Northwest Coast peoples depicted as “naked savages” in German play

 By Todd Lamirande
 APTN Investigates

File this story under how can this happen in this day and age.

On September 21, the provocative German puppeteer group Das Helmi performed the play, Kapitan Jacobsen, at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. It depicted ethnologist Adrian Jacobsen’s visits to the Northwest Coast between 1881 to 1883.

A week ago the Berliner Beitung published a review of the performance. Das Helmi used foam puppets to portray the Nuxalk  and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples and Jacobsen. But what outraged many, was the end of the play where performers stripped off their clothes and donned foam masks to act out a “Native American potlatch feast as (an) orgy (of) naked savages.”

According to the Beitung, the former head of the museum, Peter Bolz, was horrified by the performance.

“Imagine that representatives of Indigenous peoples would have been present from the Northwest Coast in the hall,” he said. “They would immediately leave Berlin under protest and would never come back!”

Bolz also stated that the museum had failed to promote “a deeper understanding between cultures.” Instead, it had used “Indian cliches (of the) lowest level.”

220px-Adrian_JacobsenViola Konig, the director of the Ethnological Museum, defended the performance. That it was a way to show Jacobsen’s journey in a vivid and entertaining way. As well, the puppeteers based their performance on the diaries of Jocabsen. And it was meant to be a “playful” presentation “with all (the) typical contemporary prejudices” held by Jacobsen.

Das Helmi’s posted several photos of the performance of Kapitan Jocabsen on their website. A warning that some of the images are NSFW. The puppeteers also made a trailer of the play, in German, which was posted on YouTube.

Jacobsen was a Norwegian ethnologist who collected thousands of objects while on the coast. Many of these artifacts are still in the museum. He tried unsuccessfully to bring a group of Kwakwaka’wakw back to Germany in 1882. A few years later, however, he managed to bring nine Nuxalk back to perform what Jacobsen described as “shaman” dances.

 

Executive Producer / Ottawa

Todd Lamirande is Red River Metis. Todd first joined APTN in 2000 as a writer - researcher. He went on to be a videojournalist based in Vancouver. Todd has hosted three programs for APTN News and Current Affairs: the national news, Investigates and Nation to Nation.