I love reading. Spent my childhood going to the library, getting 3 to 5 books out every couple of weeks. Dumas and Jules Verne and Lem and Merle and Asimov and loads more.
And, again and again, a series of books which will be completely unknown to anyone who doesn’t read German (edit after comments: or Russian, Bulgarian or Usbek) – two series of novels by Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich. Every time I talk about them I keep wondering why they were never translated. The very first book of the first series was – but in English it sounds just like sentimental ‘noble savage‘ fiction. Germans have always loved that sort of thing, I guess, considering Karl May is one of the best loved German writers who claimed to write about Winnetou, the great Apache chief, after having visited the Wild West. Now we know he made it all up, but we still have a Karl May museum at his birth house near Dresden.
In Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich (I’ll abbreviate that to LWH) however we had a writer who was also a respected historian and anthropologist, who had spent time with a Sioux tribe on Pine Ridge reservation as well as on a Hopi/Navajo-Reservation in Arizona/New Mexiko, who hosted Sioux activists in Berlin when they came to talk at the university there. She first wrote a series of six books for children and young readers, The Sons of the Mother Bear, which was set around the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn – the tribes were still free, their way of life still intact.
The pentalogy she wrote about 20 years later, ‘The Blood of the Eagle’, is also a fictional epic, but it’s much more gritty, written for adults, showing decline in the lives of the people, but also hope. It has a character cross over from the earlier books, but is set about 100 years later, and by now, the Native Americans live on reservations. The reality on the reservations, specifically Pine Ridge in South Dakota, becomes a backdrop for the plot which revolves around some of the most vibrant characters in any work of fiction I have ever
read. The earlier series were made into movies in East Germany (actually on location in Montenegro with a very wonderful Serbian actor in the title role) and are hugely famous. These, more grown-up books? Not so much.
LWH passed away when I was 8. So I never wrote a letter to her, or got her autograph. We did have children’s book fairs in our town most years, most of my old books are signed. But I was born a bit too late there.
But I think reading these books was one factors in getting me emotionally involved in to what’s happening to native people around the world. We go somewhere, and a few decades later all the people who lived there before are dead or put into camps, taken away from their parents and made Christians, moved from their mountains because we want the minerals underneath… And that’s ok because we’re Europeans?
I’ve often wondered why it seems that none of the Germans who grew up reading about Native Americans are actively involved in finding out about their current situation. I’m not even talking about activism, but just talking about it? Maybe they are and I don’t know about it. I don’t think so, because on the reservations, nobody seems to know about Germans taking a particular interest in them (however do a quick search for Inya-he-Yukan and see how many times it’s used as username.) Maybe we dismiss it as sentimental. Maybe we forget that there are real people still fighting to survive.
“Maybe Queenie would have yielded. But this painting was not made by Queenie, who wanted to tell the white men and women anew of the old Indian art. This second painting was made by Tashina, who was hidden in Queenie and of whom the teachers knew nothing.” (from Nacht über der Prärie, quoted by Julio Punch in his very good article about LWH)
I’d like there to be English translations of especially the second series of books by LWH, and for them to become required reading for every young person growing up on the reservations. Yes it is fiction, but it’s also a wonderful portrayal of characters creating an atmosphere of hope in the darkest possible circumstances.