Indigenous peoples

Ross’s visit to a number of indigenous peoples on various continents are collected in separate sections in the books he published about these journeys, with such titles as ‘Zurück zu Manitu’ (‘Back to Manitou’), ‘Abstecher in die Steinzeit’ (‘A detour to the Stone Age’) or ‘Bei den Eiszeitmenschen’ (‘Among the Ice Age people’), respectively.1

This systematicness seems to reflect the separate place that “primitive people”—the term he uses for Kavirondos (in British East Africa), Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, and Eskimos alike—occupy in his thinking. The abovementioned titles also suggest that these peoples reside in a separate time. Indeed, as Ross wrote in a newspaper article about Aborigines, one has to “go back to diluvial times to encounter modes of life resembling that of the ‘Australneger’. This means that there is an almost incredible time lapse between us and these people dwelling on Earth even today.” In other words, they are not considered as our contemporaries, but are “remains” from beyond an evolutionary chasm.2

The way Ross arranged his writings about indigenous peoples is symptomatic of an “allochronic” approach, a term used by Dutch anthropologist Johannes Fabian to denote the implied temporal incompatibility in reports of Western observers about indigenes, of anthropologists about their objects. This denial of “coevalness”, or contemporariness, was at the time standard practice in both popular and scholarly versions of travel and anthropological discourse. Locating this denial in the West also made it one-directional and invested with power. And that, in its turn, entailed a denial of non-Western peoples’ individuality, turning them into “a temporal concept, a category” (e.g. “primitive” or “remains”) and pushing them back to their ‘proper’ time.

In Ross’s account of his visit to and conversations with Pueblo Indians in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, he admits that, despite official introductions, it made him feel separated as by “a glass wall”.4 Interestingly, it is as if through him–of all people–we inadvertently learn of the effect Westerners may usually have had, or imposed, on the ‘primitive’ now that the Pueblos had turned Ross into an object—a representative of the category of white visitor with government recommendations—and treated him accordingly.

Nico de Klerk


See also:

Cold shoulder
Ten thousands of years apart

1 Colin Ross. Der unvollendete Kontinent. 1. Aufl. 1930; 249-259; Mit Kind und Kegel in die Arktis. 1. Aufl. 1934; 67-98; Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. 12. Aufl. 1942; 173-190. All published in Leipzig by F.A. Brockhaus. See Library.

2 Colin Ross. Der Schwarze macht Matura. Zur Krise der abendländischen Bildung. In: Neues Wiener Tagblatt. 1932 December 25; Jg. 66, Nr. 356: 31. See Library. See for an English-language version: Primitives and civilization. In: The Living Age; 1933 January. See Library.

Johannes Fabian. Time and the other: how anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press; 1983; 1-35.

Colin Ross. Die Dorf-Hochhäuser der Pueblo-Indianer. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leizpig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 179-182. See Library.


While shooting Aborigine, Maori, and Papua New Guinean natives in 1929-30, Colin Ross repeatedly utilizes an iconography of ethnographic spectacle that is well-established in travelogue film since the 1910s. Yet, in his writing he proves rather disinterested in ethnographic modes of description.

Instead, the indigenous peoples he encounters are mainly of interest to him in either providing a ‘primitive’ alternative to modern life  that he perceives as out of balance both spiritually and in its population policy, or already being corrupted by this modernity. These indigenous populations seem too small and fragile to Ross to be considered active participants in the struggle for racial dominance he sees Europe, Africa, and different Asian populations engaged in. This enables him to consider them as cultures, rather than races, which may impart lessons to a European civilization.

This provides a crucial bridge between Ross’s travelogue writing and his stabs at cultural philosophy in Die Welt auf der Waage (1929) and Der Wille der Welt (1932). Both of them include several references to first-hand encounters with indigenous peoples, including some from the Australasia trip. In these books, Ross casts native peoples as enlightened ‘primitives’, contrasting them with a European civilization he finds lacking in wisdom. With this juxtaposition, Ross covers the well-trodden ground of post-World War I German ‘Zivilisationskritik’ from the travel journalist’s perspective.

Joachim Schätz

After the publication of the abovementioned section, Ross wrote no more about contemporary Native American life. In the last account of his American journeys, Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’ (1942), a book devoted to what he saw as America’s then current problems and challenges, Native Americans had apparently become as insignificant and irrelevant as they were to contemporary American society as a whole. And when Ross, during the 1938-1939 journey on which the latter book was largely based, returned to the places—in New Mexico and Arizona—that he had written about in 1935, the sense of a peripheral existence haunted the film footage he shot there (as well as, incidentally, in brief scenes he recorded of Seminoles in Florida, on the fringes of Floridan society in the Everglades or in the ‘Indian  village’, a tourist attraction at E. Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs).

In fact, this lack of contemporary presence was already manifest in ‘Zurück zu Manitu’. It was, of course, a highly unrepresentative portrait of contemporary Native American life nationwide. But by limiting himself to the more ‘colorful’ communities of Pueblo, Navajo, and Hopi, Ross was able to situate Native Americans on either side of the present: in an imaginary, pre-contact, tribal lifestyle that would be rehabilitated, he believed, under the aegis of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (intimations of this could be sensed in his written account of a Pueblo Corn Dance, still marred by tourism and Christian elements, yet meticulous in its performance1), or as absences, as mere traces left behind centuries ago in the deserted mesa’s where they once had built their cliff dwellings.Either way, in Ross’s accounts the modern-day Native American had vanished.

Nico de Klerk

1 Colin Ross. Indianer tanzen um Regen. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 175-179 See Library.

2 Colin Ross. Die Höhlenstädte der Mesa Verde. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 182-186. See Library.


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