PRAGUE, Czech Republic—Living right off Prague’s Old Town Square may not provide the best window into authentic Czech culture, but it does give one the opportunity to acquaint oneself well with the assortment of street performers that frequent those oft-travelled cobblestones. Their ranks include mimes, musicians, and bubble-makers, the likes of which seem to appear at tourist destinations the world over, but there is one busker whose presence, at least to a 21st century American, is a little shocking. He’s a slightly pudgy Caucasian man who wears a dumpy tan costume accented with blue, red, and black feathers, with simple feather headdress to match; it’s nothing more than a cheap Native American Halloween costume. He holds a small drum in one hand, beats it with the other. He runs in circles to its rhythm all the while emitting the inarticulate sounds of a cruel caricature. With an infantile grin he occasionally customizes his tune to that of drunken tourists singing drinking songs at night in the surrounding cafes.
At least the didgeridoo player’s didgeridoo looks authentic, and the mimes in period dress seem to have gone to some lengths over the trimmings of their costume. The Indian (I call him this for he cannot be a Native American in any real sense of the name), in his crude get-up and total lack of musical authenticity is terribly out of place. If he weren’t so pathetic he would certainly by quite offensive. I could only imagine how disgusting his silly act would appear to someone of actual Native American heritage.
There are so many amazing things about this city and about the few Czech people that I’ve met here that I’ve been inclined to write him off as just a poor idiot, maybe a drunkard, not representative culturally of anything. Who knows where he picked up this particular brand of stupidity. His continued presence, for however long he’s been around, could not be but the result of sympathy and an understandable degree of distance here from the realities of his ridicule. But the other day, when I was eating lunch with a Czech friend, she mentioned that some children here go to what she called “Indian Summer Camps.” There, children live in teepees and follow instructions of a ‘Chief,’ a Czech man merely assuming the title, though at least in her experience without any accompanying silly outfit. It didn’t sound too far from the things I had experienced at summer camp when I was younger, such as crafts and activities inspired by and rather modified from Native American traditions. Not that far thematically, that is, but quite far geographically!
I looked into the camps a little online, and found that the Czechs are indeed particularly fascinated with Native American culture, as a result of Wild West adventure stories from the late 19th century written by Karl May, a German author who had never visited America at the time he was writing. A woman who visited one of the so-called Indian Summer Camps, expresses pleasant surprise at the authenticity of Native American traditions practiced there (except, of course, for the problematic practice of painting their entire faces red).
Whether Native Americans would be pleased at the surprising breadth of their cultural influence, or dismayed at the twisting of their traditions, I cannot presume to know. At worst, it can be no worse than the treatment of Native American cultures in the United States, and we cannot say we do not still badly caricature other cultures at times. Though I cannot speak to the accuracy of their practices, perhaps, like my American summer camps, the Czech camps really are looking to Native Americans respectfully for inspiration rather than as a gimmick. The Indian in Old Town Square, on the other hand, is all gimmick. I haven’t seen him there in a couple of days, though, so let’s hope he’s moved on or found a better shtick for getting money from tourists.