• Musings:
  • July 4, 2014

Musings: Naomi Harris’s Quirky Culture Swap

Becky Harlan

Fanny packs and visors, cameras and maps—these are the notoriously goofy trappings of tourism. But what does it look like when, rather than traveling to foreign lands, curious folks bring different cultures to their own soil? Photographer Naomi Harris stumbled on just that bizarre phenomenon. Spoiler alert: Lederhosen T-shirts and coonskin caps are up ahead.

Picture of a girl holding a baby goat at Maifest
Girl and baby goat at Maifest, Leavenworth, Washington
May 2014

In January of 2008, Harris was working on a story in the mountains of Georgia when some people suggested she visit a nearby town called Helen. They offered no explanation as to why, but as soon as she arrived the reason became obvious. “When I got there I discovered a quaint little village with buildings covered in gingerbread resembling Bavaria, yet the gift shops sold T-shirts covered with Confederate flags reading ‘It’s a southern thing.’” This strange encounter prompted what would become a lasting passion project for Harris.

Picture of two men dressed as fur trappers at a park in Sweden
Fur trappers at High Chaparral, Sweden, June 2008

“This got me thinking, If this town exists how many others would there be around the U.S.? And for that matter, would there be places in Europe that mimicked America? A few hours on Google and I realized, ‘Presto! I have a project!’”

Picture of a man blowing a horn at a theme park while children look on
Alpine horn blower, Leavenworth, Washington, May 2014

The same summer, she made her first trip across the pond to Sweden, where she photographed a Wild West theme park. “I discovered that Europeans were crazy about Native American culture as well as fur traders and the American Civil War. I never expected there to be such an interest in that period of American history.”

Picture of a mother and her son dressed up in traditional Dutch clothing at the Tulip Festival in Orange City, Iowa
Mother and son at the Tulip Festival, Orange City, Iowa
May 2014

Since then, Harris has traveled everywhere from California to the Czech Republic, visiting these niche parks. Though the idea behind the parks in the U.S. and Europe is the same—simulating the culture and history of a foreign country—the manifestations vary. “In America [the parks] tend to be in towns where people are descendants of immigrants from a particular area, like the Dutch who moved to Orange City, Iowa, or Holland, Michigan. They celebrate their heritage during events like Tulip Fest or Oktoberfest. In Europe, I find them to be more of a family holiday destination rather than being about cultural identity. There are entire amusement parks dedicated to the pioneering way of life, complete with Wild West shows and showdowns. There are also a few theme parks, like Sioux City, that were originally built as film sets during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Spaghetti Westerns were popular.”

Picture of a couple dressed up in antebellum style clothing at a theme park in the Czech Republic
Genteel couple at Sikland, Czech Republic, July 2010
Picture of a young boy dressed in traditional clothing from the American West, leaning out the window of a train at a park in Sweden
Train bandits at High Chaparral, Sweden, June 2010

Many of the visitors haven’t actually traveled to the locations that the parks or towns are mimicking. “Often [it’s] zero to none. I was really amazed by how many people had never set foot in America, had no family there, and didn’t even speak the language yet knew everything about the Civil War, for example. The same is true for the Americans,” says Harris.

Some of the parks, she says, “have seen better days, with very archaic rides, and [they] are perhaps a little tame for today’s amusement park visitor. Others have [been] updated and modernized to continue to attract visitors.” She wonders if the parks will continue to hold the interest of generations to come, but she’s hopeful.

Picture of two children dressed up as Native Americans at a park in Germany
German children dressed as American Indians, Pullman City, Germany, July 2010
Picture of a man in a lederhosen T-shirt and holding a small dog at a small town in Georgia
Lederhosen T-Shirt at Oktoberfest, Helen, Georgia
September 2013

“In an era where our societies are becoming more homogenized due to the ease of travel and an abundance of access to information, I’m amazed that people are still interested in these bygone days. But maybe that’s the reason we are interested in the past and feel a need to preserve it. There’s a sense of fantasy to these places, a mythological atmosphere that isn’t always rooted in reality. That’s what I think is so special—that the depiction doesn’t have to be 100 percent accurate. Our curiosity in the other is why these places exist in the first place.”

See more images from Naomi Harris’s project “EUSA” on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Becky Harlan on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 36 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lauren
    August 20, 2016

    Ernest Roth, I am from Six Nations, and though you may see “poor approximations of plains Indian dress” or whatever, have you actually seen our traditional clothes and the remarkable beadwork and craftsmanship and detail that goes into our regalia, which, incidentally, is totally different from Plains style regalia? I disagree with your take on this.

    Adults should know better than to play dress up like being indigenous is a hobby or something. It’s problematic because they think they can put on an outfit and play in it and act all self righteous like they are somehow more authentic than we are, yet skip all of the centuries of trauma in our actual history. Come on.

  2. Carrie Wiles
    February 14, 2015

    I loved the comments and fun photos. I used to teach folk dance to my elementary students to expose them not only to our own cultural backgrounds but many other countries as well. I will remember their delight in dressing up in different cultural costumes and performing the native dances, some of which I learned in other countries, some I learned from a book, and some created from the music from other countries. It was a great learning and teaching tool to gain appreciation for the different cultures of the world.

  3. Dea Figueroa
    July 31, 2014

    It is so nice to learn about different cultures. I really enjoyed reading this.

  4. Andrea
    July 24, 2014

    This was a great piece. When I was a kid I had the greatest opportunity to live in another country (military family). We lived in Berlin, Germany for 3 years. The European atmosphere and allure is something I’ve always loved and have found that feel in Solvang, CA.

  5. Terry Hicks
    July 18, 2014

    Interesting story but photos lack context. Would have been better if photos had some recognizable landmark i.e., lederhosen photo with Seatle Space needle in background

  6. Leanna
    July 15, 2014

    Great project!

  7. Yveline Rakotondramboa
    July 15, 2014

    I understand the spirit: it’s so much fun to play being some alien you are attracted to.

  8. kawtar
    July 14, 2014

    I think is good story

  9. Ruth Kells
    July 14, 2014

    Very intriguing article and photos. Naomi always capture the essence of the time and subject(s) Truly enjoyed the diversity in her photos.

  10. jorge velazquez
    July 14, 2014

    realmente es hermoso ver y tratar de entender como hacemos lo posible por expresarnos con imagenes sobre nuestra cultura, vida o historia Gracias.

    July 14, 2014

    whats so strange about this. people in America are learning about where they come from, or places that they will never get to. the more they learn about them self. the more they will be able to relate to other people.

  12. Sven Hyberts
    July 14, 2014

    I think I made a mistake when sharing my positive feelings for these “musings”… I could of course be PK and complain about the US-American incorrect view of the native Scandinavians (aka Vikings). These parks and events brightens up the memories, however, even if they happens to be sugar coated one way or the other. For those of you who have yet to travel to other countries and cultures, I can recommend Vilhelm Moberg’s epos “The Emigrants” to read about some of the grits facing these people. Also, when I visited Foxwoods, I could not enjoy how the “red man” succeeded in exporting the misery to the “white man” – all now sitting and wasting their fortunes in front of slot machines… Instead we ended up at the “the World’s Largest Native American Museum”, learning about the sometimes sugar coated past of these, and sometimes not so sugar coated… If you have a chance, visit:

  13. Ron Stauffer
    July 14, 2014

    In our world of immigration, cross-ethnic marriages, and homogenization of the result, I think it is charming that some of us reach back in our imaginations to try to understand traditional cultures of any peoples. Even if we have no “blood tie” to that culture it is a form of flattery to mimic it, and generally only increases our respect for others. I think it is a sign of maturity for someone, who sees their traditional culture copied, to feel flattered by that.

  14. N J0NES
    July 14, 2014

    really interesting,thanks for sharing

  15. Kari
    July 14, 2014

    One thing not shown here are the prevalence in the US of ‘Renaissance Festivals”. Individuals strive for authenticity for a period of time from Greek / Rome all the way to Victorian, with most in the Middle Ages / Renaissance mixed in with myths and legends. .

  16. Rich
    July 13, 2014

    Nice story but just so you know, the U.S.A. flag is hung and displayed improperly on the log house wall. It should be with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street.
    Please see: http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/more/displayonly.htm
    read #s 8 & 14

  17. Dorothy
    July 13, 2014

    I am not surprised by this. Europe has been watching the wild west ever since Buffalo Bill Cody took his shows across the pond and before when explorers brought “savages” back home with them. We want to retain our heritage for some reason. This is in spite of the fact that it is our own romantic notion of the life of our ancestors before they arrived on our shores. Exploiting a past that doesn’t exist seems to be human nature.

  18. AnnieLaurie Burke
    July 13, 2014

    As someone who has a recent Native Canadian ancestor, and a deep appreciation for the culture of his people, I don’t find it any more problematic that Swedes and Germans “appropriate” Native American culture (and it’s really stylized images thereof) than I do with Americans “appropriating” the culture of other indigenous peoples — like the Germans and Swedes. Think about it — the term “indigenous peoples” include all those who have lived for centuries in their native lands.

  19. Ernest Roth
    July 13, 2014

    Sofia, some of the “appropriation” done in Czech was superior to some done by native Americans.I live in the Six Nations area and see poor approximations of Plains Indian dress. Sad.

  20. Elizabeth Barter
    July 13, 2014

    A cultural Exchange is always a good idea…sometimes…

  21. June Adams
    July 13, 2014

    The first impact of these Aboriginal American costumes is the force of cinema’s influence and the mythology instilled by movie costumes which are far removed from truth. It is interesting that people everywhere entertain themselves by using fancy dress, as if to construct a preferred otherness.

  22. Susan Langin
    July 13, 2014

    In the homogenization of our modern lives, stereotypes are alive and well world-wide. But in this, there is a striving for personal identity.

  23. Sven Hyberts
    July 13, 2014

    As a Swede living since many years in the US: thank you for showing me “High Chaparral”! I watched the TV series as young, and it thrilled many in Sweden, but I have never been to the place – ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’! 😉 Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo!

  24. Sofia
    July 13, 2014

    I was really struck by how interesting and how problematic these parks are, especially the ones in Europe that appropriate Native American culture and history.

    July 13, 2014

    awesome 🙂

  26. lois young
    July 13, 2014

    I am intrigued by these photos. Quite interesting facts also. It demonstrates the nostalgia of American history worldwide in a fabulous array of pictures!

  27. Patrick Michelson
    July 8, 2014

    What a great story. As much as we’d all like to think we’re different Naomi’s project shows how we all just people. We like quirky stuff and have fun in same way all over this wonderful planet. Looking forward to seeing more from her.

  28. David Braund
    July 7, 2014

    what a strange and wonderful light and mixture of stiff and intimate 🙂

  29. Donna
    July 6, 2014

    Definitely made me smile! Aren’t we all fascinated by cultural differences?

  30. Roger B
    July 6, 2014

    This work looks like a remake or retake on the themes presented by Andrea and Max Becher, who photographed themes like “Paris in Las Vegas” and “German Indians” etc.

  31. Farooq Parekh
    July 5, 2014

    Very interesting ! I’ll share it with my students.

  32. Kathy Crow
    July 5, 2014

    This diversity and retained cultural identity is common in small town America. The ‘melting pot’ we were taught of in elementary school is really a wonderfully rich stew. I live in England now but grew up in the rich and unique culture of small town America with Oktoberfest, Burns Night, Norwegian Independence Day, being among the yearly celebrations in some of the towns I have lived in or travelled through. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

  33. 선정 황
    July 4, 2014


  34. Miguel A. Rodriguez
    July 4, 2014

    Very interesting story and images. Is very easy to take this kind of towns, parks and/or people as simple eccentric folks trying to attract tourists. But is something else. Under the funny shirts and dresses there is a need for identity, specially in those who are linked with traditions that they try to imitate. Good job.

  35. Berekete
    July 4, 2014

    N.g best chanal

  36. Stephen Harris
    July 4, 2014

    Very nice, Naomi! Enjoyed it a lot. From your brother, Stephen. 🙂

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