Why Eastern European “Indian hobbyists” are dressing up like Native Americans



BY: JENNIFER OSBORNE

From 2011 to 2015 Jennifer Osborne travelled across Eastern Europe documenting “Indian Hobbyists”, a subculture of people who emulate the lifestyle and culture of Native Americans. The community has drawn both controversy and encouragement from North American Indigenous peoples, so for four years Osbourne used photography to attempt to understand a subculture that often operates away from the public eye. According to Osborne, ” This hobby was once used as a form of psychological escape from gruelling dictatorships embraced behind the iron curtain”.

Cultural appropriation has been a significant topic of public discussion in recent months, with several popular North American music festivals banning headdresses being used as costumes on their premises. But is it possible that intention is what separates cultural appropriation from cultural admiration? This is what Jennifer Osborne had to say about the empathy behind impersonation:

What social environment or literature allowed for American Indian Hobbyism to become so popular across Eastern Europe? 

This cultural phenomenon all began in the ’20s in Germany. Many “hobbyists” (as they call themselves) were deeply inspired by the books of Karl May. That is a German writer who never visited North America, but who wrote numerous tales of The Wild West from a jail cell. The film series “Winnetou”, which was inspired by May’s books also had a large impact on many hobbyists, although many also hate his works because they are pure fiction. I photographed Eastern European Wild West film stills, and the locations where they were filmed (Croatia), as well as pictures of the hobbyists to give background to this. I loosely describe these locations as the “psychological landscapes” of my subjects, because many of them are constantly living out scenes similar to Winnetou films (or others of the likes of Dances with Wolves). These landscapes supported these film viewers in engaging in a suspension of disbelief, which allowed them to go down the fantastic road of the Wild West. But the movement only became more popular in German after the DDR began, because this form of appropriation allowed for a type of mental escape.

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Why were you yourself drawn to document this subculture?

At first, I was fascinated by this activity because it seemed so un-PC and I wondered how grown adults could justify dressing up like Native Americans. I would get objects thrown at me in Canada if I did that in public… But after getting to know the subjects, I saw a much deeper level to it all, one that kept me around for four years, which is their desire to psychologically exit the “real” world. I realize their use of cultural appropriation was more a vehicle to escape into another reality that is more interesting and exotic. I believe this is the reason why it was such a popular activity during the Eastern Block – one could travel without leaving a field near their house. But despite the intentions “Indianists” have behind their re-enactments, the use of First Nations representation raises controversy regarding the theft of culture. While they deeply respect and admire Native American culture, they are also aware that their actions are easily misinterpreted and may come across as offensive to non-participants. 

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I’ve read about a term called “cultural mirroring”, can you tell me a bit more about this idea? What are the parallels between cultures?

I often describe Eastern Europe’s Native American reenactments as a form of cultural mirroring because they are reflecting, copying and appropriating that of North American Indians. I don’t see any direct relations between Eastern Europeans and Native Americans, other than that they both experienced repression from their rulers. Native Americans were abused and conquered by white settlers and Eastern Europeans were restricted and devastated by authoritarian regimes. Many East Germans for example told me that they feel solidarity with Native Americans in this respect and with cultural appropriation issues aside, Europeans often explain they sympathize with the hardships Native Americans have endured. 

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How well do hobbyists actually understand the Native American culture and history? Is their portrayal accurate or a caricature?

Because I was not alive in the late 1800s, I really can’t say how authentic their camps are. But I can say they are deeply researched and well prepared. Some communities, such as the Czech group, are much more historically accurate than others, such as the Hungarians who focus on war games rather than recreating crafts and clothing. I wouldn’t use the word caricature because most “Indianists” take their actions very seriously.

There are a lot of reasons why one would enjoy this style of life, after getting past the tremendous amount of work it is. The community is deeply engaged in sustainable living. Many live at home, in their “real” lives, with no electricity for example, and got into the hobby because they were unsatisfied with modern life. Many desperately want to revisit the old world, where there are no plastic containers, ugly labels or blinking lights around in every corner. Camp life is more simple and survivalists find it deeply satisfying and calming. Friends can come together, to spend time with each other, building a community they feel comfortable to truly play within. Camps make it seem like time has a stop, and they represent our desire to recreate and imitate in order to bring ourselves closer to something we believe to be “authentic”.

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The Oglala Lakota now live on The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and suffered a cultural genocide that is still being felt to this day. How do you think they would view Europeans embracing, or some might say appropriating, their traditions?

Many of them will be completely enraged by Europeans playing Native American. That is obvious. But some do accept it, and one guy made a very beautiful post in response to my online images once. He’s Native American and said something along the lines of “when white people follow the red path” good things are ahead. I found his comment touching. His openness and acceptance towards a community of people who so awkwardly admire North American Indians was a bit of a shock to me actually.

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Obviously appropriation is a topic that inspires a significant amount of controversy. Could this also be alternately framed as culture fluidity?

I suppose the Internet has made most forms of culture fluid today but I can’t justify the use of cultural appropriation. That would make me uncomfortable in the case of my work The Red West, especially after Native Americans have been so deeply abused in the last 150 years. But what I can share is I am happy to see people interested in the cultures of others, especially when those cultures have a hard time having their voices heard. I do believe genuinely that Europeans hope for the best in Native American communities, although their actions may come across as offensive. 

I assume most people only do this temporarily, is the impact on their philosophy permanent?

Most participants do this a few times in a year, for a weekend or a week long. Some even go out for a few weeks at a time. But it is rather rare to find groups doing this on a full-time basis. I only met a few unique individuals who are living this way 24/7. Most of them had tragic life experiences that had driven them to live in a tipi year around. For example, one guy said his wife cheated on him, so he moved into a plot of land and removed himself from “normal life to avoid killing someone”.