Winnetou under scrutiny

13 March 2012

Professor Dr. Mita Banerjee's research focuses on indigenous peoples. She studies how Maori, Inuits, Aborigines, and American Indians live in contemporary society. The North American Studies specialist challenges stereotypes and combines diverse academic disciplines in her projects.

An American Indian wears a feathered headdress, lives in tepees, and is in close touch with nature. He has a direct hot line to Mother Earth, while modern man has no such intimate connection. "A lot of people who came to our lecture series last year had notions like these," recalls Professor Dr. Mita Banerjee. "They wanted to see a real Indian." She doesn't find this attitude all too problematic. "This is something we can work with," she says. "We can easily demonstrate how romanticized such concepts are."

This was exactly the purpose of the lecture series "Vanishing Indians and Disappearing Inuits? Envisioning Comparative Indigenous Studies" that was offered by the Center for Comparative Native and Indigenous Studies (CCNIS) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Among the subjects dealt with was Karl May's famous fictional character Winnetou. "None of what May wrote in this context was accurate, but he did at least anchor the concept of the Indian in German consciousness." This alone was quite an achievement. "But we need to be careful how we proceed because we don't want to disappoint people too much."

Karl May was completely wrong

Banerjee may not want to disappoint people, but certainly wants to change their perceptions. "Irrespective of whether we are talking about American Indians, Maori, or Aborigines, we often believe that they live in a form of pre-modern community. What interests us, however, is the way of life of these indigenous peoples in our modern world. It is true that they have their individual histories and special roots, but they still live in our society."

In 2010, the Mainz-born Banerjee returned to Mainz from the University of Siegen. One of her objectives was to establish the CCNIS. This center undertakes interdisciplinary research on the history and culture of indigenous peoples, such as the Aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, and, of course, the Indians in North America. "It is our aim to establish what similarities these peoples share although this does not involve questioning their autonomy in any way."

The desire for the untouched

What they all have in common, for example, is that they were robbed of their basis of existence by invading settlers, oppressed for centuries, and pushed to the margins of society. It was only once they had almost disappeared that they began to be romanticized. "People suddenly discovered: 'Man, Native Americans are really great'", says Banerjee with a certain tinge of bitter irony. They began to construct an image that had little to do with reality. "And this image actually tells us more about our longings than about the real world. We want something that is still intact and unsullied; this is a desire to escape civilization."

But Banerjee soon stops talking about such complex philosophical concepts; she prefers to speak about individuals. About one of her students, for example, whose father is a Hopi Indian and whose mother is German. "She sees herself as bicultural. She likes to visit schools wearing ordinary jeans where she talks about herself as an American Indian." Of course, the children ask her about horses, feathered headdresses, only to be confronted by an Indian woman who by no means conforms to the stereotype in their minds.

Prominent guests

But the research projects of the CCNIS naturally go even deeper under the surface. Cultural aspects of the most diverse types are closely investigated, whether they relate to dance, theater, music, film, or literature.

Banerjee frequently invites prominent guests to the University; these include Professor Robert Warrior and Professor John Gamber from the USA, who took part in the lecture series. "Both like to exploit the fact that they are privileged as academics and part of an indigenous culture at the same time," she says. Kim Scott, the multi-award-winning Australian writer, was also a guest. He was the first Aborigine to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Award.

Borderline experiences of human life

"He is coming back again this summer," says Banerjee excitedly. He will not be talking much about his literary work but instead will speak about a project involving doctors. Aborigines have alcohol problems as a matter of course - that is a common stereotype in Australia. Even doctors subscribe to this assumption without questioning it. Scott wants to change this. He has recorded interviews with traumatized Aborigines that reveal that their heavy drinking could well be a reaction to the murder of their parents.

"Medical students should take a look at this," says Banerjee. "They will learn that the other is a human being, too; someone who just happens to be an Aborigine." Scott's work is similar to Banerjee's current project, a Research Training Group that she is supervising in collaboration with the Institute of the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine and that is entitled: "Borderline Experiences of Human Life between Life Sciences and Life Writing."

A lot of interaction with other disciplines

"We bring various natural science and humanities disciplines together. What people write about their lives and illnesses can be very interesting to doctors and bio-scientists." However, the focus is not just on autobiographies. Diaries, internet blogs, and other artistic forms used to describe life situations are also of interest. A grant application has been sent to the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Collaboration with other disciplines is important to Banerjee. She talks a lot about her interaction with colleagues from the fields of geography, medicine, or the pharmaceutical sciences. "I find it inspiring to bring people together that think and research differently," she says. As a maxim, this could describe the whole of her research career.