What offends the Indians the most

Karl May: Karl May's Indian vocabulary and its actual meaning

Hugh, Manitu or blood brotherhood - Karl May's stories have had a strong impact on our image of Indians. However, the Apaches did not actually use many expressions and customs in the way he portrays them. Here you can find out more about Karl May's Indian vocabulary and what it actually means

Almost everyone knows Karl May's exciting stories from the Wild West about Winnetou, the chief of the Apaches.

Just close your eyes and imagine an Indian. Do you also think of a man with long black hair who believes in the great "Manitu", says "Hugh" or utters a loud Indian shouting? In reality, however, it is not that simple: Around the 15th century there were around 400 to 500 different Indian tribes in North America, and each tribe had its own language, customs and habits.

The picture of the Apaches that Karl May paints in his books does not always correspond to the truth: Much of what May tells and is also shown in the Winnetou films is simply made up. Some customs and traditions can be traced back to other tribes. Why is that? It's simple: before Karl May wrote his novels, he had never been to America - so he just let his imagination run wild.


Karl May tells of the great "Manitu", a god that all North American Indians believe in. However, the Apaches do not believe in any god called "Manitu". They do believe that they were created by a Creator. But this creator is called "Bik'egu'in Dán", which translates as "He who gives us life". The Apaches have never heard the name "Manitu"!

The Cree, another North American Indian people, actually believe in "Manitu". You do not imagine a god in the form of a person, but a mysterious power that is contained in all people, animals and nature. According to this belief, all animals, plants and people have "manitu" in them, which is why they all have the same status for the Cree.

Torture stake

In Karl May's stories, the Indians tie their enemies to a torture stake in order to torture them. However, only a few Indian tribes actually had a torture stake; for example with the Kiowa or Iroquois. The Apaches, however, did not know a torture stake!

Blood brotherhood

Old Shatterhand and Winnetou cut their forearms and form blood brotherhood. They mix their blood to create a bond between themselves that is otherwise only found in real brothers. Through the ritual they become "brothers" even though they are not related. But the North American Indians did not know this custom either. Karl May probably copied this custom from the ancient Germanic peoples: Thousands of years ago, the Germanic peoples promised themselves in this way, in the event that one of them dies, to take care of the family of that person.


"Hugh" is an exclamation that means "I have spoken". Anyone who says "Hugh" after a speech wants to reinforce what has been said. The movie character Winnetou often uses this exclamation. In reality, the Apaches didn't even know this expression.

In other tribes it actually occurred: "Hugh", for example, is a greeting used by the Sioux. So the expression had a different meaning for them than in Karl May's stories.

Overall, the Indians are represented by Karl May as people with a very limited vocabulary. But that's complete nonsense: In fact, the languages ​​of the different tribes are much more precise and diverse than, for example, the German language.

Indian word of honor

Have you ever given someone your "Indian word of honor"? And maybe even thought that it had something to do with Indians? Far from it, this expression also came from Karl May's imagination. An Indian would have no idea what that meant.

Howl of war

In Karl May's stories, the Indians utter a scream and slap their mouth with the palm of their hand: Typical Indian howl when they go into battle? Are you kidding me? Are you serious when you say that!

There is actually a sound that sounds similar and can be heard by the Indians: when a sound is uttered and the tongue is moved very quickly up and down in the mouth, a warble is created. But it's not howl of war - it's a sound that honors someone. So Indians applaud this way.


Indians are often referred to as "red skins". However, they do not have a reddish skin color, but a brownish to bronze-colored skin tone. It is true that the Apaches painted themselves red for special occasions, for example for religious customs or when they went to war. Incidentally, the term "red skin" is an insult to Indians.


Karl May calls the Indian women "Squaws". But this word is actually not a name for a woman, but a swear word! For Indians this is an insult - in the sense of "whore".

An indian knows no pain

Of course, this well-known phrase is not true: Indians feel just as much pain as everyone else. The saying is probably due to the fact that the Indians showed a lot of courage in the war.

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