In the wake of several reports for Indian Country Today regarding Boy Scouts and the potential for instances of cultural appropriation, we’ve compiled a list of sources and alternatives for scouts, families of scout members, scout leaders, and administrative officials for the Boy Scouts of America.
In the series of articles about the Boy Scouts and Native American cultural appropriation—which resulted from over six months of direct investigative research and several years of personal experience—Indian Country Today showed a plethora of instances in the present as well as historically in which Boy Scouts used, created, emulated and appropriated the culture of Native Americans.
These instances include Scout leaders often wearing headdresses in ceremony or large events such as picnics, summer camp outings or large Scout get-togethers called powwows, non-Native Boy Scout dancers wearing “regalia” or other hand made or purchased costumes to dance in front of the public or other scout groups, and even a non-profit museum that makes money off a Boy Scout troops “interpretation” of Native dances.
In the course of research, Indian Country Today was unable to uncover much evidence of outreach from Boy Scouts to Native American tribes in their area. A former member of the order of the arrow told Indian Country Today, “not that I am aware of.”
Based on the history of the Boy Scouts, the Koshare Dancers, the Tribe of Mic-O-Say and the Order of the Arrow, the Boy Scouts have demonstrated an affinity or attraction to the world of Native American culture.
Lenni Lenape elder and tribal pastor John Norwood, told Indian Country Today that it is great that people are inspired by Native American culture. The problem he says is when they try to copy or mimic it.
“The best of American Indian Values can be celebrated and learned by anyone as they are part of the cultural “fabric” of America. Developing ceremonies that may be inspired by American Indian Culture, but in no way mimic or purport to be Native, can be inspiring to the non-Native participant and beneficially increase an appreciation of Native values and principles without misappropriating Native culture. Honoring and celebrating our values, and even our lifeways do not require donning our dress, portraying our ceremonies or using our sacred items. The actual history of our people can be told and the life-lessons gained without mimicking sacred rituals or “playing Indian.”
Ways for boy scouts, scout leaders and others to avoid cultural appropriation
There are a plethora of ways to appreciate Native culture without appropriating culture. There are many ways to involve Native American tribes in ceremony and ways to appreciate Native American dance or traditional customs and/or regalia without copying or mimicking Native customs.
Reach out to Native American tribes in your area and asked them what is appropriate and what is not
A simple Google search will reveal state or federally recognized Native American tribes in your state. Out of the 537 federally recognized tribes and many more state-recognized tribes, there are easily accessible websites with tribal contact information.
If you are wondering who to speak to specifically, the tribal historian, the cultural preservation officer, or even the tribal secretary might be able to offer information on who you could speak with.
It is not considered rude to inquire if you may invite someone to come speak to your group about Native American culture. In many tribal cultures, such inquiry is considered respectful and welcome.
To appreciate and value Native American culture, many tribes would appreciate the opportunity to share cultural lessons from a representative and member of the tribe who is well-versed in his own tribal values and has a connection to the tribe you would like to learn about.
Invite legitimate Native American dancers, singers and drummers to your event
Using the same information to contact tribes through their website, interested groups can also speak with a tribal historian, cultural preservation officer, or perhaps even the tribes powwow coordinator in reaching out to Native American dancers, singers and drummers who would likely be able to schedule a time and a place to meet with your group and share dance music and custom in a culturally respectful way.
It is appropriate to offer dancers, singers and drummers compensation for their time as they do often have to travel as a group, they may have to stay in a hotel or use fuel to travel to your group.
It is considered extremely offensive to dress in regalia, sing at a drum, or actually use a drum if it is not from your culture. In Native American culture, regalia and the drum are very sacred and have a long connection to tribal family culture and their traditions.
Invite tribal members or representatives from a local tribe to crossover events
Reaching out to tribes in your area or legitimate Native American organizations such as the IllumiNative or even Indian Country Today can assure you are approaching an event with respect.
It is considered offensive to dress up in Native-themed clothing If you are not Native American. It is also considered offensive to wear a Native headdress, as a headdress is a great symbol of honor and must be earned for tribal members to wear it.
Similar to how Boy Scouts and Boy Scout leaders reached out to urban outfitters when they were selling a Boy Scout shirt with badges — in which the wearers of the shirt had not earned the patches — Native regalia and Native headdresses also must be earned in order to be worn.
If you are still not certain, reach out on social media and ask people point blank and use hashtags such as #NativeTwitter, #NativeInstagram or #NativeFacebook
If you are still not certain whether or not what you are doing is cultural appropriation, in 2019 social media is a place that can be helpful or even friendly when treading carefully.
Some of the key terms people use in 2019 to show they stand in support of Native Americans are “ally” or “supporter.”
Social media can sometimes be intimidating, but if you approach things in an honest and courteous way with a willingness to learn, the experience can be positive. With any situation, there can be some people who respond harshly, but the bigger message, if you are persistent, can show its way through.
Here are some sample questions you might ask people on social media as to whether or not you are being offensive:
One key point to keep in mind is do not ask questions that can be easily Googled — Native people are not responsible for answering your questions that could be easily figured out if you were to do your own research.
However, there are some Native-oriented topics that might not be too clear, and some people will be willing to help you if you ask.
Hello, I am a scout leader and I would like to have a Native American celebration for my Scout group. Can some folks out there tell me the best way I can do this and still be respectful? #NativeTwitter
I would like to wear moccasins for my Scout group meeting - is this offensive? Please know I really don’t know and want to be respectful.
My name is Michael, and I want to wear a Native American headdress. Is there ever a time where I can do this? I don’t wish to be disrespectful I really don’t know. I assure you I will listen to your responses.
Being willing to listen
A common response when facing accusations of cultural appropriation is this: “Well then we can’t have any more fun at our ceremony in the scouts.”
Many scout groups have shared on social media about alternatively themed crossover ceremonies such as Star Wars, which they say were successful.
As the family member of a scout, Misha Maynerick Blaise wrote in her article Creating Boy Scout Ceremonies Without Taking Native American Cultural Property about a successful experience using a Star Wars-themed ceremony.
“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.”
Be willing to study, be willing to listen and be willing to delve into the history of Native American people who have long lost their culture historically.
If you have questions you can reach out to many organizations, social media, or even email Indian Country Today.
Stories in the Boy Scout article series by Indian Country Today associate editor Vincent Schilling