Karl May’s Heirs Standing on the Dock

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By Björn Schöpe
Translated by Honeycutshome

28 August, 2014 – Indians accusing heirs of Karl May! That is the problem in a nutshell. Who owns the scalp of an Indian that found its way into a German collection 100 or so years ago? That is the issue under hot discussion. What might sound funny is a real problem that concerns many museums and collections.

Let us have a look at what is actually going on: the Vienna artist and expert on Indians, Patty Frank, founded a museum on the Indians in 1926, in the garden of late writer Karl May. The exhibits also included scalps, hence parts of the human pericranium the Indians had removed from their enemies after killing them. As was testified, Patty Frank had purchased one such scalp in 1904, from Dakota Chief Swift Hawk in the USA who had claimed to have had scalped an enemy with his own hands. Although the media report different prices (ranging from 100 to 1,100 dollar, or a bottle of booze), the deal being perfectly legal is undisputed.
Less clear, on the other hand, is the identity of Swift Hawk’s enemy, which is an important detail legally. At some point, which cannot be reconstructed with certainty anymore, the victim started to be identified as an Ojibwa. At any rate, the Ojibwa Indians, who are living in the U.S. State of Michigan, appointed Cecil Pavlat as their Repatriation Spokesperson. Pavlat wrote to Claudia Kaulfuß, Director of the Karl May Museum, and called the exhibition ‘disrespectful, insulting and unconscionable’.
The museum then replaced the scalps in their showcases with replicas made of horsehair while the originals were brought in the storerooms, for ‘ethical and political reasons’, as curator Hans Grunert told the Sächsische Zeitung. The museum’s director, however, said: “The origin of the scalp is uncertain. We consider us the rightful owners of the scalps.”

The Ojibwa quote a declaration of the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They were granted the right to repatriate the earthly remains of their members from abroad in order to give them a proper burial. Germany, too, signed the declaration in 2007.

By now, Claudia Kaulfuß and Cecil Pavlat have both signed a ‘Letter of Understanding’, therewith agreeing on further research being done as to the origin of the scalp. If the victim truly was an Ojibwa, the museum officials in Radebeul do not refuse to negotiate the terms of a return.

The Karl May Museum as administrator of Karl May being confronted with such a charge is particularly unfortunate. After all, Karl May in his era (and effecting later times as well) raised the German speaking readers’ awareness for natives as people having rights that ought to be respected. Patty Frank’s museum felt always committed to this tradition, too.

The Guardian reported on the case, please click here.

Background information is provided by Karl-May-Wiki (in German).

A rewarding discussion of the issues related to this problem was published by Alexandra Fletcher in the blog of the British Museum.