Germans and Indians

By Norbert Ruebsaat | May 26, 2010


In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer the Indians run on moccasined feet through the deciduous New England forest. They run in all the Leather Stocking Tales, they never walk, and when my father read these tales to me when I was ten I imagined the moccasins the Indians ran in were socks, stockings being a literary word for this kind of clothing. The Leather Stocking Tales reminded my father, I think, of stories about Indians he had read as a boy, written by a man named Karl May, who is known to all Germans, and whose name is pronounced by them as a single word, Karlmay. And when I was ten I thought Fennmore was a funny second name and May (pronounced My) was a funny last name.

Why do Europeans write about Indians? One reason, I imagined back then (and still do) is that they (we) are awkward men. With names like Fenimore and Karlmay, this is no surprise. Grey Owl imagined so hard that he was an Indian that he believed himself and wrote books in the voice of the Indian he believed himself to be. Everyone else believed him. I believed him. I didn’t want him to be not an Indian, and when it was revealed that his real name was Archie Belany and he was an Englishman (an awkward kind of European) who lived with beavers and had an Iroquois girlfriend named Anahareo (did she know?) and that he had a stupid name like Archie, the awkward guy from the comic books, I was depressed.

I tried to be an Indian. I practiced walking through the forest on my moccasined (leather stockinged) feet without breaking a twig and making a sound, as James Fenimore Cooper advised.  I tracked animals and people by looking for bent or broken grass blades or overturned leaves. My father read James Fenimore Cooper books to me in German and I thought at first he was a German writer: Mokassins. I had my own, real, Mokassins, the kind you could buy in those days in West’s department store in Castlegar: they had a leather thong strung through the rim and tied into a bow in front, and when I walked in them through the bush I got the not-breaking-a-twig-part down but I never managed silent running. It was hard to run through the bush in the Kootenays in B.C. where we lived in the 1950s because there weren’t many paths, and there were steep slopes and rockfalls and cliffs and the forest was often densely-packed conifers. I’d heard that the eastern woods—they call them woods out there, not bush—were more like European broadleaf forests, the kind my father knew from his childhood, so it was easier for him to imagine running through them than it was for me. James Fenimore Cooper was of course a New Englander, but I didn’t stop thinking he was German until I looked more closely one day at the book’s dust jacket (the drawing on it showed the Indian, an Iroquois,  running on leather-stockinged feet through the bush/woods/forest) and saw the title, Lederstrumpf. I couldn’t yet read German, and I asked my father to repeat what the letters said. He did, and it sounded funny. My father said Lederstrumpf meant leatherstocking, which was maybe an American word, but not one I had heard before. I realized then that the book was a translation.


Karl May was a German who never left Germany and his hero is a frontiersman named Old Shatterhand who has an iron right hand which he uses as a weapon. (The trope was picked up by Stanley Kubrick in the movie Dr. Strangelove, where Peter Sellers played the Ur Nazi). His Indian sidekick is called Winnitou. He’s an Apache. Winnitou captures well the German idea about Indians: they are like the wind, der Wind, and also like breath: they rush freely through the trees, and the wind in turn rushes through their—long—frontier hair, and they join body, place, name, mind, spirit and nature, and probably a bunch more things, into a timeless, well, let’s call it a Gestalt. My father didn’t read me the Winnitou stories; the books had gotten lost after the War, when American officers took over his family home and dumped the family belongings they couldn’t use out the window, but my father talked about the stories often and said they were one of the inspirations that brought him to Canada. When he read me the Leatherstocking stories, and the Indians in them spoke German, (as Karlmay had made his Indians do in the Winnitou stories) I got annoyed. I said Indians, even though they had their own original languages, should speak English in books: Ugh, How, Kemo Sabe, shoot bad white man etc. There’s no such thing as a German-speaking Indian, I told my father.

This anecdote might explain my discomfort: Before arriving in Canada in 1952 when I was just turning six I thought English and Indian were the same language. And I thought this language was a lot like German. In Germany I had been taught to say “How,” and told it meant “hello,” Guten Tag, by my Karlmay-reading relatives, and had learned to raise my right hand, palm forward, in the signal of peace and greeting common to non-literate peoples the world over. My relatives gave me a feather headdress—this was in the last months before we emigrated, when we were seriously studying Canadian customs—and they took a photo of me wearing it and standing at attention in my grandparents’ back yard with a wooden rifle leaned against my shoulder. I look very serious in this photo because I am trying hard to be an Indian and Canadian and a potential German immigrant. Indians, I knew, look dour and serious and have hawk noses. In bed at night I practiced the words “How,” and “I come in peace,” which was another piece of—translated—Karl May vocabulary my relatives imparted to me, and the word “yes,” which I had been told was the English/ Indian word for ja and jawohl.  These, I thought, were the basic English and Indian words you needed to know when you arrived in Canada.

When I did arrive in Canada and saw my first Canadian, his name was Paul, about my age, I walked out of our house to greet him—he was playing with his toy cars in a big pile of dirt; our neighbourhood was in a new section of Edmonton—and I said “How,” “Hello,” and “Yes.” Paul stopped moving his cars around and looked at me as if I were from space.  I said “How,” and “Yes,” again, and then I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes,” and  “I come in peace.” I was still convinced, in that magical way in which six-year-olds are certain of things, that English/Indian was one language and was indeed basically like German. You just had to add those few English/Indian words, especially “yes” into your sentence and you were away. “How. Mein Name ist Norbert. Yes yes yes yes. How. I come in peace.” And you raise your right hand. Paul continued looking at me as if I were far away, and when I kept repeating, “How,”  “Yes, yes, yes, yes,”  “I come in peace”—I speeded up the “yes” repetitions, and put a little more umph behind them, in case Canadian children didn’t hear things the same way as German kids did—he got up, grabbed his cars and trucks, and bolted. He ran (not on leather-stockinged feet) to his house screaming “Mummy, mummy, mummy.” I hear his voice clearly in memory. I hear also the many times he ran away from me screaming mummy mummy as I tried, in subsequent months, to befriend Paul. I’d learn in this process, too, the word Gemehboy, which, as opposed to Old Shatterhand, became my first English moniker, given to me by Paul—as in “Mummy, mummy, Gemehboy steal my car, Gemehboy riding my bike, Gemehboy bad!” etc.


Germans and Indians have been on my mind often since those days of first contact. Once, when I was on the Queen Charlotte Islands—Haida Gwaii, off the northwest coast of B.C.—doing research on this question, I was motoring with my hosts Diane and Dull Brown between Hotspring Island and House Island on their cabin cruiser, the Hai Yu—this was in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, which had recently (1986) been inaugurated, following Haida protests against logging by transnational corporations in this, the Haida homelands—and we encountered, out there in the chop and the rain, a green canoe in which the shapes of two bedraggled, rain-drenched young white men gradually materialized. Diane, who is Haida (so is Dull: both had been involved in the anti-logging protests) said, “They must be crazy, out here in this weather in a canoe. We better stop and see how they are doing.” We pulled over and I said, without thinking, “I bet they are German.”

And indeed they were. Dull slowed the Hai Yu way down so as not to swamp the Germans with its wake, and we pulled alongside and started talking to them. I learned that they were two kids from Heidelberg. They spoke the eager English that German students of English speak when they encounter the Anglo Saxon world, English which for them, the children or, now, the grandchildren of  Karlmay readers—and children, more recently, of the American books, magazines, movies, TV shows, pop music, that saturated the post WW II German cultural marketplace and made English the omniscient linguistic signifier—and when I spoke German to them they responded with the delight Germans always show when you speak to them in the home language in a far-away place. Diane said we better give them some food—she had already cessed out that they didn’t have any, just as they didn’t have proper rain gear—and we gave them some rock scallops and abalone I had dived for off the Hai-Yu (under Diane and Dull’s supervision); and when Diane explained and I translated to them how you “fix” these traditional food items from the land, or in this case, the sea, the Germans were beside themselves with excitement about this authentic experience in a wilderness. When they paddled away their animated chatter in my—in our—language drifted back to me in the Gwaii Haanas mist and drizzle. Dull turned to me and said, “Your kinsmen sound happy.”

Kinsmen. Happy. The words startled me. I felt suddenly awkward. Were these crazy Germans my kin? Had I, even after all these years, not succeeded in becoming “Canadian”? Do awkward Europeans have kinsmen? When we recalled the encounter later Diane said, “It’s interesting when you were speaking German: it’s like when we speak Haida. There’s two languages going on up here.” Indeed. Yes. German and Haida. Two languages. Yes yes yes yes. Howa. Gemahboy had arrived somewhere. But where?  I fancied for a moment—and more often later in my stay in Haida Gwaii—that Diane and her family might have a soft spot for us Germans. It stemmed perhaps from our eager, naïve, even goofy way of speaking when we are in foreign places and experience first hand what we have read about in books; it stems from our greenhorn enthusiasm when we encounter our Idea of Nature and Eingeborenheit (that’s Aboriginality) in Real Life. We Germans, I thought, can be childlike when we are face-to-face with the Other, whether natural or human; this might be (when you’re German you start with a theory) because we historically had minimal experience of colonial face-to-face contact with the non-European world. We’ve got lots of stories and books; no history, though. We have Geschichte: stories; tales.

Our naive inventiveness has its dark side, of course. My friend Liliane from Egypt told me once the Germans’ mistake was that they—we—tried, in two wars, to colonize Europe, rather than the rest of the world. And I imagine the Haidas, like everyone else, balk at the German propensity to devise ontologies, worldviews, Anschauungs, Gestalts, Zeitgeists, etc., from the tiniest threads of factual evidence. But I did feel, at times—often—in Haida Gwaii that I was being hosted as a different kind of European invader than would a first-language English-speaking Anglo-Canadian. I had “two languages going on up here,” and I had, as do the Haida, God bless or curse me, yes, kin.


The imaginary Indian is a trope in Euro-North American literary culture. Daniel Francis has written an excellent book by that name on the subject, and Anthony Wilden, in a quirky essay, extended the idea into his concept of The Imaginary Canadian. I’m happy, I discover, as a (German)-Canadian, that I live in a partly imaginary country (it’s sometimes described as “post-modern” or “in the process of becoming”).  It reminds me of home, Germany–which, from its very beginnings as Holy Roman Empire through to its implosion as Third Reich, has been an imaginary construct. I worked with Diane Brown on a writing and recording project which was to be a collaborative book on the relationship between imagination, language and place: the book part of the project bogged down, but our work became a CBC Radio Ideas program called “Walking-Around-Eating”—named after one of  Diane’s father Watson Pryce’s uncles, and given to us by Watson to use for our program—and I learned, in the making of it, that speaking, eating and paddling (and motoring in a cabin cruiser) can be related concepts, and that the act of naming someone—and also something, a place, say–works differently in Haida Gwaii than it does in the European parts of  Canada.  Being here is differently valenced, and you are in another, er, Weltanschauung. At its core is the idea of kin.

Some Europeans have been given names by Indians and in this way satisfied their yearning to acquire local worldview and authenticity. They acquire kin via this name. I played in—awkward—moments with the fantasy of this happening to me in Haida Gwaii, but—well, Norbert, got over it. I was also, most certainly, not “adopted into a tribe” as some white authors claim to have been, in this way dealing with the problem (popular at the time: late eighties) of “voice appropriation”—which accrued when white guys wrote about Indians. I did not imagine myself, even for a moment, certainly not with someone like Diane around, to be Haida, even of a faux variety.  No, the curious thing that happened in Haida Gwaii was that I became more German, more German than I was in my home city, Vancouver. I was clearly a visitor, but I had a home country. I was like Haidas in this way. I had language, culture, place, and I had, God help me again, kin. As did the people here.


The above account is only partially true. I was given a name by Diane and her relatives, but it was an English, not a Haida name. The name had to do with a large black bear I encountered and swore at when he charged and chased me away from his/my pink salmon fishing hole on Pallant Creek on South Moresby Island, Gwaii Haanas, and I felt myself turning, as I ran away, anything but silently, on gumbooted, not leatherstockinged feet, breaking all the rules about how to comport yourself when charged by a black bear (you’re supposed to stay and “fight back”) into food. Luckily the swearing worked, or more probably the pinks, which the bear was free to fish for once I was shooed out of the way, were tastier fare than was the body of a German, and when I returned to Skidegate, Diane’s and her family’s village, and told the story and everyone laughed—that’s when I got my name, my Haida/English/German/Canadian/Immigrant name. Call me “Swears-At-Bears.”

Language, kin, irony. Cross-cultural mirth. What’s in a name? I had a friend in Vancouver who had a classic, upper-class hyphenated English name, and with this friend I had long debates about the relationships between race, color, speech, ethnicity and identity. He said that he, a “brown man” (his mother is South Asian, but the family’s from Britain) suffered, by definition, as a “person of colour,” more at the hands of Canadian racism, than did I, a white man with, albeit, a funny name and a dark national history. I said with a name like his and an accent like his (he talks Upper Canada College English) he could rule the world or at least its waves. He said, Yeah, so long as I’m on the phone: when I walk physically into the room the conversation stops. I said, When people see me and I’m silent, everything’s fine, but when people hear my name, and then ask me to spell that name, then declare it “unusual,” and then look at me in the manner Paul back in Edmonton pioneered, my stomach churns. I want to swear.  I admitted that this had happened more in my youth in the B.C. Interior, where my parents insisted I wear indestructible Lederhosen—you get the picture: Lederstrumpf; Lederhosen?–to school than it did today in the city, but I recalled that just recently a person had made me repeat my name three times and after I did so still addressed me as “Norman.” When, in our final conversation, my friend called me a typical arrogant German, kraut, white man, eurocentrist, etc. and I could not bring myself to call him a Limey, Tommy, Pom, let alone a dumb brown Hindu, I walked away, and our friendship seemed to collapse. I felt ashamed, lost, frightened.  He called after me that he had been goading me in jest, that I couldn’t take a joke, handle irony—the absence of a sense of humour being a typically German trait.

In Haida Gwaii, yes, I learned that name calling, a fundamental way of imagining the Other, goes differently there than it does in Old Europe and its teenaged colonies, and to try to illustrate this I’ll follow the above sad story with a—hopefully—funny one. I lived in Haida Gwaii with Diane’s father, Watson Pryce, who was an elder of the Eagle Clan and hereditary chief of Chaatl, a (now abandoned) Haida town on the West Coast of the Charlottes, out on Buck Channel, on Chaatl Island. Watson told me one day about a man he had worked with on the dozer boats for MacMillan-Bloedel, the major logging company from the sixties through to the eighties in the Charlottes. The dozer boats sort the logs in a boom and their noisy unmufflered engines made Watson partially deaf.  He referred to this man as “one of them down east Indians,” and when he spoke this phrase I burst out laughing. My first thought was, he’s speaking about one of my former friend’s—kinsmen. In Castlegar B.C., “East Indians” were those Indians who were from India, and who you learned about in school but never saw (no “East Indians” lived in the Kootenays in those days)  and you differentiated them from “our,” ie. Canadian Indians (of whom none lived in Castlegar anymore either—the teachers didn’t tell us where they had gone).  I thought next that Watson might also mean an “Indian” from eastern Canada, an Algonquin or a Huron or an Iroquois, Anahareo’s kinsmen, about whom we also learned in school, and who lived in what we called The East (where they ran around on leather stockinged feet). Or he could mean a Cree, or Ojibway, or a Blackfoot from the Prairies, this region being still down east as far as B.C.ers are concerned. My final, funny, thought in this sequence was that the Down East Indian was a White Man, an Ottawa DIA bureaucrat, say, who had come to try to live in a real place (“on the ground,” as the  media expresses the idea these days) rather than an office cubicle, and who, because he did everything haywire, turned into an Indian.

I didn’t ask Watson which kind of Indian he meant. In Haida Gwaii you respect elders and don’t ask questions. (You do this in Germany, too, but not always for the same reasons). Nor did I want to display my ignorance about what everybody else around here knew a down east Indian to be (and thereby of course, in due process, becoming one). Watson used the word “Indian” in many ways: there was an “Indian boat” (one that leaked and miraculously stayed afloat), there was an “Indian net” (one whose mesh had big holes but still netted a lot of fish, but let a lot get away, also, so they could spawn) and there was an “Indian suitcase,” which is a plastic garbage bag into which you stuff your clothes when you get on the plane to go off  Island, fly “down south” to Vancouver. Diane only used this last form of the word; in all other contexts she said, “we,” or, “people here,” or “people around here,” or “Haidas.”


The word “tribalism,” which I’ll link up here with the idea of kin (anthropologists  Marshall Sahlins and Levis Strauss say kinship is the structural base of all tribal social arrangements) was being bandied about a lot when I was in my twenties and we were reading Marshall McLuhan, and it was reprised in the nineteen eighties and early nineties when the “Jihad versus McWorld” conversation was moving around the globe that had become a village.  The word was used in “New Age” spiritualist circles to denote the desire for “connection,” “ unity” “oneness,”  “om,” etc., (Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft !) something approximating, people hoped, the experience of kinship in a consumerist world. It is still used in its dark sense to label the mindless religious fundamentalisms that are making an anti-consumerism comeback in formerly colonized Middle Eastern locations. The word was—and is—also used, by both Germans and non Germans, in a negative way, to label the enthusiasm, the spirit, the Geist, that fueled the nationalist/racist fervour with which Germans in the Thirties flocked to the Blut und Boden, blood and soil, philosophy espoused by the Nazi movement. The Pied Piper dreams and behaviours attendant upon all three branchiations of the term hark back, in turn then, to the Romantic movement in both England and Germany, where poets like Novalis, Tieck, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron experienced, in “nature,” a kind of religious unity and authenticity that Eighteenth Century rationalism had expelled from culture. This impulse finds its nineteenth century popular (some say Kitsch) cultural zenith, then, in the writings of, well, authors like Karl May, James Fennimore Cooper, and, let’s not fear to say it, Canada’s Grey Owl, who carried the flame into the 20th century.

When Dull and Diane and I (my daughter, a kin, then seven, was with us also) met the Germans in the green canoe, such big historical thoughts, too, bobbed up and down in my mind out there in the chop. They were trying to explain my feelings of awkwardness on the one hand, desire for kinship on the other. Germans, when they meet in foreign climes, are, even as they are happy to see each other, also wary of each other. They play a hide and seek game. This has to do with the specific awkwardness that the German branch of the European branch of humanity got itself into. I’m talking about the black hole in history that Germany’s Nazi Pied Piper dream made manifest, and the shame and guilt it produced in the immediate post war generations. Germans often go abroad, even emigrate, in order to escape this shame/guilt complex. A stain.  Germans can be found, as people often remark, in the most distant corners of the earth, vis in green canoes here in Haida Gwaii. This results in part from the false, perhaps kitschy, in any event tricky romantic streak that led them to first follow and later try to escape the push and pull of the Nazi Pied Piper tune—to whose lyrics they or their parents did not pay proper attention. When Dull called the young Germans my kin, I winced: I was proud, and then ashamed: in which sense, I asked myself, is he using this word? In the good, holistic, “authentic,” tribal sense, or in the mindless (and evil-minded) sense in which Germans, Hitler’s “willing executioners,” Gemehboys, Krauts, Nazis, et al are easily stigmatized? I was proud to have kin, to be like the Haidas in that way; I was also afraid of having such kin, of being—not Haida, but Hun, way out there in the historical darkness, and right here, in a home and a native land.

I’m noting now, as I write this, that when I said, “I bet they are German” upon sighting my kinsmen—it turned out someone, a Haida, had lent them the green canoe when they arrived, all eager to explore South Moresby, and had not realized there were no roads there—I was slagging them in a way not dissimilar to my former down east Indian friend’s easy way of talking about stupid Germans. When Germans are found in the remotest corners of the exotic, post-colonial world it is “fun”—if you act Canadian, as I was attempting to do, by way of a localizing performance for Diane and Dull—to declare them crazy, obsessed, naïve, even stupid in this seemingly mild mannered, poke-in-the-ribs kind of way. It is also insulting. The boys in the canoe were a generation younger than me, less guilt-ridden, shame-infested, fearful, potentially passive-aggressive than we, the immediate post-war babies, are. They were genuinely enthusiastic about being where they were, and about meeting us, about meeting one of their “kin” out here in the world of the Indianer, a possibly truer world than the one at home, and certainly a world of adventure, not shame or guilt. In slagging them, I unwittingly slagged myself. Fear of “blood and belonging” drove me, as did deep desire to belong, even—let’s not go too far with this metaphor, but let’s go some distance—to taste blood: you eat your food fresh, often raw, in Haida Gwaii. Sometimes the blood’s still dripping. “You look your food in the eye,” goes the local saying.


After my last conversation with my former friend I developed (being German) a theory. The theory was that the Germans, because they “started” two World Wars, invented Naziism, perpetrated the Holocaust, etc. are perhaps the last people on earth whom one can, with impunity, slag. It is not politically incorrect to label and make fun of Germans, nor does one generally pay a price for doing so. After all, they (we) did perpetrate the Holocaust, opened the black hole of European history. They (we) were willing executioners. (Were we?) We’re the benchmark, says my theory, for twentieth century Evil, perhaps for all Evil, Evil’s very definition. I recall to mind HannahArendt’s and Karl Jasper’s letter debate on this point. My theory is self-serving, of course, as most theories are and it doesn’t hold for long, but it does, at times, as they say in the media, have legs. It explains my former friend’s confidence that he could name/label me with impunity, and it explains my silent (lack of) response. And it explains my easy, secret, fear-and-desire-driven slur against my compatriots way up North there in Haida Gwaii.  My friend’s words had their intended effect, which was to rob me of a place from which to speak.  My quip about my kinsmen was an effort to rob them—and unwittingly myself—of dignity. I was back there in Edmonton playing Paul and Gemehboy. Playing Kraut, Nazi, Hitler or–Rhubarb, by the way, was my nickname in Castlegar: another sour vegetable.


My German grandmother, a most influential kin, used to say Einmal Deutsch, immer Deutsch. Once a German, always a German. She meant this in a positive, not pejorative sense. She wasn’t a Nazi (as far as I know) and she said wars were made by men who were fools and wanted to control the world, which was something one couldn’t do. When I lived with her in 1965 she sang me a song from her early twentieth-century elementary school days called Der Kaiser ist ein Guter Mann: The Kaiser is a Good Man, and she said she yearned for those times when one had rulers who one could trust and there was order rather than madness in the world. My grandmother grew up in a smallish town where you spoke your local dialect at home and with each other, and you spoke high German to your teachers and to your priests. She didn’t travel further than a couple of hundred kilometers from that town until she flew to visit us in Vancouver in 1961. She learned one English phrase while there: Shöt ze dowa, shut the door, which was spoken to my younger sister’s friend Heather who came over and left the back door open, a habit which my grandmother, who lived without central heating for most of her life (and with no heating at all in the immediate post-war years) could not comprehend. My grandmother learned Heather’s name, which she pronounced Hedeh, and which sounded, when she said it, like Hede, the name of her daughter, my mother’s younger sister. My grandmother was convinced until the end of her life that my parents’ decision to emigrate to Canada had been the biggest mistake of their lives, that my father would have had a better career as a doctor if he had stayed in Germany, and that my parents would never have divorced (like Americans) if they had stayed in their own country and not started speaking so much English. She thought Indians were people who lived in books (or maybe in India) and that men who read too many of these books deserved whatever misfortune befell them.

When I think about Germans and Indians now I sometimes think about this: I know a man who lives in Princeton B.C. (I began writing this essay there/here) and who was a German prisoner of war in Russia from 1945 until 1948. He was forcibly inducted into the Nazi war machine right out of high school in 1944 and sent to the Russian front. The Russians captured him one year later, forty kilometers from Zwickau, his home town in Saxony, the point to which their invasion had by then advanced, and he was transported to a prisoner-of-war camp four hundred kilometers east of Moscow, in Siberia. He will not tell me about life in the camp, albeit, he does give one account—of how they, the prisoners, all teenage boys, were so hungry that to survive they told each other stories about food. Fantastic stories about three and four course meals, lavish feasts, were accounted and recounted in detail, food item by food item. Then, when the stories got out of hand, and the vacuums in their bellies reminded the boys of where they were, they sometimes had to jump on the story-teller and forcibly silence him because if he went on they would have to kill him for telling a story that had not an iota of potential truth.

My friend told me some things about the return trip from Siberia: they put the teenage prisoners in boxcars along with some cattle and they dropped them at the Polish border where they were allowed to wash. Then the boys were put on a Polish train—you know that the track gauge changes at the Polish border, my friend explained—and this took them to the German border. Posen was the city where they re-entered Germany. When he got back home my friend went to university and became an engineer, escaped via Berlin, just before the wall came up (1961), from East to West Germany, and he traveled the world managing construction projects for an American company. South America, Africa, Southeast Asia: he’d been everywhere. Then one day on a train between Germany and France he met a woman from Princeton B.C. who was “doing Europe” and the two fell in love. They were both well into middle age and had lost previous spouses. They could hardly speak to each other—she had her own European background, having been born of Slovakian parents who came to British Columbia’s Tulameen Valley early on in the twentieth century to coal mine—but she spoke no German or much Slovakian, and he spoke no English. They found other ways to communicate.

My friend, I’ll call him Rudy, came for a visit and decided he liked the country and he stayed and married the woman from Princeton, call her Mary. Rudy told me the country around Princeton, lodgepole and ponderosa pine, some spruce, a few hemlock, some aspen and birch, among outcroppings of shale and granite on rolling mountains, was a lot like the country around the prisoner of war camp in Siberia. It reminded him of that place, which had been quite beautiful, would have been, if they hadn’t been so hungry. We were driving through this country in his Jeep Explorer headed toward Link Lake to go ice fishing when he told me this, and I looked more closely out the passenger window at the flora and the topography than I so far had. On the CD, Rudy was playing a disc by a German popular singer, a kind of crooner, who sang Heimat Lieder, homeland songs, to an orchestral accompaniment. The genre was familiar to me: I knew some of the songs because my father had sung them (to guitar, not orchestral accompaniment) when we lived in Castlegar, a couple of major mountain ranges to the east, and I could even sing along with some of them. I found the music schlocky: the schmaltzy accompaniment and the performative vocalizations did the songs no favours; but in the context of Rudy’s story, and of the way he looked at me occasionally after he had told it, to see how I had listened, to him, and now to his music, gave me a strong feeling. Even a true feeling. I was in one of truth’s possible presences. We were home in a cozy cruiser with the heat on, it was fifteen, maybe twenty below outside, and the conifers and aspens that whipped by reminded me of my first glimpses of the Canadian boreal forest when my mother and my sister and I rode on the CPR through the woods of Northern Ontario in March 1952 in the first week of our immigration. When Rudy and I arrived at the lake we walked out on the ice, Rudy found a spot and shoveled the snow away, took out the auger and showed me how to bore the hole. The ice was about six inches thick. He baited the hook with a kernel of corn (how do Canadian trout know corn, from southwest America, is interesting winter food?)  and we dropped it down and put the short rod in the holder. We waited for the bites.

Rudy speaks a kind of English which in our family was disparagingly called “Gerlish.” Sometimes known also as “Kanädisch, it is a mixture of English and Germanisms, German and Englishisms, and it rings true in an odd and hilarious true sort of way when one knows both languages:  Die Kuh ist über die Fence gejumpt und hat den Kebbitsch gedemmitsch, my father would say, imitating not the Katzenjammer Kids but one of his German-Canadian patients.  Det iss goot seenery hier, ne? is how Rudy uses this vernacular: Vee mussen now de korn on ze Hook, machen. Pass auf. Det ice iss not so sick over ser ass hear. You know? he says. And…Hello, hello, yes, yes, how, I come in peace. Yes yes yes yes yes, Norbert says, bobbing his head up and down like an immigrant FOB. I answer Rudy in full “high” German, mostly, afraid to slip into the possible madness of two lenkwiches mixen zugeser or zwei lenkwiches mixen toozamen, and becoming Gemehboy. (Paul, I found out much later, was actually Ukrainian: we lived in a part of Edmonton where “there were a lot of them,” as my father put it.) When we talk for a longer time, Rudy gradually slides over into fuller German, and I hear then, and love then, the rolling and drilling Saxon dialect intonations—Mundart, mouth manner, as this speech mode is called in German—of his home province.

When Rudy and Mary are together and Rudy speaks Gerlish/Kanädisch, she listens and answers him in pure B.C. Canadian English. She says—when I ask her—that she understands “most” of what he says and can guess the rest. When I am there she sometimes asks me for direct translations of specific words or phrases, and when I give them to her she nods her head and says that’s what she thought; or she laughs and says I always thought _____ meant _____. Rudy laughs, too. They both said (Mary passed away, of cancer, shortly after I wrote the first draft of this essay) language between them had never been a problem; their marriage had other foundations.


Out on the Siberian ice of Link Lake (I want to call it Mary Lake) I see Rudy, in mid distance, standing beside the ice fishing hole. He’s got his black Siberian felt cap on, with the ear flaps pulled down, and he’s packed up in a thick black down parka that amplifies his already considerable seventy-three-year-old girth. (He jokes that he’s catching up for what he lost in Siberia.) He’s wearing black felt-lined snowmobiler boots and pants, and mitts that he takes off only to bait his hook.  At this distance, with his arms packed into the jacket sleeves and angled away from his body, he looks like a strange German-Siberian-Canadian-Saxon-Inukshuk. He’s pretty snug there, I think to myself—I, the “assimilated” English speaker, and resolute “high German,” speaker whose feet are freezing because I’m here from Vancouver and not properly geared for local conditions. Don’t know from winter gear. When we get back into the Jeep and the heater blasts on, I start to relax. Fee get no fisch, det iss too bet, Rudi says, becuss dem traut iss goot eating—and then he puts a crooner on the CD player again. This time it’s, Freddie, ein Seeman, a seaman, who sings about Die Gitarre und das Meer, his guitar and the sea, and about Hamburg, the city he left and occasionally—not  too seriously, not seriously enough to want, in the actual moment of singing, to act on what he is singing about—yearns to  return to.

Dees Freddy songs, und dee ossos off dem, says Rudy after a while, dem songs are how vie survive in det kemp. We zing dem zen. I zing zem zen. I ask if he still sings them and he says, No not now. Jesst lissen. As I sit and attempt to hear and name where we are—we are in the Similkameen watershed, driving through the Hayes Creek drainage, in the Undivided Metamorphic Rock Terrain of British Columbia—I listen to Freddy, and I start, despite myself, to hum along with the orchestral accompaniment. Then, from somewhere, almost nowhere, the name “Pablo Neruda” arpeggios into my brain. Yes, here’s another literary changeling, a name bender, a EuroAmerican, albeit not an immigrant, not first generation, but still a man with a funny name—his real name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes—whose poetry, whose namings of things, made him a giant of international verse. Did his original name sound funny in Chile? Or does “Pablo Neruda” sound funnier? His famous adage, “He who eschews sentimentality walks into ice” slides down from an Andean precipice and fills in the terrain here on Hayes Creek.


Some fun, mixed with astonishment, is made these days in the Canadian media of the German “Indian Clubs,” Indianerklubs, which flourish all over the old east and west, and now reunified Ossie/Wessie Germany. Here every-day small businessmen, teachers, workers, civil servants, shop keepers, craftsmen, spend their weekends going into “the bush” (the German Wald—forest—which is meticulously manicured and kept by the local Förster, and is often just a farmer’s field) and dressing up and acting like Indians. They put on war paint, they sing and do the dances, they build teepees, they construct stone age weapons, and their replicas of traditional “Indian” (mostly Plains/Prairie Indian) artifactual culture are meticulous and exact. These men are serious fellows.  They have studied the literature, including Karl May (who is making a big comeback not only in Germany, but all over Europe, and even Asia—not England, though) but also the anthropological and travel literature. They know how to pow wow. They will tell you exactly and show you in detail how to make a tomahawk, light a fire with flint or two sticks, sew a buckskin bead shirt, erect a teepee, create an eagle feather headdress, weave wampum or perform a chant. “Real” Indians from Canada come over there and are invited to these club outings, and they, the real Indians, marvel at the accuracy of the replicated artifacts and ceremonies. Even the songs, they say, are accurate. Only the dances are a little bit, well, wooden—awkward. When the German Indians aren’t correcting, in true German fashion, the real Indians for their sometimes false knowledge about their traditions, the real Indians giggle. They come back and report on their visits in funny/serious CBC radio documentaries.

And in the New Yorker (or was it Vanity Fair?) I read that there are ceremonies, held in upstate New York or Arizona or the Florida Everglades, in which American CEOs, Washington lobbyists, high-level bureaucrats, corporate lawyers, go to wilderness camps and play wild men. These “corporate retreats,” orchestrated to encourage “team building,” involve quite cruel rituals: the guys from the top floor offices cut themselves, brand themselves, bury each other up to the neck and stay there overnight, tie each other to trees and throw knives and shoot arrows at each other, and spend hours hurling verbal insults. This is teambuilding Yankee-style, and the retreats (from what?) are understood, said the Vanity Fair or New Yorker article, to be soul-building for each team member.


The Haida do in fact say How–or rather Howa. They say it when they greet each other, and when they say goodbye to each other. I deduced, after hearing it in various contexts, that it might mean “we are Haida.” Sometimes they briefly raise and wave with their right hand while saying the word.

7141 words  May 26, 2010


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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