Perhaps known, or unbeknownst to many Native tribes and communities, the Boy Scouts of America have been using an extensive amount of Native-themed adornments, Native-inspired regalia, and even full-fledged headdress in boy scout ceremonies, gatherings, and outings since the early 1900s.
Ironically, the 1900s were rife with Indian children being taken from their homes and were systematically forced to assimilate into white culture while attending religious organization run boarding schools. While Native American children in these schools were forced to stop speaking their languages and had to learn English while threatened with severe punishments, the early boy scouts were assimilating the Native culture that was so frowned upon.
In Native culture, showing Native culture was admonished, while in white culture, wearing Native ‘regalia’ was celebrated.
Today, the Boy Scouts of America is the largest scouting organization in the world, which holds the distinction of holding a congressional charter with a current membership of over 2 million youth and one million adult volunteers. With such numbers posting to social media, posting videos and more, the influence of how the organization might influence the view of Native culture through its own lens is a consideration to Indian Country.
Boy Scout’s origins based on ‘Native teachings’
The beginning history of the group that would one day spawn the Boy Scouts began when in 1902, the future Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton, owned property that had been vandalized by a group of boys from the local school.
Instead of penalizing the young men, Seton instead invited the boys to his property for the weekend. During that time Seton allegedly told them stories of Native Americans, and shared with them the values he said were from Native customs and traditions.
This group of young boys was taught Seton’s notions about American Indian traditions and culture when Ernest Thompson Seton created the group he decided to call the Woodcraft Indians. He also established the “Woodcraft Tribe” in which boys elected their own leaders, which included a chief, a second chief, a keeper of the tally, and a keeper of the wampum.
Seton decided to document his efforts in writing, thus the group received considerable acclaim due to several ‘Seton’s Boys’ articles that Seton wrote for Ladies Home Journal. The series of articles were later published as a booklet called the Birch Bark Roll.
Due to the group’s continued success, In 1906, Seton traveled to England and met with Lord Robert Baden-Powell and gave him a copy of the book Birch Bark Roll. Influenced by Seton, Baden-Powell eventually wrote Scouting for Boys, effectively merging the Woodcraft Indians into the early Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts officially began in 1910.
Over the next few years, the Boy Scouts created several meeting campgrounds and locations in the United States to include the Treasure Island Scout Reservation, which was where the affiliated organization Order of the Arrow was founded by camp director E. Urner Goodman and Carroll A. Edson.
The Order of the Arrow was an organization meant to encourage the adherence of scouting beliefs and customs well after adolescence. Though the Order of the Arrow was not created by the Boy Scouts, the organization has close ties to the Boy Scouts and the order still exists today.
Part 2 of 5 article posting September 16, 2019: Order of the Arrow is a ‘secret’ scout society ‘in the spirit of the Lenni Lenape’ - a Lenape leader disagrees
Responses from Indian Country
As a contributor to the publication Voice of Scouting Maloree Anderson describes in her 2017 article Native American Adventures and Etiquette for Scouts:
"Indian Lore has always been popular with boys in Scouting. Even Cub Scouts have adventures to explore this topic. The purpose of Indian lore within the Boy Scouts is not to be like Native Americans, but to enjoy some of their crafts, games, ceremonies, and culture."
"One of the obvious uses of American Indian culture within the Boy Scouts is the Order of the Arrow (OA). 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." cites Anderson.
However, advocates from Indian Country disagree.
‘The Boys Scouts 'have long been one of the worst culprits’
Crystal Echo Hawk, Kitkehaki Band, Pawnee Nation, who is president of IllumiNative, says the Boy Scouts have long been aware of their missteps and need to be held accountable.
“The Boys Scouts have long been one of the worst culprits that have made cultural appropriation, stereotypes, misrepresentation and the blatant disregard of Native peoples a hallmark of its institution and practices. It’s leadership, members and supporters have insisted their egregious practices and behavior are about “honoring Native Americans.” They have been repeatedly asked to cease the practices of appropriation and misrepresentation by Native peoples because they’re offensive and cause harm.”
Echo Hawk also cited the research of her IllumiNative organization that directly addresses the negative impacts of Native cultural appropriation.
“IllumiNative’s groundbreaking research provides evidence how these practices of cultural appropriation, red face, dressing up in faux Native American costumes and the practices of perpetuating false narratives and stereotypes about Native Americans does the opposite of honoring Native peoples. It instead fuels misinformation, bias and racism.
Shelby Rowe, Chickasaw, who serves as the co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Committee for the American Association of Suicidology told Indian Country Today in an email that such appropriation is a potentially contributing factor to Native teen suicide. Suicide is 70 percent higher than for any other group in the country.
“Cultural appropriation adds to the message we constantly get as Natives that our culture is dead, and that our existence is an inconvenience for society. It is not often seen as a public health issue, but I think that it should be. The Order of the Arrow not only fails to honor and preserve the traditions of American Indians, it could actually be increasing the risk of suicide for our Native youth, especially our boys, who consistently die by suicide at a greater rate than any other race or ethnicity. By presenting our cultures as that of a dying/extinct society, it leaves no space in the modern world for Native Americans to exist,” wrote Rowe.
“According to Dr. Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicidality, lethal and near lethal suicide attempts take place at the intersection of three risk factors: Thwarted Belongingness (I am alone), Perceived Burdensomeness (I have no purpose/my existence burdens others) and the acquired capability to kill (I am not afraid to die). For American Indians, centuries of genocide & policies to dismantle our nations, modern cultural appropriation and the persistent, ever present messages in media and society that show us as a dead/dying culture keep our people locked in the deadly intersection of factors that is claiming the lives of our young men.”
Sadé Ali, Mi’kmaq First Nation, is a Two Spirit elder. She wrote in an email that she has always had challenges with some of the doctrines and teachings of the Boy Scouts and says she considers them as “one of the most homophobic/transphobic organisations existing.” Ali also says she felt the cultural appropriation of the Boy Scouts was problematic.
“I have always viewed this practice of the Boy Scouts playing Indian as the highest, most offensive form of cultural appropriation. I had an encounter with a woman connected with the Order of the Arrow at a powwow I attended in Baltimore, Maryland, not so long ago and she came up to me and asked me the difference between my “costume” and that of the Head Dancer. RED FLAG! I told her that our regalia is not a costume and that we are from different tribes and each has their own design, their own colours, their own beadwork, ribbon work, or applique work.”
“She told me she was there to get ideas for her ‘costume’ for an upcoming Order of the Arrow get together and completely ignored my admonishment. I told her that what she was telling me was offensive, that our regalia has deep significance to us and what she was doing was cultural appropriation; which is something that we find highly disrespectful. She continued to rant about her ‘costume,’ letting my words pass over her as if she had not heard them.”
“Finally, I had had enough and asked her if she thought she would have wanted to play Indian when our people were being massacred on the plains in an effort to deal with the Indian problem or when our children were being ripped from the bosoms of their mothers, their communities, and their tribes, and placed into residential schools where they were beaten, raped and starved all with the intent to kill the Indian to save the man. I asked her if she would like to play Indian on some of our reservations where the nearest grocery store is 30 miles away and she doesn’t have transportation, or if she’d like to play Indian on the Highway of Tears in BC, or anywhere else on Turtle Island where our Native women and girls are going missing or losing their lives. She finally stopped talking and just walked away. My questions still stand,” wrote Ali.
Echo Hawk identifies changes that need to take place.
“We need the Boy Scouts to renounce these harmful policies, programs and practices and then the Boy Scouts must partner with tribes, Native educators, organizations and communities to create new comprehensive curriculum that teaches these boys accurate Native history and contemporary issues that includes the negative impact of cultural appropriation, stereotypes and racist mascots.”
Native cultural appropriation 2019
Based on articles such as the one written by Anderson, the Boy Scouts arguably believe they are honoring Native culture.
In the Boy Scouts, many non-Native dancers dress in regalia and perform dances, many sit in regalia and play music sitting around a large Native-style drum, and participate in makeshift ceremonies modeled after Native ceremony.
In an email to Indian Country Today, Misha Maynerick Blaise wrote to express her concerns about the Native cultural appropriation she says she experienced with her own family and son who was in the cub scouts. In an article by Blaise titled Creating Boy Scout Ceremonies Without Taking Native American Cultural Property, she discussed how the curriculum of the scouts was at first enjoyable but later took an odd turn into cultural appropriation.
“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 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," wrote Blaise.
Native-themed Boy Scout camps, merit badges and crossover ceremonies
Regional scout summer camps such as the Kia Kima Scout Reservation, and the Boys Scouts of America Chickasaw Council, are among many “Native-themed” locations meant to embody the spirit of Native American culture.
The Kia Kima Scout Reservation is made up of two camps, Camp Osage and Camp Cherokee that are celebrating over 104 years of ‘adventures in the Ozarks.” In a 1935 photo on the site, titled “Kia Kima Totem Pole,” scouts are seen on their hands and knees while bowing to a totem pole. A 1958 photo shows a group of camp goers dressed up as Kia Kima dancers at a fourth of July celebration standing next to a tipi.
The Kia Kima Reservation activities have continued into 2019 as summer camp registrations took place in May of this year.
In addition to Kia Kima, there are other events modeled on Native themes to include the Boy Scouts’ BYU Merit Badge PowWow.
According to its website, “The BYU Merit Badge PowWow has been held for more than 57 years and is one of the largest BYU Scout PowWows in the United States. It is held twice a year on the beautiful campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. More than 7,000 Scouts from Utah and other areas participate in the Spring and Fall PowWows.”
Will the Boy Scouts ever listen?
As Misha Maynerick Blaise wrote in her article regarding the experiences in the cub scouts, the likelihood of the Boy Scouts and other related organizations is likely a “Dead End Discussion” as her section header is labeled.
Blaise writes that she brought the issue of a faux American Indian performance she had witnessed at a Chaplain training in Spring of 2018.
“As long as you are talking about the 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 is 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.”
Blaise compared the issue to that of war veterans, stating that war medals have a similar conceptual basis of having to have been earned by the recipient.
In her quest to be transparent, Blaise stumbled upon an issue with what she called an “ironic twist.” During the chaplain training, she discovered that Urban Outfitters had been selling pre-patched Boy Scout shirts. One parent exclaimed, “They didn’t even earn these patches.”
A long way to go
In January of 2019, the Boy Scouts officially banned the wearing “Native-themed” regalia at crossover ceremony. Though this change is in place, photos of Native-themed crossover ceremonies are making their way onto Facebook and social media.
Currently, the Boy Scouts do encourage earning the “Indian Lore Merit Badge” as a “great way to get your scouts to learn about Indian Lore.” In order to get the badge, scouts must choose from ways to use sign language, ways to hunt or about ways of local tribes that according to Blaise, is rarely monitored in terms of actual outreach to tribes.
As Anderson wrote in her article:
“As Scouts, it is your duty to honor the Native American culture. It is important for Scouting leaders (adult and youth) to instill a sense of respect when practicing some of the cultural dances, ceremonies, etc. Remember, the purpose of Indian Lore within the Boy Scouts isn’t to copy their practices but to appreciate them. What are ways that you and your scouts respect the Native American culture?”
It's not on the kids
Echo Hawk told Indian Country Today that she recognized that the majority of young men in the Boy Scouts are not aware of the harm done to Native culture and people. She cited findings in her IlluminNative organization study and issued an ultimatum regarding responsibilities of the Boy Scouts of America
“The majority of these young boys have no idea that what they are engaging in is harmful and wrong. Many of their parents also honestly do not understand it is wrong as well. Our research shows that almost 90 percent of schools don’t teach about Native peoples past 1900, that Native representation in media is less than .4 percent and that 72 percent rarely or never encounter information about Native peoples. Many people just don’t know better because the erasure and invisibility of Native peoples is so significant.
“We need to partner to educate and teach the Boy Scouts and youth involved how to be good allies. There is a really powerful opportunity to turn this horrifying practice of the Boys Scouts into a powerful movement for change that can have positive outcomes for these young men, their families, the institution and for all Native peoples,” said Echo Hawk.
“The time has come for the Boy Scouts to be held accountable and to finally cease these harmful and offensive practices immediately.”
Stay tuned for the full list of source materials and research links following the last of five articles.
Indian Country Today reached out to a considerable number of sources connected to the Boy Scouts, including troop leaders, upper administration, media relations and more. None of Indian Country Today’s requests for comments were answered.
Stories in the Boy Scout article series by Indian Country Today associate editor Vincent Schilling
Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is Indian Country Today’s associate editor - He was also a cub scout and a Webelo.
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org