Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Friday, November 26, 2004


Next week is Indian Week at my school. The eighth-graders will be learning about American Indians in just about every subject: locating reservations on a map in Geography, reading texts about Indians in German and English, painting “chiefs” (complete with feathers and war paint) in Art, and so forth. Some of the stuff they’ll be doing is actually kind of cool-—I believe they’re building miniature wigwams, for example—-but a lot of it is hokey at best, or even disrespectful.

There will be a Mutprobe. (“Test of courage.”) This bothers me, and not only because it’s cheesy. The “tests of courage” and “vision quests” that some Indian youths underwent (and undergo) are religious rituals. Since when is it ok to half-assedly imitate other people’s religious rituals? Should we also hand out Ritz crackers and Dixie cups of grape juice so they can see what it’s like to be Catholic and take Communion?

Unfortunately, when it comes to this project I do not have high expectations of respectfulness or even accuracy. -–My boss honestly thought that the reason Iroquois Indians did so much of the construction work on the Brooklyn Bridge is that Indians have some sort of genetic mutation rendering them indifferent to heights! (This is b.s., of course. Indians do have a genetic predisposition to diabetes—and white people have a predisposition to near-sightedness—but there’s no such thing as a no-fear-of-heights gene.)

As calmly as possible (though actually I was horrified—what’s next, a Jewish money-lending gene?), I informed her that this is not actually the case. Finally she said, “Oh, maybe it’s just certain tribes.”


She also wanted me to tell the kids the old myth about how the nice white settlers invented Thanksgiving to thank their Indian brethren. So I told her the real Thanksgiving story: namely, that the Indians weren’t actually invited to the feast, but showed up when they heard gunfire. Relieved that the hairy, unwashed foreigners were preparing for a party and not a battle, they agreed to stay for the meal in order to mitigate free-floating hostilities.

The Boss didn’t believe me.

I skirted the issue by preparing an activity explaining the lifestyle of the Puritan settlers. No direct mention of the First Thanksgiving at all!

Frustrated and frankly freaked-out by the great font of ignorance that I work for, I sent an e-mail to a friend of mine who was a TA in Germany once, asking for advice. My friend, who happens to be a member of a federally recognized Indian Nation, told me that it sounds like my boss got her ideas about Indians from the novels of Karl May. Karl May is, as my friend put it, “the German Louis L’Amour.” He wrote immensely popular novels about an imaginary Indian named Winnitou, though in fact May had never met an Indian in his life. The one time he visited the States he didn’t make it west of Pittsburgh.

My friend was amused to learn that she is genetically incapable of being afraid of heights.

In the 8b, taught by the other English teacher, I will be presenting an activity called “Meet a Real Indian from Today” in which my students can look at a picture of my friend, who has short hair (no braids!) and does not go in for war paint, unless maybe you count eye-liner. They will learn that she is proud of her heritage, but has a regular job and a normal apartment and watches TV like everyone else. Essentially, I hope to show them that Indians today live in the modern world and are normal people, not all that different from them.

I offered to present this information in the 8a, too, but the Boss was not receptive.

I find it extremely ironic that we’re spending a whole week on Indians when they have their own oppressed indigenous minority group right here: namely, the Sorbs. (Who don’t get much coverage in school at all, as far as I can tell.) So my eighth-graders, including two Sorbian eighth-graders, will be learning about how we American white folks mistreated the Indians for four hundred years. I am tempted to mention that what white Americans did to the American Indians isn’t much different from what the Germans did to the Sorbs—namely, invade their country; steal their land; enslave them; and attempt to destroy their culture—but I doubt that this would go over well.

What would be comparable:

A middle school in small-town America, located 20 miles from an Indian Reservation, with two Indian kids in the class, spends a week learning all about Sorbs. Painting colorful Easter eggs, finding the towns of Chroscicy (aka Chrostwitz) and Pancicy-Kukow (aka Panschwitz-Kuckau)on a map, and even organizing their very own Corpus Christi procession, complete with a paper-mache Mary statue and Druzka (Honor Maiden) costumes made out of old newspapers…

Ridiculous, at best.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is the first time i've caught up w/ your blog since korea cut off access to it sometime in early fall... sounds like you've been through a lot! i'll also be home for the holidays; very exciting. we'll probably both be busy w/ our families and stuff, but if you have free time, give me a shout! take care. ~ aimee ^_^

2:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is another odd aspect of the German fascination with Native American (Indians) that you didn't mention. There are charity organizations in Germany that collect donations for aid to Native American tribes (as they do for aid to Africa, India, etc.). Then they go about feeling culturally superior because they have helped the poor primitive Indianer.

There are several historically oppressed minorities that generally are conveniently forgotten in this part of the world, including the "gypsies" (e.g. the Romani people), who still face persecution in Europe today.

12:43 AM  

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