In the months since the scalp situation at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany was brought to the general attention of Indian country, by majority in the German news media, repatriation requests have been presented with amusement at the absurdity of the idea. Alongside stereotypical quips about “wild and excitable” Indians “being on the warpath,” these attitudes negatively reinforced public opinion that backed the museum’s initial refusal, as they felt the items were simply purchased legal property.
At the Bild.de, a regional newspaper, writer Jürgen Helfricht even questioned if some or all of the scalps were actually authentic, saying it might be a “crazy war” on the part of Natives, which might be true if they were fakes. The museum’s director and former curator stated when interviewed, “We do not even know 100 percent if all really come as genuine scalps of human heads. They are only the statements of museum founder Patty Frank. These have never been investigated scientifically.”
Since the circumstances began, director Claudia Kaulfuß announced the replacement of Hans Grunert, with a much younger curator, Robin Leipold, reported to be pro-Native and supportive of repatriation. Soon thereafter, the museum modified their position requesting intervention by Merkel’s government, later deferring decision by sending the scalps to a larger museum or organization. A concession was made to remove the “original” scalps from display, and place them in storage. Though appreciated, from Native perspective, still having the scalps was unacceptable.
As mentioned in the March article for ICTMN, Cecil Pavlat of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan learned one of the scalps was reportedly of Ojibwe origin, and wrote requesting repatriation. Gathering support of Natives and concerned others on both sides of the Atlantic, he considered protesting the museum’s stance at the festival in honor of their patron. Other Natives had already done so, such as artist and philanthropist Jana Mashonee, who made a public announcement on her website: “I have officially removed myself from performing at the Karl May Festival...in quiet protest to the recent actions of the Karl May Museum and its culturally insensitive management of Native American artifacts at the museum.”
The Karl May Festival is an annual event in which organizers invite many Native Americans to perform. This year it was May 30-June 1. Though it continues to be a controversial event by those who question supporting cultural appropriation that can inspire further activity, there are those who see it as an opportunity to educate and accurately portray parts of Native culture. This year’s theme was “Indian Spirit,” focusing on the sharing of spiritual concepts, ceremonies and dances.
Although not in direct association, city organizers of the festival wished to capitalize on the controversy surrounding the scalps, as well as facilitate discussion and hopeful mediation. At the invitation of the city’s Office of Culture and Tourism, although still considering a demonstration if necessary, Pavlat traveled to Radebeul to optimistically participate in a restricted meeting with museum staff, Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, and other members of the Oneida Nation on May 30 to hopefully settle the matter. A public discussion session took place on event grounds during festivities the next day, where explanation of Native sentiments was incorporated into a pre-planned show on modern aspects of spirituality.
Subsequently, admissions by the museum included they were willing to turn the scalps over to a higher museum or organization for authentication and place of origin, citing a previous error on their part in returning the scalp of Bigfoot to a less entitled descendent as a cause for their delays. In agreement with Pavlat and Halbritter, they also agreed things need to change regarding accurate presentation of Natives and respect of Native cultures and concerns.
Following the 30th meeting, Pavlat shared: “We have a written agreement with the Museum to work cooperatively on provenience of Ancestral Remains until October 31. At that point the agreement says that they will repatriate at least the Ojibwe remains. In the interim we will be working to gather support from as many tribes as we can to work on the return of all the ancestral remains.”
Nineteen scalps were reported as being in the museum’s collection. Continued attention, support and appropriate pressure is needed to ensure, if verified, that these indigenous warriors are given the proper respect and honor they deserve, and return to their families and the earth with no further delays or excuses.
Short bio: Red Haircrow is a BSc of Psychology and award-winning author and poet of mixed Native American descent, who lives in Berlin, Germany.