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Tribes Demand Return of Native Scalps From Karl May Museum in Germany

The upcoming Karl May Festival in Radebeul, Germany, from May 30 to June 1, will have plenty of controversy leading up to it.
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The Karl May Festival, an annual event in honor of the German novelist who spun imaginative tales about American Indians and the U.S Old West well over 100 years ago, will be held in Radebeul, Germany from May 30 to June 1. In addition to the many German Indian hobbyists and fans who come from around the world, it has grown to include delegations from North America tribes encouraging Native tourism and cultural understanding.

The Karl May Museum states it is “dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Karl May, and serves the public by advancing knowledge through exhibitions, educational programs, publications, events and guided tours.” When Mark Worth, a former news reporter and activist for Transparency International, learned that Native scalps were on display there, he called the museum in 2010 and spoke with its public relations director, André Kohler. He was informed that the museum did, indeed, have Native American scalps on display and more in storage.

Worth says that after being given the same line used by French auction houses to “successfully argue for their sale of Hopi and Apache sacred items as that country has no laws to protect Indigenous Peoples, and the items were rightfully in private collectors’ hands,” he was told the museum was a private institution, and was hung up on. But that didn’t stop him.

He researched the history of the scalps, then contacted anyone he thought might help, including the Chippewa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and other tribes, administrators of the NAGPRA program (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), the office of U.S. Senator Al Franken, who sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Smithsonian Institution's Native American repatriation office and the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

In 2013, a representative of the U.S. Embassy replied that if a tribe wrote a letter seeking an inquiry into the situation, the embassy would try to intervene on their behalf. In the fall of 2013, Karen Little Coyote and Dale Hamilton of the Arapaho-Cheyenne Tribes in Oklahoma, who both work for their tribes’ Cultural Heritage Department, were contacted. Along with other staff members of various tribes, they sent a letter to the embassy asking for the scalps to be returned.

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Despite promises by the museum to return them, Worth says the scalps were still on display December 2013.

In February 2014, the U.S. Embassy arranged for the head of the U.S. Consulate in Leipzig to visit the museum and talk about the situation with its new director, Claudia Kaulfuss, and new curator Hans Gruner. The cultural attache in Berlin wrote in an e-mail sent to Ms. Little Coyote, and cc’d to Worth, that the museum said, “Many Native Americans have visited over the years, and we haven’t received any complaints,” and stressed that “they strive to be sensitive and balanced.”

What will be the final outcome? Despite the fact UNESCO conventions are already in place, signed by Germany and other European countries to prevent and prohibit the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property, and bans the illicit trade in cultural artifacts, the museum refuses to budge.

UNESCO has been contacted and given the details of this situation.

On March 10, 2014, Cecil Pavlat of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan wrote another letter, this time public and formal, to the museum calling for repatriation. He has also said that he plans to stage a protest at the upcoming Karl May Festival.