THE URBANE INDIAN
Once more, for the fourteenth time, I heard the call and I answered.
Germany, that far away land of schnitzel, white asparagus, and Indian enthusiasts, beckoned, and who was I to say no to any of those intriguing possibilities.
That is why I found myself in Jena (about an hour outside of Berlin), at a conference called FAKE IDENTITIES: Imposters, Conmen, Wannabees in North American Culture. At first I was a little concerned as to why I, in particular, was being invited to a conference with such a name and topic… but I was soon assured there was no hidden motivation behind it.
To begin with, I usually find academic gatherings of this type kind of boring, but this one was a surprisingly interesting conference where topics like Armand Garnet Ruffo’s book on Grey Owl was discussed, followed by an analysis of Mad Men’s Don Draper as an imposter, followed by a discussion about Forest Carter, the man who wrote the books The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Educations Of Little Tree. Evidently he reinvented himself from a White supremist and Klansman in the 1950s and 60s to, in the 1970s, an orphaned half-Cherokee author raised by his Cherokee grandparents. I’d like to see the paper work for that magic trick.
More than anything, I love going to Germany because it is an intriguing country full of mischief and coincidence, at least for me. They also really like North American Native culture, in whatever form. In addition, every time I’ve been here, unusual and fascinating things seem to occur that also happen to tickle my Indigenous funny bone.† And a humourist never passes up an opportunity for his funny bone to be tickled.
For instance, once I landed in Frankfurt, I had to go through passport security. Nothing unusual there. They asked what I was doing in the country and I said I was here to lecture on Native culture and literature. He looked at me slightly amused, saying in a thick German accent “And you are an expert on such things?”
I told him proudly that I was born, raised and currently live on my reserve, and was of Ojibway extraction.
“I wondered about that,” he said. “I saw on your sweatshirt ‘powwow’, but then I saw your last name on your passport. Your name does not sound Ojibway.”
Only in Germany would they reason these things out. Incensed, I whipped out the dreamcatcher I have hidden in my pocket for just such emergencies, shook it at him and said “don’t make me make it rain!” Okay, so maybe I didn’t do that exactly but I wasn’t sure how to respond to a statement like that. Coincidently, that wasn’t the only time my last name would be involved in a misunderstanding of sorts. Still, on retrospect, it was kind of funny, I guess.
But not as funny as some of the badly translated dishes on the menu at my hotel/restaurant. Granted translation is a difficult task, but you would think the people who printed up the English menus would have come up with a better way of saying “meat from the back of Angus.” I found myself hoping Angus referred to a breed of cow, not some irate and annoyed Scotsman.
It can’t be that expensive to hire a proof reader. Give me 40 Euros and I’ll do it for them. My personal favourite was the ‘flusskrebse’. Due to the uniqueness of the German language, this word has two meanings. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it refers to a form of crayfish found in freshwater rivers, or cancer. So when I saw the special of the day listed as ‘river cancer,’ I understandably opted for the soup and salad. It seems the chef was also an oncologist.
What was perhaps most puzzling, in an amusing way, was the knowledge that there happened to be another Taylor lecturing at the university. I thought ‘what luck” for this little town, two Taylors in the same town, on the same night. Then I was told it was Charles Taylor, and I was momentarily confused… Charles Taylor had been in the news all week. He’d been on trial and then convicted in The Hague, Holland, for horrible war crimes committed in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And he was on tour? Wow, what a liberal justice system.
Then I was told it was the other Charles Taylor, this one being the famous Canadian philosopher and social theorist, which upon reflection, made a lot more sense. And I’m not sure but there may also be a Charlie Taylor floating around my reserve somewhere (Taylor being a very big name there), but I doubt he’s ever made it to Jena, Germany. My people don’t find river cancer that appealing.