Creating Boy Scout Ceremonies Without Taking Native American Cultural Property
I want to share a little bit about my journey with my Cub Scout troop as we have confronted some of the appropriation of sacred Native American cultural property (dress and ceremonies) that has been built into the Scout curriculum. Both my husband and I are white/non-native, and I hope that what I share encourages other members of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to engage with these issues and find creative ways to transform Scout programming so that it doesn’t rely on the unnecessary or disparaging use of American Indian ceremonial traditions.
We joined Cub Scouts when my oldest son was six and from the start we were really impressed with the program. The curriculum was really well developed and our son loved all the activities. Overall we found it to be an excellent leadership program that included a huge component of family bonding and community building. During our first year, we started to build true friendships with the other families in our pack, and we looked forward to all of our activities with them.
For these reasons, I was really disappointed when I attended our first Cub Crossover Ceremony. This is the event that commemorates the older Cub Scouts transitioning to become Boy Scouts. We were sitting in a small cafeteria-turned-auditorium where all of our pack events are held. Suddenly the lights went off and a someone started hitting a frame drum slowly: Boom….boom…boom! When the lights went up, two teens dressed in full faux Indian costumes emerged and walked to the stage. They were wearing faux war bonnets along with a hodgepodge of leathery, fringy clothing that looked like cheap Halloween costumes. The teens began reciting a speech in a slightly accented English, “On behalf of our tribe, we welcome you to our sacred ground,” or some such.
War bonnets are hugely significant and sacred dress for some Great Plains tribes, not the kind of thing that just anyone should pick up and wear.
“The headdress is reserved for our revered elders who, through their selflessness and leadership, have earned the right to wear one. It’s a spiritual garb, not just cultural; it’s not merely an addition to one’s attire. Wearing one, even an imitation headdress, belittles what our elders have spent a lifetime to earn.” — Simon Moya-Smith, citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and journalist
The teens (who were visiting from some other pack) were essentially perpetuating a generic and stereotypical representation of Indians that seemed straight out of an old Hollywood Western. Who instructed them to do this, and why was this the theme of the ceremony?
So Many Questions
When I got home, I did some research online to try and understand what was going on.
I found a few links about the history of the BSA and Native American appropriation. On the BSA website I learned about a rank called the Order of the Arrow (OA), which is for boys aged 12–20. On a website called the Voice of Scouting, Boys Scouts were pictured in both faux and more authentic looking regalia, along with this statement: “The OA puts a strong emphasis on the use of Native American customs. For example, members of the Order of the Arrow will participate in traditional Indian dances and ceremonies. The purpose is to not make fun of these dances and ceremonies but to instill the strong trait of brotherhood.”
I also found this page in our Cub Scout Bear book:
Who asked the BSA to “preserve” Native American traditions, and why can’t Native peoples do that for themselves?
Why does the BSA use imitations of Native ceremonies or dances as a method to promote community and “brotherhood”? How are they getting their information, and with whose guidance and permission? From what I have learned, performing Native dances isn’t akin to taking up the fox trot. Dancing, donning Native regalia, or utilizing sacred symbols (like Eagle feathers or sacred pipes) are not things that should be divorced from their particular tribal reality and religious meaning.
The OA webpage included this statement: “Each lodge and Scouting unit should contact their local American Indian tribes to discuss what would be appropriate and/or offensive. It is highly recommended to build a relationship with your local tribe to truly respect the Native American culture.” Do the individual BSA packs really all build relationships with their local tribes? Ours hasn’t. The teens who visited us obviously were not rooted in any particular tradition, they were portraying a very generic sort of stereotype (even though there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations within the boundaries of the U.S.). Who oversees this aspect of the program?
On YouTube it’s possible to find countless videos of BSA packs dressed in Native American seeming dress of some ilk, conducting ceremonies and powwows, many in which all of the members appear to be white/non-Native.
If this is done in collaboration with specific tribes or Native dance groups, why aren’t there official statements from tribal councils or official Native organizations endorsing these things on the official BSA website? Why is there no transparency?
I’m not ruling out that some BSA troops might actually have relationships with local tribes, and that there may be conditions under which wearing certain dress or learning a dance is part of a cultural or educational exchange with members of that tribe. But as far as I can see online there is no evidence of this. Based on what I saw at the Cub Crossover (and other places online), BSA troops have full reign to make whatever haphazard misrepresentation that they please.
Context is Everything
Dressing up in an imitation of a sacred Native headdress at a Cub Crossover Ceremony, or with OA, doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather against the backdrop of a very violent history of colonization. I found that BSA, which was historically a white, Christian organization, has been imitating Native American ceremonies in some form since 1902. This dovetailed with the U.S. government’s centuries long efforts to exterminate Native peoples as part of a mass genocide, as well as efforts to “civilize” and “Christianize” Native peoples and strip them of their own ceremonies and customs. From 1790 to the mid 1900s, the US government forced Native children into boarding schools where they were separated from their families, forbidden to speak their own native languages, and forced to wear European dress and haircuts.
By law, Native Americans weren’t recognized as U.S. citizens (and thus weren’t entitled to any basic protections) until 1924. They didn’t secure the right to vote nationwide until the 1960s. Their religious and cultural practices were not protected until the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act of 1978. To this day, sovereign nations within the borders of the US are struggling with the legacy of colonization and the assault on the natural resources in their territories.
When Boy Scouts dress up in fake war bonnets, they are doing it within the context of hundreds of years of European imperialism where a dominant group has literally dehumanized, killed, institutionalized, and stripped the rights of a minority group. Native Americans have just barely won some degree of legal protections over their religious traditions, and yet the BSA/OA seems to draw freely and uncritically from Native cultural property.
If the BSA really wants to support the preservation of Native customs, shouldn’t they find ways to support the real holders of those customs, rather than pretend to BE them?
A Dead End Discussion
I brought these issues up at a Chaplain training that I attended in Spring of 2018. The Chaplain of a Cub Scout troop is basically someone who promotes the spiritual growth of the troop, either by making room for a spiritual component at different events, or by encouraging scouts to participate in the emblems program of their specific faith. My experience is that the BSA is totally open to people of all different faiths, for example my family is Bahá’í and while most of our troop is Catholic, we feel like there has been a positive space for interfaith discussion and worship in our pack.
In our training, while were covering the concept of respect for people from all faith backgrounds, I brought up my issues around the faux American Indian performance I had witnessed. I said, “As long as you are talking about respect of different faith traditions, it really shocked me to see the disrespect of Native American traditions that was in our troop’s Cub Crossover Ceremony.”
The two leaders at the training did not see my point all; they assured me that the Boy Scouts only imitated Native Americans as a sign of respect! They claimed that all ceremonies are done with the blessing from American Indians, and Boy Scouts take this VERY seriously. The BSA are proudly honoring and preserving the great traditions of the American Indians, and would never do anything to disrespect these great people who they deeply care for.
My response was that it wouldn’t be honoring American War Veterans if we made fake war medals and then wore them around. It wouldn’t be honoring the Catholic Church if we dressed up as the Pope and then wore the cross upside-down because we didn’t know what we were doing. I said that instead of attempting to dress in Indian regalia and perform fake ceremonies, troops could study the history of actual tribes, and invite Native speakers to give talks about their experiences being Native today, in modern times. I said that troops could attend local Powwows to observe these traditions as they have been preserved by actual Native people.
The leaders cut in: The Boy Scouts DO attend Powwows, AS DANCERS! In fact, the Boy Scouts have preserved many traditional Native American traditions and dances that would have otherwise been lost to history. (I had no idea what they meant by this, but after researching later, I suspect they were talking about the Koshare dancers, a Boy Scout troop in Colorado that, since 1933, has been copying Native American dances and performing them worldwide — another bizarre rabbit-hole to explore. They may also have been referring to Boy Scout “Tribe” Mic-o-say, who have a bunch of dance teams around the country, and even boast of their own “reservation”.)
In summary, the Boy Scout leaders turned the tables on me: “You just don’t understand that this is done out of honor and respect.”
I felt like our conflicting worldviews had hit a dead-end. Who can argue with the assertion that it’s all just a big misunderstanding?
Is It All About Honor and Respect?
Rep. Anthony Allison of New Mexico doesn’t think so. He is sponsoring a bill (House Memorial 70) that calls for Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and Intertribal dances and songs to be regarded as protected state cultural resources.
Speaking at a hearing about the bill, expert witness Shawn Price referenced organizations that imitate Native American dance: “If what these organizations are doing is acceptable as honoring us Native people, then we should accept blackface as acceptable — but it’s not. Nor is this type of activity. You don’t honor a group of people by dressing up like them and pretending to be them.”
According to KRQU, during the hearing, some called out the Boy Scouts saying that troops in Order of the Arrow are some of the worst offenders of taking sacred regalia, dance, and song.
I also found a very insightful article by Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation), a tribal rights attorney, where she also confronts this issue:
“Why is it that anytime a Native American asks a non-Native to stop dressing up as them, the response is it’s a “misunderstanding?” Do Native Americans not understand our own cultural practices? Are we not allowed offense at stereotypes and caricatures of our peoples? Why are our religious ceremonies and traditions free for the taking?”
An Ironic Twist
Another interesting and ironic twist to this story: at one point during the Chaplain training, one of the participants found that Urban Outfitters was selling pre-patched Boy Scout shirts. The group was dismayed: “They didn’t even earn these patches!!” complained one parent.
In searching for images of the shirt to include with this essay, I found that there had been news coverage about this issue. Parents from the Longhorn Council in Texas (whose patch was on Urban’s fake Boy Scout shirt) were “furious” that their patch was being appropriated and complained to the BSA about it. The BSA took immediate action and released a statement to Urban Outfitters that these shirts are not authorized by the Boy Scouts of America. In response, Urban Outfitters released a statement that thanked the BSA for bringing this to their attention and stated, “ we will immediately pull any non-vintage pieces from our stores and website.”
When I read about the Koshare Boy Scout dancers, I found out that the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation in Kykotsmovi, Ariz. had called the Koshare dances “commercial exploitation” and that they were “mimicking the Hopi butterfly, buffalo and Tewa ceremonial clowns.” Considering the kerfuffle around the fake Urban Outfitters Boy Scout shirt in mind, how has the feedback from the Hopi Office been handled by the BSA? I can’t find any official statement or apology from the Koshare troop. The Koshare website shows that they have a performance schedule for 2019; do they still plan to mimic Hopi dances?
Finding A Path Forward
As our 2019 Cub Crossover ceremony grew closer, my husband and I decided that we would not attend our pack ceremony if someone was going to bring in that fake Indian performance again. But we didn’t want to just boycott our own pack, so we decided a more constructive path would be to make an effort to transform the ceremony. We started having informal discussions with other parents, and eventually we discussed with our pack’s parent’s committee the possibility of our troop creating our own unique and different ceremony. We floated some ideas with our troop leader, and he was totally supportive.
In the end, our pack’s parents and troop leader worked together to plan our own Star Wars themed Cub Crossover Ceremony. Gone were the fake War Bonnets, and in were the fake Light Sabers. The event was fun, exciting, and the kids absolutely loved it.
As for our troop, I feel like the BSA program has definitely encouraged us all to become active members of our troop, and together we are creating many awesome traditions that reflect the culture of our pack. For example our pack is made up primarily of people from Mexican and Latin American backgrounds. Our leader, who is from Mexico, had custom luchador masks made for all of our kids for the recent Report to State parade.
There are countless ways that individual BSA troops could develop their own traditions, even if based in fiction or pop-culture (Pokemon, Legos, etc). People of European descent can also draw from their own respective cultural heritages; we have a wealth of traditions to draw from. Why not ask the kids what they are interested in, and design each Cub Crossover ceremony accordingly?
Positive Change, But Lots of Unfinished Business
Amazingly, a week before the Cub Crossover Ceremony, we found out that as of January 2019, the Boy Scouts of America has changed their policy and banned the use of American Indian regalia during the Cub Crossover!
I still see signs of unfinished business present at all levels of BSA. From what I can tell online, the Order of the Arrow is still completely entrenched in replicating Native ceremonies.
Although I have been arguing against a particular brand of cultural appropriation /misrepresentation, I think that having an interest in Native American culture (both historical and contemporary) is really positive. Of course cultures should be in contact with each other and learn from each other, but how can we do it mindfully? The Boy Scouts of America has somewhere in the range of 2.5 million members. Imagine if an organization with such a huge national membership directed their attention towards Native Americans in a way that was directed by and centered around contemporary Native peoples.
What if the national BSA leadership developed Boy Scout programming under the direction of an advisory group comprised of Native people who work in the capacity of preserving their respective tribal cultures, or promoting tribal issues. What kind of curriculum would they create?
Boys (and now girls) enter the Scout program for years at a time, some for a lifetime. Imagine how much more powerful programing could be if it unfolded over years of conversation and collaborative action (rather than some hasty one-off charity project that doesn’t achieve any long-term relationship building).
BSA is essentially a leadership program. Right now some of the most powerful examples of community leadership and organizing and being modeled by Native Peoples who are confronting multinational energy corporations who fund projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline or Enbridge Line 3. Part of what BSA is drawn to about Indigenous cultural teachings is the emphasis on human oneness with the Earth and all creatures. How incredible to live in a time when Indigenous peoples are giving this spiritual teaching a public expression in effort to transform the materialistic ideologies and environmental exploitation that could destroy us all?
In summary, I think there is a way that the BSA can move forward and still incorporate the study of Native American culture in their curriculum. I think the BSA needs to assume a humble posture of learning, with great sensitivity to the history of colonization and how it impacts all intercultural relationships today, particularly (in this case) between Native and white people. The BSA might have to “sacrifice” some of their familiar traditions, but the act of creating new traditions in solidarity with Native tribes will be far more impactful. We are all in this world together, and through listening, consultation, informed action, and reflection (and then repeating that process again!), we can keep creating more just patterns of community life.