Repatriation of scalps from a German museum to tribes in the United States is revealing the rift between the countries in the treatment of human remains as museum artifacts. Held by the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, the 17 scalps are part of a larger collection devoted to mythologizing a fictional vision of the American West.
German author Karl May wrote a series of cowboy and Indian adventures in the late 19th to early 20th century. The museum was set up in 1928 with its own log cabin filled with artifacts representing the real world May reinterpreted in his stories. As Melissa Eddy reported in the New York Times this week:
The tussles over ownership of the scalps have come to reflect a broader cultural clash between the changing mores surrounding the care and repatriation of human remains in the United States and the fascination of many Germans with the mythology of the American West, celebrated to this day in countless summer festivals and literature.
Eddy further notes that, per last year’s German Museums Association guidelines, scalps that are perceived to be “fashioned trophies from the heads of [indigenous people’s] killed enemies” are an exception as items “acquired in a context of injustice.”
Back in March, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of the Chippewa Indians sent a letter asking for the scalps to be returned for burial. As Red Haircrow reported for Indian Country, this wasn’t the first request for repatriation. In 2010, former reporter and Transparency International activist Mark Worth discovered the display of the scalps and contacted the museum, reaching a dead end with communication. He then contacted tribal representatives and others who might be able to help. In 2013, the US Embassy in Berlin stated that if they received a letter from a tribe they would get involved, which happened with representatives from the Arapaho-Cheyenne Tribes in Oklahoma. Then this June there was an agreement to work on their return between tribal representatives and the museum, but it may be limited to those tribes that can prove the providence of the scalps (they’re believed to be from several groups).
According to the Guardian, since 1990 presentation of scalps in American museums has been illegal, noting that against “popular belief, scalping was not practiced solely by native Americans, but also widespread among European colonists — one of the authors who has helped to popularise the conception of scalping as a native American tradition was Karl May himself.”
“I really don’t know or understand how another being can hold parts of another human basically hostage without knowing that it’s offensive and innappropriate and unacceptable,” cultural repatriation specialist for the Ojibwe Nation Cecil Pavlat, says in a video accompanying the Times piece. Alongside his impassioned explanation of not just the human, but the the spiritual importance, of giving these remains a proper interment is video from the annual Karl May Festival in Radebeul, where white Germans dress in appropriated assemblages of tribal clothing. While those interviewed in the video claim they are doing something positive that celebrates American Indian culture, it’s easy to see the deep divide between the two sides. The United States itself is far from clean in terms of repatriation issues, from Ishi the Yahi Indian’s brain finally being returned from the Smithsonian in 2000, and the bones of an Inuit skeletons being given a burial from the American Museum of Natural History in 1993, but the issue of the scalps is exposing the continued difficulties in museums giving proper treatment to the indigenous dead.