers and enough turquoise and silver jewelry to make a gaming company executive blush. Andreas Mueller who works in the shop said he cannot keep the items on the shelf. Asked if the items are made by American Indians, he confidently said yes, though he is not quite sure which tribe as he gets his items from a wholesaler.

"The German people have much respect for the American Indians and their way of life, they want any items that are tied to this way of life" Mueller said.

Folks up and down the continent echo this thought. In cosmopolitan Amsterdam, 20-something Christina Lucca, a hotel clerk, takes a smoke break to sit by one of Amsterdam's scenic canals. She looks at her cigarette, laughs and comments that tobacco is the ultimate revenge of the American Indians, as Europeans seem to light up at a much higher rate than their counterparts in the United States.

Asked as to her impression of American Indians, Lucca becomes very animated. She talks of American Indian spirituality and how, in her view, it is superior to what she feels is the corrupt and institutionalized religion of Europe. She motions with her cigarette toward one of the imposing 16th-century cathedrals that dot the local landscape.

"In Europe, it was always about money and power, where God was second. The American Indians didn't need to build some monument to people. They just went to nature. I follow their lead when I want to be spiritual. I just ride my bike along the (Amstel) river and find a quite place under the trees to think and talk to God," Lucca said.

In past centuries, people and companies in Europe tried to entice others to move to America. It is possible to trace the origins of the romantic portrayal of American Indians by Europeans back to these early accounts. The idea of the "noble savage" was brought to European shores this way.

Much of this romantic imagery came to fruition during the wars and massacres in the American West in the last half of the 19th century.

Perhaps the man most responsible for widely circulating romantic tales of the American West was German author Karl May. He was the Louis L'Amour of his day, writing dozens of pulp novels that told of brave cowboys and noble American Indians.

A visit to the Karl May museum in Bamberg proved fruitless as it recently closed its doors. Was there just not enough interest in the godfather of European dime store fiction?

Not a chance, the museum was in Bamberg only because May's hometown of Dresden had been under communist East German control and an oppressive government had tried to rid the region of all things western. Since Dresden has been fully westernized after the collapse of communism, a much-expanded Karl May museum will open in that city later this year. Several Germans said it will have a section dedicated to American Indians.

One potential conflict with American Indian culture is the way alcohol seems to flow freely all over Europe. From the thick meat-like taste of German rauchbier (smoked beer) to the sweetly scented wines of Italy, Europeans definitely enjoy more than an occasion nip of bier or vino. While there definitely are alcoholics, they do not seem to be as prevalent as in the United States.

Though research could not produce a definitive statistic or published report on why this is so, many Europeans suggested it was a matter of social immersion and standing.

Sylvia Sperger, 22, an Austrian who lives on the Swiss border, said she is the exception in her community in that she does not drink. Her peers, who usually are grateful to have a designated driver, respect her decision.

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Sperger, who lived in the United States for more than a year before returning to Austria, said Europeans are taught differently how to drink.

"In America, it (alcohol) is this forbidden thing. Of course the kids will want to drink when they are told not to. In Europe, kids are slowly introduced to drinking by their parents and learned (sic) how to do it right," said Sperger.

In Germany, Verena Gattineau, 30, a lawyer from Munich said the German government has many alcohol counseling programs and employers do not frown on employees who feel they need help.

"In Italy ... we've had thousands of years to learn how to drink wine," said Carlos Bertolucci, an engineer from Florence. He added he feels it is more of a cultural thing than a physical thing with American Indians. He scoffs at the idea that whole groups of people are more prone to alcoholism. Several recent medical reports in the United States say the same thing.

He emphasized however that Italy has no history of comparable oppression of a single group such as American Indians. Bertolucci said the British oppression in Ireland also resulted in widespread drinking. He said he feels as American Indians begin to prosper and feel less cultural restraint in the United States, alcohol will reach more moderate intake levels.

Like the United States, Europe is becoming increasingly multicultural. This is even more evident in the summer months when the continent is inundated with visitors from around the globe. On a train to Munich, several members of the Ewe tribe of Ghana in western Africa do a makeshift performance that delights passengers on the train.

They are part of a cultural touring group in Germany for the summer. With eyes closed during the Ewe's skillful drumming and singing, one can almost imagine they are on the South Dakota prairie or in the woods of eastern Oklahoma.

After their impromptu gig, a number of people representing a half dozen countries sit around the passenger compartment and compare cultural notes. A few Americans ask performer Francis Agbavitor how to say certain words in Ewe. Informed that the Ewe "wado" (thank you) is identical to the Cherokee word for the sentiment, the entire group breaks out into delighted laughter.

Ironically, at that moment, the train speeds past a tipi in the Bavarian forest. It elicits a roar of laughter.

Though visitors from everywhere are encountered, there seemed to be a large number of tourists from Australia, the country - excepting Canada of course - with a history most similar to that of the United States. The history of the Australian Aborigines mirrors that of American Indians in many ways. The Europeans invaded, killed many of them and relegated them to undesirable places.

Unfortunately, it is almost shocking to hear Aussies speak so blatantly of their disdain for the Aboriginal people. In the United States, the racism is more veiled, almost never spoken so bluntly except by a few blatant racists. Australians have no problem telling you what they think of their native people.

"In America, the Indians are smart resourceful people, who were just beaten down. I have respect for them. I don't think they (Australian Aborigines) have the faculties to manage civilization like the American Indians. They're just a dirty lot," said an older Australian tourist in Venice, who did not give his name.

Many other Australian tourists echoed these thoughts, delivered as blunt opinions. One Australian tourist in Rome, Leanne Hill, 28, was not sympathetic with those views.

"People in Australia have to realize that if someone is kicked down this badly, they're not going to just get up. People have strong opinions on the Aboriginal matter, and they're not afraid to state them, one way or the other," Hill said.

She said she feels the lack of respect for the Aborigines comes from the fact they were not widely romanticized like the American Indians.

Hill came to Rome after spending some weeks in Britain and said she saw many American Indian-themed things there as well.

Many of the Europeans who confess to love American Indian culture have never met an American Indian. Looking through tourist throngs up and down the continent to interview another American Indian, you'll occasionally see someone with long, dark hair in traditional braids in an American tour group, but not in the overwhelming numbers of other ethnic groups.

The popularity of American Indian-themed things is evident almost everywhere, though American Indians themselves seem to be scarce. In Florence, Italy, at a local environmental festival far away from the touristy Arno River area, an American Indian-themed booth is set up selling, you guessed it, turquoise jewelry, kachina dolls and dream catchers. But like elsewhere on the continent, American Indians themselves were not to be found.

The slightly hippy looking people working at the booth are Italian and, through an English-speaking interpreter who happened to be walking by, they admitted they had not met many American Indians. One said, however, that he has read all about their culture in books.

"We know they are a very spiritual people and we feel their spirituality through these things here."