"WHAT? DO I LOOK like I was in the Party?" exclaims a thin man dressed in beads and buckskin, with blue streaks of war paint on his face. His name is Jiri Kohout. I seem to have offended him by asking whether he'd been a Communist.
My search for tramps has taken a side trip into terra incognita. I have rented a minivan and, accompanied by my 19-year-old translator, Hana Kozakova, have driven to the small city of Plzen, about 60 miles west of Prague, in search of the more settled, rendezvous-oriented, cowboy-and-Indian side of tramping. A rodeo is taking place here, and I've been told I might find Indians. A good tip, as it turns out: Within five minutes I bump into Jiri and his tribe next to the funnel cake booth. His wife, Gabriela, son, Jarda, and daughter, Nikolka, are dressed up like Lakota Sioux. I ask if he would be so kind as to take me back to his tepee for a short powwow, and we walk down a sidewalk to a small patch of grass outside the rodeo arena. There, next to his car with bumper stickers that read "I Like American Indian PowWows" and "American Indian Hobbyist," are two tepees, outfitted with colorful blankets and animal-skin rugs.
The Kohouts are here at the rodeo to perform a prayer dance at halftime. It would be nice if they did a stop-the-rain dance. It's pouring, putting a damper on the rodeo. A few moments ago a Czech cowboy slipped in the muck and was gored by a bull. He's not badly injured, but the ambulance siren is ruining any sense of authenticity. Meanwhile, water is blowing in through the tepee's door, drenching the tom-toms and blankets. Making the situation worse—at least from where I sit—is Jiri's sidekick, a pale, burly, Indian-loving friend who is wearing chaps sans underwear. He's inadvertently mooning the group while he tries to close the tepee flap, eliciting groans from Jiri's son, a 16-year-old who is chilling in Indian garb and a pair of Oakley sunglasses.
Oblivious to the commotion, Jiri launches into his story as if it were ancient cosmology. "Tramps and Indians were together at the beginning," he says wistfully, relating his thoughts through Hana. "But then something happened. Tramps became very dirty and smelly. And all that drinking was unsatisfactory to me. Indians aren't dirty. They are clean and smooth."
I notice that the Kohouts certainly are. Their blond hair is tightly braided, and their outfits are crisply pressed.
Jiri continues: He started dressing as an Indian 30 years ago, when, as a young man, he witnessed the horrible way in which Indians were treated in American westerns. "I knew then that Indians were my people," he explains. Already a veteran GI-style tramp, he began to wear Indian garb on outings. Soon he was erecting tepees in the woods, where he and his family spent weekends and holidays, living "the simple life" the way the Indians did. He beaded belts and purses for sale at Czech rodeos and other western-themed occasions. And he got himself a booking agent. Yes, he says, he's been to the States once, but he prefers being an Indian in the Czech Republic. "It's very good here," he says. "There are no snakes in Czech. It's much fewer dangers here."
I ask if being a Central European Indian opens him up for ridicule. "Yes, people joke about me being a blond Indian," he admits. He lights a cigarette and takes a deep, contemplative drag. "But I just stand proud. I give them no pleasure in teasing me."
As I prepare to leave, the Indians begin talking among themselves. Jiri looks concerned and takes me by the arm. "You understand, don't you," he asks, "that I am not a real Indian?"