May 15, 2010 12:39 am

The wild west comes to the Italian Alps

Two years ago, Nicolò Degiorgis, a 23-year-old photographer, walked up a mountain road in South Tyrol, a German-speaking region in the Italian Alps. He had heard about a group of farmers who dressed up as Cowboys and Indians, and he wanted to meet them.

One of the first people he met was Elmar Schoffeneger, a friendly man in his forties with a wild beard and a Confederate soldier’s hat. Schoffeneger was tilling his land with an ox and plough when Degiorgis arrived, but took a break to offer the younger man a glass of birch water – collected by tapping the trees in spring. Degiorgis explained that he wanted to photograph life on the farm. Schoffeneger agreed – provided that Degiorgis helped him with the daily chores. It was a deal.

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Soon Degiorgis learnt that, in spite of the Confederate hat, Schoffeneger was fascinated not so much by the American civil war as by the lifestyle of American Indians. He lived with his partner, Irene, in a tent – and had done for nearly 20 years. He had learnt to make his own moccasins and dressed in authentic wild west garb he’d ordered from the US. He could manufacture bows with ranges up to 600ft.

Schoffeneger had been riding horses since he was three, but his interest in Americana was down as much to television and films as a pastoral childhood. He’d been a great fan of Bonanza and the western films inspired by the works of Karl May – a household name in German-speaking countries, with acolytes as various as Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse and Adolf Hitler. May, who died in 1912, created such characters as Winnetou, an earnest and fair-minded Apache chief, and his blood brother Old Shatterhand, a German surveyor who saved Winnetou’s life. In doing so, May sparked an enduring enthusiasm for Indian culture among German speakers. Even today, tens of thousands of middle-Europeans dress up as American Indians at the weekend.

Not wanting to restrict themselves to weekends, Schoffeneger and his friends made it a Monday-to-Friday project, too. Ever since they were teenagers, they would don cowboy gear – hats, lassos and boots. Others dressed as Indians, wearing moccasins, embroidered leather jackets and headscarfs. Instead of fighting with one another, they rode their horses, sat around campfires and smoked peace pipes. And at a time when more and more local farmers were relying on machines, the Cowboys and Indians of South Tyrol wanted to live close to nature.

The more Degiorgis discovered about Schoffeneger’s life, the more enchanted he became. He learnt how to weave a basket, how to dry out hay, how to milk a cow. “The first time I drank fresh milk, I was surprised it was so warm,” Degiorgis says.

He also got to meet other people living similarly. Tom Schoffeneger (not related to Elmar, but an old friend) had built an American-style ranch complete with a flagpole for Old Glory. In winter, the ranch is used as a horse sanctuary. Elmar Schoffeneger’s cousin, Klaus Lantschner, focuses more on the Indian lifestyle. Like Elmar, Lantschner had lived in a self-made tent for several years. Then he built a Canadian-inspired log cabin. From time to time, he creates Indian totem poles using his chainsaw. His wife Egle studies shamanism and practises Indian meditation.

After a few weeks in the mountains, Degiorgis returned home and forgot about the Cowboys and Indians. For the next two years, he documented the life of the Muslim community in Italy. But lately, he has started visiting the farmers again, making new photographs to add to his original collection. He now plans to accompany them for a year, to document how they adapt to the changing seasons. “I realised,” he says, “that they have a closeness to nature that’s rare these days.”

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