Suggestions on Authenticity
“Dr. E. Urner Goodman, founder of the OA, reports that along these lines we should remember the respect and importance accorded to the American Indian culture by our founders. They believed that the Indians showed us a way of life that represented the highest ideals of the Boy Scouts America. In turn, we should concern ourselves with continuing and heightening this interest and respect.
One of the most enjoyable elements of the OA program is Indian lore. The phrase “Indian lore”, however, has come to represent a rather narrow approach taken too many times toward Indian culture by Scout groups. We in the OA have also been guilty of this. We should look toward the Indians as a civilization made of many varied cultures and representing the way of life we hope to emulate.
For instance, the dance team chief seeks a new type of dance and means of costuming from a particular tribe to widen the lodge team’s repertory. In doing so, he must make every effort to conduct a full investigation of the tribe, the dance, the costuming and its significance, etc. He should seek to discover if the particular dance is an acceptable performance for non-Indians to use. He should also be extremely careful to seek authenticity before conducting it. Above all, he should use the process of research and information to acquaint his lodge members interested in learning what the Indians, as a people, were trying to say.
The Order of the Arrow serves many purposes. Highest among these is developing character and understanding. We have a great opportunity to do this through study of Indian people and cultures. In this sense, by learning to better understand each Indian tribe, we can ultimately learn to better understand ourselves.”
- Order of the Arrow National Bulletin, First Issue 1973
“The American Indian has been many things to many people. To us, the Order of the Arrow, he is the symbol of nobility and freedom. This was true before the westward advance of the white Europeans. After this, however, he was all but exterminated from the continent and crowded onto government reservations.
Because the Order of the Arrow has borrowed the culture and crafts from the American Indian, we – as an Order – must maintain the highest standards of authenticity.”
- Dr. E. Urner Goodman, Order of the Arrow National Bulletin, Third Issue 1974
I have heard many arguments in the past as to the ‘why’ of Boy Scouting’s use of Native American culture and imagery. I don’t want to debate that at the moment. But, suffice it to say, at the turn of the 20th century, there were many organizations being created to help children get outside, back to nature. And the imagery of the Native American in his finery while in the outdoors held a somewhat-romantic appeal (there is a great book by Philip J. Deloria titled Playing Indian, that details much of that time period and the various organizations and their choices for using Native American-style imagery and outfits). The appeal of the outdoors is what scouting is all about – a young man I knew once said, “4/5ths of Scouting is ‘outing’”. But, the Order of the Arrow, founded shortly after the BSA, began from its earliest roots on the stories of the Lenni Lenape. So it pulled imagery from that history – some of which was idealized and immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper. This helped encourage young people to get outdoors again and helped them focus on specific skills – campcraft, tracking, and so much more - by using the image of the Native American as the exemplar.
Political opinions aside, the problem we face as Scouts and Scouters is authenticity. For the OA’s ceremonies, which are more like plays or reenactments than Native American Ceremonies (notice the capitalization), the National Order of the Arrow Committee suggests that each Lodge emulate a local tribe and a time period for the outfits they use in the various ceremonies of the Lodge.
This presents some difficulty, obviously. Comanche outfits are entirely different than Haida, Seminole, Huron, Ojibwe, or Hopi, just to name a few. And vice versa. So, a Lodge in Wyoming could emulate a few different tribes like Cheyenne, many of the Lakota tribes or bands, Shoshoni, Crow, or others. And they would have easier access to persons from those tribes for reference material, etc., than say someone from South Carolina or New York. But, this is not a requirement. Because of the lack of requirement, and the inability to find local resources, often lodges resort to what many people call a ‘Pan-Indian’ or ‘Hollywood’ style of outfit.
And this is where the trouble really begins. In the above photo, there is nothing truly offensive about the outfits. But, there is nothing that identifies the outfits with any particular tribe, either. It’s really more a vague impression of ‘Indian-ness’. And the fact that each person is wearing a nearly identical version of the other outfits is out of character for an individual. This pan–Indian look is more common in representing Native American style dress than you can imagine, actually. In fact, it is prevalent among Scouts and Scouters, unfortunately – my Lodge included. But, the above photo looks nothing like this one of a Sioux Delegation from 1870:
A lack of specifications begets a lack of research. Lack of research begets lack of knowledge or understanding. Lack of knowledge begets indifference. And Indifference begets insensitivity. And then we offend people. Not all Boy Scouts are guilty of this insensitivity or of offending someone. I know most would be offended at themselves for offending someone else. But, the case often is a matter of “they didn’t know what they didn’t know”. But, through lack of education or knowledge, some have made mistakes, and some have unfortunately caused heinous errors of judgement.
Now, I am not going to speak to the random Cub Scout Leader who finds an idea on the internet and runs with it, but tries to do something memorable and misses the mark on accuracy. I’m not going to speak to the various individual Troop or Crew programs out there which teach a tradition nearly 50 years old, either. Nor am I going to speak to the Summer Camp programs with their own ‘tribe’ who may have a great program for getting kids to staff Summer Camp, but miss the mark on what is ‘Native American’. What I am going to speak to is how the Order of the Arrow can improve its accuracy across the board. The OA may not be able to affect a change on the local Council or Unit level, but they can be an example of how to do things the correct way, at the very least. And they can certainly be a resource for those local units who may have questions from time to time.
Please understand, although there can be some crossover of usage of individual pieces between dance outfits and ceremonies outfits, Dance Outfits are not appropriate for ceremonies for several reasons. First, bells make noise, and therefore cause distraction during what is intended to be a solemn occasion. Second, bustles block line of sight to important figures. Third, modern dance outfits are not historically accurate to a specific time period, except the here and now. Finally, modern dance outfits are very often not specific to one tribe.
Authenticity requires research and validation. Research, by itself is good. But, you might find that a Yupik warrior once wore an otter skin turban in a photo. But without validation, you would have no idea why that Yupik person would be wearing that headdress. But, when you research more than photos, you might find that the photographer wanted the Yupik man to ‘look more Indian’ and put the southern plains style headgear on the Alaskan Native’s head just for the phone. You might even find that this same headdress appears in photos with Shoshoni, Pawnee, Seminole, and other individuals.
Validation requires further research, too. So, let’s say I am going to choose the Comanche tribe from the 1890s for my Lodge’s ceremonies team. I will very likely find a number of photos of Quanah Parker. You may even find a great quantity of other Comanche individuals from that time period. But, in almost all of those old photos, the outfits the men are wearing look like dark-colored longhandle underwear, for lack of a better term.
Just because the photo seems to indicate we could dress up some boys in some dark blue longjohns, doesn’t mean we are ready yet. If we research further, with terms like “Comanche leggings”, for example, we will likely find photos of leather leggings that have a green or yellow dye on them – specifically light colors. Further investigation might reveal that the photography technology at the time could not always distinguish colors well, and made most colors appear dark or washed-out. In fact, there are scientists and curators who have spent lifetimes proving that the dark grey next to the other dark grey in the beadwork worn by ‘notable person A’ in this ‘photo dated G’ is in fact yellow next to pink, or something similar.
This is but one example of why research and validation are paramount in creating authentic outfits. There are literally hundreds of books on Native American outfits, culture, and historical photos. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of public libraries, college libraries, or online resources that could be utilized. Most of those online resources have people willing to discuss meanings and techniques behind the photos and stories you can find. Which is a far cry better than when I was a boy trying to find any data whatsoever. I was lucky if a library had a book 50 years out of print that had speculation at best as to why ‘tribe x wore item y’.
http://www.bia.gov/cs/groups/webteam/documents/document/idc1-029026.pdf contains a list of the 560+ Federally recognized Tribes in the United States. This does not include State Recognized tribes, nor does it include tribes recognized in Canada, Mexico, or other South American countries. But, each of these tribes has their own histories, stories, traditions, culture, languages, etc. Each of them will approach everything from a different aspect. It behooves us, as Scouts, to live by the Scout Law and be Friendly, Courteous, and Reverent when approaching outfits for use in our events. And to do so, we must evaluate our goals, we must re-evaluate our outfits, and we must absolutely ask ourselves questions like, ‘why is this found in that photo’, ‘would there be a reason for that tribe to have worn that item’, ‘is it possible this item wasn’t traditional to that tribe, but maybe a war-trophy’, ‘could that color be different than what I assume it is because of the black and white nature of the photo’, and ‘is there another source with a color photo of that item I could find’, among others.
Our Order’s founder more than stipulated that authenticity in our outfits is important, he outright said we should conduct a full investigation. He said we should learn more about the Native American tribes we wish to emulate and this would help us better understand ourselves. How about researching the history of a tribe from your local area to discover the town you have grown up in is named after one particular Native individual or group who had a major impact on the local area. Then you might discover why that person, or persons, was significant. This might lead you to learn more about how he or they might have dressed, and therefore drive deeper understanding of how your locale came to be. Then you might more accurately be able to portray those tribal traditions in your outfits.
But, it starts with you. You must be willing to put some time into the research. Ask questions of librarians. Ask questions of local historians. Visit a local college and discover what you can. Visit museums and take notes. Travel to a local modern powwow to see how the folks in your area participate in their culture today. Introduce yourself to folks there and ask if they would be willing to offer any insight on their tribe’s history. You will be surprised what you might find out. And you may make a friend.