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The long legacy of crossing cultures

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Keeping Native American traditions alive in the Czech Republic

The first gift I received from my husband, Radek, while we were dating was a Hopi necklace. I had been in Prague for several months, and I remember looking at Radek in surprise as he handed me the silver chain with a turquoise Kokopelli. I’d expected something Czech. He’d purchased the necklace on an Arizona reservation. Initially, I thought Radek’s interest in Native American life had come through travel, but, like many here, he grew up with a love of scouting and had read novels by Karl May that offered enticing Wild West narratives. Scouting and tramping – that is, to hike through the woods, camp and explore nature – have been vibrant subcultures here since WWI.

The popular Czech caricature of the Native American is embodied in the character Vinnetou from May’s novels – and later beamed in on television from Germany – a free, physically and mentally strong man living in accord with nature. The founders of the first Woodcraft League in the early 1900s built tepees in the countryside for weekend gatherings and taught themselves Native American-influenced beadwork. Some tramping camps were even given names that evoked US geography. And noblemen filled castles like Konopiště with Native American artefacts from travels abroad (although many of these relics were destroyed during communism). The popular escape to nature for weekends and summer holidays still often combines Native American and scouting traditions. It is common at summer camps for children to sleep in tepees and learn to live from nature.

The prevalence of the Native American tradition in the Czech Republic was brought most fully to my attention last weekend during a family bike ride. As we approached the grassy field below the ruins of Okoř, we saw a large tepee and several people dressed in seemingly authentic Native American costumes. Like a horse going to the barn, Radek rode his bike straight through the field and stopped a few feet from the gathering.

Anna Lee and Oliver, our children, ogled the traditional garb, and a group leader invited us to look inside a tepee. As other visitors practiced archery, Anna Lee found a crafts table and learned to make a beaded bracelet. The group, Indian Corral, gave us a calendar of events and pins announcing the 14th Czech Pow Wow, Kladno 2009.

When we got home, Radek and Anna pored through the calendar. Anna remarked on several occasions how funny it was that the men’s red-painted faces didn’t match their naked white necks. Although some of the men were painted with various war or festival designs, several had tinted their faces solid red, which cast an artificial air on the group’s otherwise authentic clothing and utensils.

Watching a European country appropriate a tradition I’ve long associated with the Americas has been interesting. In instances such as when people paint their faces red, there is a lack of cultural sensitivity in the Czech Native American enthusiasm that raises questions for me. I know many dedicated Czechs have close relationships with Native American tribes, with some even speaking languages such as Lakota, but I was surprised to find that people here use the unmodified term Indián exclusively. I realize that labels that can be seen as disrespectful in the US do not carry the same tones here. (Indián is used in Czech only for the indigenous people of the Americas, while Ind refers to India.) But I wonder, too, if the naïve attitude associated with much of the lore of Amerika to some extent still exists.

I’d be equally curious to know what Native Americans would think if they came to eat at the Baretta pizzeria in the Nusle neighbourhood, where the restaurant’s logo features a grinning Native American taking a huge bite of pizza. Pies with names such as Geronimo, White Dog, Red Cloud and Big Eagle dot the menu and the colourful interior is a cross between a western saloon and a tribal reservation, with live parrots, native headdresses and a buffalo head.

Seven years and two children after Radek gave it to me, I still have my Hopi necklace, but, as the humped-back flute player Kokopelli is a fertility symbol, I’ve tucked it away for now. Maybe I can pass it down to Anna one day and she can make her own discovery of this living heritage that exists in both her homelands.

Half-n-half will return in August after a summer break. Happy summer holidays to all Half-n-half families and readers!

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