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Friends: The other side of war

Submitted Photo The library of the German author Karl May is carefully preserved and part of the museum in Radebeul, Germany.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Searching for stories of friendship

By Dr. Veronika Ederer

Special to the Daily


Reading about the Apaches who resided in the Southwest of the U.S. can be hard work. Most books emphasize on the history of raiding and warfare; on the destruction of the Native American’s culture and prisoners of war. But is this really the entire story?

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Being a cultural anthropologist from Germany, my background is very different. I’m fascinated by Native Americans, especially the Apache culture, and my research project on a very special subject of their culture is now in its 17th year. You, the reader, might ask how my fascination started.

I read my first book by Karl May as a teenager. This German author (1842-1912) was published in the 19th century. He created a very positive image of Native Americans. Born into a poor weaver’s family in eastern Germany and educated by his strict father to become a teacher — it was a struggle for him. After he was caught committing minor crimes, May lost his teacher certification, thus began his career as a thief and impostor. He was caught and went to prison for some years, but took advantage of the free time to study in the prison library. After his release, he made his living as a freelance writer and published adventure stories in newspapers and magazines. Newspapers and stories were at the time in high demand in Germany; so May’s stories found their way into peoples’ homes making him a popular writer and quite famous. However, after a journalist blackmailed him, May’s time in prison became known to the public. His image was tarnished and until his death, he was entangled in various defamation cases that went to trial.

One of May’s most famous books was a series about a fictional friendship between a Mescalero Apache chief and a German immigrant. They became “blood brothers” and survived numerous dangerous adventures in what May called, “The Wild West.” Why he chose the Mescalero Apache is not known. May had never been in the Southwest — or in the U.S.A. until 1908 — he used the material of his time and even had a German dictionary on Native American languages of the Southwest. His stories were read by millions, and later in his life, he started believing that he himself was the (white) hero of his stories. He also declared the Native Americans fighting for their own land as just and legal — a very unusual point of view for his time.

May had also started a fictional book series with the same white hero that took place in Turkey. When May traveled to the Orient in 1899/1900, he had a mental breakdown because the real Turkey didn’t match with his imagination. May traveled in 1908 to the U.S. as well, but he and his wife only stayed on the East Coast. May died in 1912 and is buried in Radebeul, Germany — which is near Dresden — where he lived his last years. His mansion and the house he lived in during his childhood are now museums, which are open to the public. His museum also hosts a beautiful exhibition on Native American artifacts. Every year, the Karl May-week is celebrated in Radebeul with many Native American guests attending. The museum is dealing very elegantly with May’s background as a fictional author, educating its visitors.

Karl May’s made-up stories about the Mescalero Apache Chief Winnetou and his white “blood brother” Old Shatterhand were so popular that in the 1960s, movies were made about those two heroes. These movies were box-office hits; millions of people watched the adventures in the cinemas. Even in 2016, another three movies were made, but these new films had very little in common with the original books.

I first read those books when I was 13 years old. Fortunately, I always knew that they were fiction, but I wanted to know more about the “real” Mescalero Apaches. Influenced by these novels I traveled to New Mexico in 2013 for the first time. Some years later I had the chance to visit several puberty rites in Mescalero and also took part in a mescal roast at the Guadalupe Mountain National Park.

I developed not only a deep interest in the history and culture of the Mescalero Apaches, but I also wanted to find evidence that there were more stories than those of raids and war. I knew that I wouldn’t find a friendship story like the one invented by May, but I couldn’t believe that there hadn’t been friendships during all those years. Because there still is a deep interest in German-speaking countries about Native American culture — partially due to May’s novels and the films — I decided to write a book as a result of my research, which will be in German.

During every visit, I found more evidence that of course, there had been Anglo families who hadn’t been hostile with the original inhabitants, but I also found that these stories — even if they were published in some books and magazines — were not widely known. I could only cover some examples, but every one of those stories is fascinating and unique. They are worth being told.


To be continued.

Ederer received her PhD from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in cultural anthropology. Originally from Germany, she has worked several years in Switzerland in museums such as the North America Native Museum in Zürich and with the gifted program “Universikum” in Zürich. Ederer first visited the Mescalero Apache Reservation, 70 miles southwest of Roswell, in 2013 and has since witnessed Apache coming of age ceremonies and even was allowed to participate in a traditional mescal, agave plant, roast at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park south of Carlsbad.

Ederer recently visited Roswell’s Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives for research purposes.


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