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18.12.2000 13:29

"White Indians" and "Red Europeans"

Dr. Christian Jung communication
Volkswagen Foundation

"Dances with Wolves" and "Pocahontas" as cross-border commuters in North American culture - a project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation with new insights into cultural cross-border commuters

Every year they are on television at Christmas, the stories about the encounters between Europeans and Indians, between "whites" and "reds". Then Kevin Costner dances with the wolf again, the Indian girl Pocahontas marries an Englishman and travels to Great Britain as a princess, and in the film "Little Big Man" Dustin Hoffman lives among the Indians and then among the white conquerors. This film in particular draws tension and comedy from the contrasts of cultures like no other. These stories are about "cultural defectors", about people who - often by virtue of their own decision - have turned their backs on their society in order to live in another. In the course of the discovery and conquest of North America by the Europeans, thousands of people succumbed to this fascination with the foreign. Not much was known about her until now, apart from the dramatic screen epics from Hollywood.

What lies behind such stories, how during the "early years" of the USA actually the transition from one culture to the other was shaped by the ethnologist Dr. Marin Trenk, private lecturer at the University of Hanover, and Professor Dr. Werner Schiffauer from the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt / Oder over the past two years. The Volkswagen Foundation has made around 260,000 marks available to them for this in its focus on "The foreign and the own - problems and opportunities for intercultural understanding".

On his search for traces, Marin Trenk has traveled all over Canada and the USA, researching small-town archives and libraries, and asking around local history associations in the province. He found autobiographical records, chronicles and reports from missionaries, travelers, settlers and fur traders, which he reconstructed and interpreted from a historical perspective. And so gradually a picture of the cultural cross-border commuters emerged. Not uniform, as he found - there are clear differences, for example, between the settlers in what was then English America and French Canada. "The French had a much more open relationship with the Indians than the English," says Trenk. Since they were less interested in land ownership and more in trade, many of them had developed into commuters between cultures. In some cases, even young French were sent to the Indian tribes so that they should learn the language, customs and traditions there - for example, to be helpful later as interpreters or cultural mediators.

Quite different with the English. Here there was mostly an abrupt change, an exchange of the old identity for the new one. Many of the English, who either voluntarily fled life in the colonies or involuntarily fell into the hands of the Indians - and instead of ending up on the torture stake, were adopted or married - changed their identities completely after a period of "captivity" and became "White Indians ". Their contemporaries saw them as apostates and traitors. "The rejection of cultural transgressions was ingrained in New England," says Trenk. The Puritan settlers mostly saw contact with Indian culture as a threat to their own identity and their moral ideas. In addition, their greed for settlement land made them enemies of the indigenous people.

It is interesting that the number of women among the culture changers does not seem to lag behind that of men. Mary Jemison, daughter of a clergyman, lived with the Iroquois for 75 years. Life there appealed to her better because women there had more rights and freedom than with the whites. Another example of a voluntary cultural changer is the person of Christian Gottlieb Prieber, who originally came from Zittau in Saxony and came to the New World in 1735, where he joined the Cherokee Indians. He recorded their language in a dictionary, wrote ethnological and political treatises - and apparently, dressed like an Indian but with collections of scripts under his arm, he "made and left a somewhat unusual impression". He was later killed by the English, who saw a great danger in his influence on Indian society.

There were hardly fewer Indian defectors than Europeans, Trenk suspects, but, apart from the "Virginian princess" Pocahontas, little is known about them. Most of the time, they have been pushed to the margins of society, both socially and spatially; Europeans would hardly ever have believed that they could learn anything from them about others or even about themselves.

Trenk notes that important findings are that while Indianized Europeans are still understood today as romantic figures - a myth to which the film "Dances with Wolves" owes its success - their existence was often not least due to a political calculation of the Indian people
Society owed. On the other hand, the example of the French shows very well that people with a culturally open understanding tend to develop several cultural identities at the same time and then feel comfortable in different forms of society. In contrast, shortly after their successful colonial settlement, the Europeans hardly needed the help of the Europeanized Indians. Thus later Indian defectors were usually denied the recognition that Pocahontas had previously been given in excess.

Privatdozent Dr. Marin Trenk, University of Hanover, phone: 05 11/55 87 06

Prof. Dr. Werner Schiffauer, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt / Oder, phone: 03 35/55 34 - 646

Volkswagen Foundation; Funding focus "Constructions of the 'foreign' and the 'own'": Dr. Hiltgund Jehle, phone: 05 11/83 81 - 276, e-mail: [email protected]

Features of this press release:
History / archeology, society, media and communication studies, psychology, language / literature
Research results, research projects