The Boy Scouts of America and the Order of the Arrow are not well thought of in many Native American circles. One need only visit a couple of websites or have conversations with participants at powwows or other American Indian events to be aware of this fact. A general defensive posture is taken by some Native Americans when discussing the Boy Scouts in general. This has very little to do with the ideals or morals of the Boy Scouts at all. It has more to do with the impression that individual Boy Scouts or BSA groups have given, by not being accurate or respectful, etc. Names such as ‘wannabe’ and ‘hobbyist’ can take on derogatory meanings, and can even become derisive epithets, when uttered in these venues. It is to the point where internet memes have been created.
The issue these persons take with the Boy Scouts stems from the impression that Boy Scouts “dress up like Indians”. Though the BSA and the OA have had ties with Native American cultures since their inception and have had good relations with many American Indian groups, many feel that because many Scouts are simply dressing up in costumes, they are not really reflecting the qualities or the cultures they are supposed to be representing. This applies to the ceremonies used in the Cub Scouts, Boy Scout Summer Camp, the OA, and to teaching Native American dance styles or the Indian Lore Merit Badge.
The arguments from both sides go back and forth, sometimes heatedly, debating whether the BSA/OA are ‘engendering hatred’, ‘honoring the culture’, ‘preserving traditions’ – whether of the organization or a tribal culture - or ‘abusing cultures’, etc. Some would blame the entire organization of enforcing stereotypes based on the actions of a few. Others would defend their organization as helping preserve a dying culture. But, the fact is this: if a group does something, that group should do it right. And if another group takes offense at the goings-on in BSA, then we are not ‘doing it right’. A friend of mine, Pat Collins, once said: “We’re borrowing a culture. We either borrow it correctly or we don’t borrow it at all.”
We, in the Boy Scouts on a large scale do not ‘do it right’ when it comes to training about Native American cultures and issues. Though there are various programs, such as NOAC (National Order of the Arrow Conference) and various lodge programs, as well as a few Scout or Venture Unit programs that focus on teaching as much as possible about the varied cultures, outfitting, and other aspects, this is not indicative of the entire program.
Many, if not most, of the volunteer personnel in the Boy Scouts, even when involved in the OA program, still fall back on stereotypes when putting any outfits together or when portraying a particular person through ceremonials. The stereotypical actions occur, whether the person knows it or not, simply because for many people that is the only exposure they have ever had to a different culture. Their access to decent libraries or tribal cultural centers or events may be limited, and more.
Scouting in general does not do enough to effectively promote the cultural awareness of the Native American community, though many of us are actively involved in both Scouting and the Native Community. Many of the ideals and fundamentals that Scouting was founding on in North America come from traditions and teachings that go back hundreds of years, if not more, in the various American Indian cultures. So, if part of what Scouting was founded on is based on Native teachings, should not Scouting teach Scouts about the Native Cultures for a better understanding of those ideals? Take a look at my previous posts about authenticity to get a better idea of how the OAs founder felt on that subject - 40 years ago.
Many people feel that question doesn’t need to be answered, though. Many feel that is answered in the sheer number of boys and adults who visit or dance at powwows or in the fact that such programs as NOAC's AIA program exist at all. There was and is a desire among Scouts and Scouters to learn what could be learned about the pre-Columbian cultures and their descendants, so a centralized program for better referencing was created.
Think of programs like NOAC as a Library of data that everyone who is interested can utilize when they want. The only problem is that information is centralized and not disseminated. The Smithsonian is great for people who either live near or get the opportunity to visit Washington DC. But, it isn’t as great for those who don’t get the opportunity to visit.
So, how do we disseminate that information? We make it available to everyone through training and sharing. And we offer an open opportunity to access that information whenever needed. But, we in Scouting, and especially in the Order of the Arrow, are not doing that effectively enough.
Why We’ve Failed
The “Cub Scouting, Boy Scouting, and Venturing in American Indian Communities Guidelines” booklet states on page 25, “We have come a long way in portraying African Americans – we would never think of suggesting a blackface skit or a group of African Americans sitting around eating watermelon. We should also avoid such things as Indian Halloween costumes and kids whooping it up with a couple of feathers in a headband. No characterizations. No stereotypes.”
I have been witness to several incidents which only emphasize this. They are the kind of incidents that I personally have discussed, and sometimes preached, about for the last several years. For emphasis, I will mention again that much of the Native Community does not like Boy Scouts participating in Native Culture in general. Examples like these are good indication as to some reasons why that might be.
At a 2003 Section Conclave, a boy wore a warbonnet made of turkey feathers. The warbonnet is reserved for persons of note, usually tribal elders or leaders who are given permission by the tribe, and is only rarely worn in the dance arena by those individuals.
At a 2004 Section Conclave, one dancer wore animal faces on his knees like knee-pads, along with a headdress comprised of a beaver skull, wolf-skin, feather-drops, and deer-antlers.
In 2005, a drum group from Wichita Falls went to a different lodge’s program to teach singing and to sing for the powwow that night. The group of singers was never paid for their effort, but the Council they came from was paid, instead. That, however, is inappropriate as the Council had nothing to do with arranging the singers for and was not related in any way to the event.
Once again at a 2005 Section Conclave, the judges counseled at least three boys who danced in competition without any kind of footwear. At that same event, another boy danced with a ‘crooked staff’.
At a Lodge Powwow, one of the dancers performed an acrobatic move during competition and fell. Normally the back-flip wouldn’t have been an issue, had he been a Fancy Dancer. However, as a Grass Dancer the move was completely improper. In addition to this, the dancer won an award when he would have been disqualified at Section, Region, or National level or at any contest powwow in the Native community.
More recently, boys performing in a Crossover ceremony decided to go their own way with the outfitting. Two of the youth decided they would wear headgear from a summer camp program in Missouri – headbands with feathers sticking up from behind the head, like female dancers wear at powwows today. Yet another of the youth decided he would roll the sleeves of his ribbon shirt up to make it a short-sleeved shirt, which made the outfit look comical.
Another year, Arrowmen ventured out to dance at a local college powwow. They were wearing Grass Dance outfits, but the Arena Director asked them to leave the arena because they were not wearing any kind of footwear, even though I had addressed that issue with one of the boys before the dance began. The major problem with this incident is that elders and other notable members of the community knew without a doubt that the boys were Boy Scouts and had negative comments regarding them. And several of those elders came to me asking why they entered without shoes and held me accountable.
Individually, each of these incidents is isolated and incidental, and certainly not done by the same individuals. Most people wouldn’t understand why any of these could be offensive. And certainly not all of these boys were from the same Lodge, even. But, one tribally-affiliated person who takes offense at one of these incidents is all it would take to cause our Districts, Lodges, BSA, or the Order of the Arrow more trouble than anyone wants. When all these incidents are combined in the eyes of those same people, we are in effect allowing Boy Scouts to ‘pretend to be Indians’, which is viewed by Native Americans as the equivalent of an Anglo actor portraying someone of African descent by wearing black face paint - which is expressly forbidden in BSA Publications. "...No characterizations. No Stereotypes."
We can defend our position of maintaining traditions that are nearly 100 years old, certainly. But, when those traditions are not being practiced properly or appropriately, or worse, in a way as to be offensive to a group of people, then we really are doing an injustice to our own program as well as the Native American community by enforcing stereotypes and worse. And we’re putting our youth in an untenable position that will cause them embarrassment and undue discomfort. One only need visit the chat forums on powwows.com to see how that turns out for a boy asking questions who espouses the "I'm helping save your culture" line of argument.
What’s worse is we are asking our youth, who have little or no experience to train other youth. So, we are forcing the youth of our Lodge to give classes on something they know very little about, which is like asking a High School student to give a Trigonometry class his Freshman year. Though it is possible that once in a while someone out there will be able to flourish in this situation, it is not commonplace. And again, this puts the youth in a position where they may cause themselves embarrassment. This seems counter-productive to what adults in the OA are there for – to help the boys succeed. How can we expect the boys to give instruction on a people or society or culture, when the only experience they have had is the limited training given them (read: 3 hours of instruction during the Lodge Powwow, 3 hours of training at a Section Conclave, 20 minutes of dance demos at 4 Ordeals a year, and possibly 4 hours at various additional training days).
The Native Community truly believes it takes a village to raise a child, which means that all instructors and advisors are responsible for the education and instruction of the youth. Because of that, all Boy Scouts are held to a very high standard when it comes to involvement in the Native Community. We, individually and as an organization, must be accountable when the youth we have not trained properly or given the appropriate opportunities to, make mistakes. Even if the youth must be free to make those mistakes.
This is the fundamental reason we are failing. Non-Indians do not understand the way American Indians think. Our Western society doesn’t teach respect the way Indian cultures do. Western cultures do not have the ‘long memories’ that Native American societies do, and we tend to decide things faster than most Native Societies are willing to.
Because of this, the way we have been teaching the boys is not appropriate – we’re giving them half-truths and not divulging complete information. We expect them to fully grasp concepts that take sometimes years of exposure to begin to grasp. We teach assuming that they already know, and that is obviously not the case. I have been dancing for 35 years and I learn something new at every event or encounter, simply because there are so many cultures represented from all parts of North America. And there is simply no way to know it all. But, if we truly focused on what we teach and how to get the most out of it, I think we'd get something vastly improved out of our Scouts.
And we must be allowed to give them more opportunities to explore this training. At this point, in a given year we offer the Lodge Powwow, Winter Camp, and a few additional training days. The Lodge Powwow is our best training opportunity, but it only offers about three hours of cultural education in the form of dance classes and a couple of hours of craft classes. The Winter Camp training consists of a day of exposure to Native cultures and examples of living quarters. The quarterly training days account for a potential of 4 hours of training, provided the information for these dates actually makes it to the Lodge Membership. Other than this we offer 2 opportunities to dance yearly – one at the Lodge Powwow and one at Winter Camp – and approximately 4 dance demos of 20-30 minutes each after the Lodge Orientation at Ordeals. The Section also offers the opportunity to dance once a year, but the training at the Section Conclave is limited to about 3 hours in the morning just like our Lodge Powwow. If we were fortunate to have a young person available and present at each opportunity, we’ve given them less than 24 hours of cultural exposure or training in a year. Many corporations will not promote employees who do not take more than 24 hours of self-improvement courses in a year.
Beyond these limited opportunities, the Lodge assumes that all training in this venue must occur at the Chapter level. The major issue with that thinking is the vast majority of experience in this venue is not spread evenly across the Lodge. Because of that, the training in the chapters will be relegated to a limited few. If we truly utilized the resources available to us, the Lodge program and the boys who are interested would be better served. Otherwise we are setting them up for failure.
How we can fix this
We could approach the training much like Oak Leaf or SALT training does - a full-day or all weekend event that offers every aspect of what a person should or could expect under normal circumstances at a powwow. We could even offer a course specifically on history and culture and how it relates to our ceremonies. Teach from the bottom up, giving basics in the morning, from the different styles and etiquette and basic outfits. Then teach more advanced classes in the afternoon, such as specific footwork and advanced outfitting, etc. But, this event would not have a dance in the evening as a culmination of the training. It would simply be an educational event where a great deal of dialog can be had and questions can be answered fully.
We could even arrange an event which focuses only on one style of dance, for example, Grass Dance. The event could cover history of the dance, etiquette in and out of the arena, outfitting, dance steps, different songs for Grass Dancers, etc. Then we could have another event for another style, then another event for historical recreations for ceremonies, etc. But each separate event would be specifically designed to teach everything to anyone who is interested in that particular aspect of the culture.
Other Training opportunities for events such as this at Section and higher levels are taught by adults with experience in that field. There are plenty of people in this area, Scouts, non-scouts, native and non-native who would be willing to help out for this.
But, the point is we are not getting the necessary information to those who are interested and we assume that the ones who are interested will go out and discover everything on their own. That doesn't work. If they are interested and we have the means to teach them the right way, we should be doing it. Otherwise all we do is a disservice to the boys and allow them to be embarrassed like this and embarrass our organization through a lack of information and education.
I have been saying this for at least a decade now, and though there was some improvement for a while, there has also been some backsliding. I have often compared what is going on with our Lodge AIA training with High School. Imagine if a teacher the first day of a Freshman year, said, "Here's the book, here's the test, here's your diploma, good luck!" and yet that child was supposed to go out in the world and be expected to know everything there was to know about that subject. It wouldn't work. The child would be resentful of the system, and would fail. As an adult advisor in the OA, and as a Scout leader in general, our job is to help the youth succeed. If we only give them half the information, we aren't helping them succeed, we are only setting them up for failure.
I want to make sure no one makes another etiquette mistake like the ones above, if there is anything I can do to prevent it. Not for my own purposes, but because that is the way I was taught.