Monday, July 31, 2017

No Shirts, No Shoes? No ceremony.

“By show of hands has anyone ever heard the phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’?”
“Are there any of you younger folks in this room who know what that phrase means?”

This is how I have begun many a class, teaching about Native Culture to young people in schools, scouts, civic organizations, and other groups.

According to Wikipedia: ‘A child has the best ability to become a healthy adult if the entire community takes an active role in contributing to the rearing of the child’.

I am here to inform you we are *all* ‘children’ when it comes to Native American culture. Please don’t take offense when I say this - it is simply to indicate there is literally, figuratively, and actually too much information on the nearly 1000 tribes in North America to be able to ‘know it all’. Although people I look up to in the Indian Community think of me as an ‘expert’, and despite how much I have learned over the past 36 years, I am still just a child when it comes to what I know of the entirety of Native Culture.

Let me lead off with an example of how a lack of knowledge can be harmful. A number of years ago, my family and I went to a local powwow – a dance at a local college. I had been there for several hours when I noticed some young men come in with a friend I knew from Scouts. I thought nothing of this, because it wasn’t out of the norm – many of our local dances and events not only welcome, but encourage scout involvement. But as we were gathering for Grand Entry, I noticed two of these boys, now in dance clothes, were not wearing shoes – only socks. I cautioned both of them to put on shoes, even if they were only sneakers – and I felt that the warning should have been enough. Right after the Grand Entry set was done, this little old lady whose name I didn’t know at the time came up to me, picking at my scarf. She said “you should take care of your boys”. I said, “ma’am, I have three daughters and no boys.” She said, “You’re a Boy Scout Leader, and those boys are Boy Scouts. They are your boys. And they aren’t wearing shoes.”

As a respectful person, I said, “yes, ma’am. I’ll take care of it”. So, I went to advise the boys. When confronted, they chose to take off their outfits instead of wearing shoes with the outfits. And, like is typically done in Indian Communities across the US, I paid for their mistake. I put money on the drum and made a contribution to the host organization. That was mazaska out of my pocket for boys I did not know. Because in the Indian Community, all Boy Scouts are ‘My Boys’.

One of the boys, took the lesson seriously. He has gone on to sing on various southern drums across the country. He’s welcome wherever he goes, now. And he understands that respect is not a once-in-a-while thing. It’s constant and on-going.

Here’s the truly shameful part, though. One of the boys, I have never seen again. Not at any scout function, not at any Indian function. We failed a boy that weekend. That is a fact I am ashamed of to this day.

How can we prevent this? We need to all spread the word. We all need to understand we are each of us equally responsible for the respect we are trying to portray, the traditions we are taking part of, and the outfits that have been made for us to use.

We all have to realize that our Scout ceremonies, the Pre-Ordeal, Ordeal, Brotherhood, Vigil, and all Call-outs and Arrow of Lights that we perform, are intended to be ‘historical re-enactments’ of a ceremony that was developed a long time ago. Much like a play, we can have some artistic license – the types of clothing we wear based on the tribe we attempt to represent, the time period we are attempting to represent, the number of people involved, and more. But, we need to understand some basics before we take complete license with the outfits.

Contrarily, the Lakota have specific outfits (with variations in decoration) for each of their sacred ceremonies, including but not limited to Sweat lodge, Vision Quests, Puberty, and Sun Dance. Yes, there are some of these ceremonies where a man may be shirtless, but these ceremonies are individual and not to impress others.

Our ceremonies need to impress the audience, and especially the candidates. And, although some of you boys may be perfect physical specimens, your being shirtless does not awe the observer, and may quite frankly make some uncomfortable. So, we need to take a cue from the various Tribal Delegation photos that were taken from the early 1800s into the early 1900s. The people who were meeting the President or Congressmen wanted to impress them, so they wore their finest outfits, replete with beadwork, quillwork, feathered headdresses and more.


So, let’s cover the rules set forth by the Order of the Arrow. This may be interesting to note for some of our Native friends as well. Among others, the rules are:
  • All ceremonialists must wear American Indian style dress and their current Order of the arrow sash, all principals should be of the same tribe, nation, or other historic group to blend with each other.
  • The use of face paint, endangered animal parts, wigs, or any type of U.S. flag are prohibited (see chapter 4, section conclave). Any display of disrespect, carelessness and/or gross inappropriateness for American Indian customs may be cause for disqualification of the team.
  • Appropriate undergarments shall be worn under outfits. Each participant must wear shorts for modesty. For safety reasons appropriate footwear should be worn.
  • The Boy Scouts of America policy regarding firearms and knives as stated in the Guide to Safe Scouting will be followed.
Safety Thoughts
  • Physical safety (keep all hands and feet inside the car at all times)
  • Footwear – at all times, even if they are workboots!
  • Fully clothed – at all times (that includes socks, undergarments, etc.!)
  • Fire safety – think ahead, don’t get burned
Youth Protection - barriers to abuse
  • The Guide to Safe Scouting page 1 (
  • Social Media – all photos will show up on social media somewhere
No shirt, no shoes? No ceremony
  • if complete outfits are not available, it may be time to reconsider having the ceremony or choose to wear complete Scout uniforms instead.


Now, here’s a reminder of what the Order’s Founder, E. Urner Goodman said on the subject:

“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


Native Americans are modest people, many men wear long sleeves at all times. Women at southern powwows wrap themselves in shawls in the arena and do not wear shorts or tanktops. If you wouldn’t wear something to church or your grandmother’s house because it could offend someone, don’t wear it to a Native American powwow or gathering. Do not add fur trim or store-bought fringe to anything without first researching whether or not it is appropriate to the item and/or outfit. And if an item of clothing looks like pajamas or hospital scrubs, it is pajamas – not a historically correct item. Southwest style patterns are right out prior to 1940, unless you are wearing a Navaho traditional dress or something similar. Big bold floral prints are great for Straight dancers today, but those probably weren’t invented until the 1930s or later. And keep in mind that certain colors were not invented until the 20th century, and shouldn’t be used in historical contexts – I’m talking to you pink and purple!

Remember Modesty first
  • Shawls - Ladies should not enter the arena in shorts or short skirts without wearing a shawl or blanket around themselves
  • Northern traditional dancers wear shorts and tall socks to cover most of their legs when dancing
  • No toes visible, no sandals, no bare feet
  • No tank tops, sports bras, bare torsos


Our ceremonies are native-American-flavored historical reenactments or dramatic retellings of the original ceremonies created 100 years ago – otherwise known as plays - and the actors playing a role as a chief, medicine man, guard, and guide to better tell that story. I know that in the documentation, our ceremonies are that, and the persons playing a role in the ceremony are not simply actors, but the embodiment of the ideals of Scouting and Native Culture. However, as actors in a play, they should wear headgear and outfits appropriate to the role they are portraying. We do no one any honor by wearing the outfit improperly. Are you doing honor to the Scouting program or to the uniform if you are not wearing it properly? Do you set a good example with the shirt on backward and the patches in the wrong place or upside down? Who are you honoring if you aren’t wearing Native American outfits right?
  • The OA/BSA ceremonies are not related in any way to native American ceremonies.
  • They are much like stage productions, or plays.
  • To be taken seriously, stage productions need to be historically accurate. An actor portraying Abe Lincoln, Julius Caesar, or Nelson Mandela would not wear cut-off shorts and combat boots. So, too, an actor would not portray Chief Joseph of Tecumseh or Red Cloud wearing clown costumes or togas.
  • Investing – to be taken seriously, maybe an investing should be done before each ceremony.

Outfits from the ground up

I was taught to get dressed from the feet up, so we’ll start with the feet.

Footwear - Do not perform in any ceremony or dance without shoes of some kind on. Plains-style hard-sole Moccasins would be ideal for both ceremonies and dance. But, even hiking boots, though not preferred, are better than nothing. Safety and Religious contexts are both equally vital to the explanation. We don’t want you to get injured, so wear shoes. From a spirituality context, many Native Americans believe the only persons ‘authorized’ to be shoeless in public dances or events, are those who have gone through the Sun Dance. This is a very spiritual ceremony, and because a Scout is Reverent, we should respect this tradition by wearing shoes, water socks, or moccasins of some variety.

Leggings – for any OA or Scout ceremony, from an Arrow of Light celebration to Vigil, the participant performing a role should have pants or leggings on. In dance context, the variety of leg coverings differs based on the style of dance. Follow the established outfit style and you will be fine.

Aprons – Historically, breechcloths, or breechclouts, were worn, before the incorporation of pants and undergarments. But, by today’s standards, breechcloths are not necessary, when an apron will do. These need to be appropriate to the historic tribal outfit or dance style, decorated appropriately, and should avoid stereotype an unauthentic pitfalls
Undergarments – seriously, no one wants to see your backside. Wear shorts and t-shirts under everything. Be Prepared and bring them with you. Do not perform ceremonies or dance without a shirt. From a Youth Protection standpoint, this is common sense. From a safety standpoint this is fairly sensible.

Belt – everyone needs to hold their pants up – this includes leggings, aprons, belt pouches, sheaths, and more. A belt on top of the rest is decorative, but can carry belt pouches and decorative sheaths. I wouldn’t use a beaded or concho belt for holding up your leggings or aprons, though.

Decorative items like breastplates or bandoliers – once again, the tribe and time period, or dance style will determine whether these are worn. I was taught Northern Traditional dancers wear one bandolier that hangs from the left shoulder, and crosses the body to the right hip. Today, Southern Traditional dancers wear two bandoliers that cross the body. Does a straight dancer wear a breastplate and German silver pectoral plate? Sometimes. Does a ceremonialist wear that same outfit? Possibly – depending on the tribal influences for the outfit. Research is key, here.

Neckwear – this could be some form of choker, neckerchiefs, beaded amulets or medallions, German silver slides, breastplates, loop-necklaces, or other combinations or variations. Be careful, there are tribal influences here that can be problematic. For example, the Kiowa do not believe in wearing a bearclaw necklace, but other tribes use it as a sign of accomplishments.

Headdresses – this is important – not every Indian wears a feather bonnet! In fact, very few historically or currently, actually wear these headdresses. Usually, each feather represents some accomplishment or deed that helped the tribe, clan, family, etc. in some way. In modern dance, the roach is the most common item worn, and is fairly accurate for more ceremonial roles, depending on the tribe and time period again – a 21” roach isn’t appropriate for the Comanche or Huron from the early 1800s, but it is definitely appropriate for most dance styles today. Among most southern tribes, the use of an otter turban is relegated to tribal or organization leaders, but others wore them as trophies taken from enemies. And for the love of all that is crunchy and salty, not every ‘Medicine Man’ wore buffalo horn headdresses! Please research this subject. There are many different headdresses throughout North America – from Oneida gustowehs to Haida frontlets.
I could go on ad nauseum about this, but will leave with this one last thought – a Scout is Courteous, Kind, and Reverent (among other points). If at any point you think someone could take offense with something you are doing, you definitely need to rethink what you are doing. If it feels wrong, it very well could be.
  • “Both feathers and face paint have purpose and often spiritual significance depending on tribal protocol and individual interpretation. In Native cultures, both feathers and face paint are earned through actions and deeds that bring honor to both tribes and nations.” — Dennis Zotigh, Cultural Specialist, NMAI
  • Symbol of leadership and sacrifice – analogous of purple heart or nobel peace prize
  • Plains tribes use eagle feathers, anything less than a representation of that is insulting – rooster, turkey, parrot feathers
  • Colors should be traditional, not contemporary – red, white, yellow, black, blue vs. orange, pink, green, purple
  • Proper placement – Browbands are called that because they sit on your brow, not your bangs
Facepaint or makeup – there are reasons that Native Americans wore facepaint. From the earliest days of red ochre, which coined the term that begat the name for the football team in Washington DC, to the death masks of the plains tribes, to the paint worn in coming-of-age ceremonies across the US, each iteration of paint on faces meant something, and likely still does. The Order of the Arrow has more than suggested that facepaint is not allowed above the Lodge level – it is not part of the traditions of the OA, in fact. But, each lodge, with permission of local tribes can use facepaint where appropriate. The problem is this – it isn’t appropriate any longer, especially without historical context or proven research. Facepaint was used in warfare as often as not, but not for meetings among tribe leaders. It was used to distinguish one warrior among others on the battlefield, but not to hide the face in personal settings. It was used to denote accomplishments in some tribes, and also, it was worn on a daily basis in some tribes until a certain point in time, at least. But, for our ceremony purposes, facepaint obscures the face as much as a mask does, and masks are forbidden. Communication is as much visual as it is oral, so hiding the face or obscuring it takes away from the ability of the observer to fully understand those visual cues. Facepaint, when done properly, can make a dancer look amazing and intimidating, but our ceremonies are not meant to be scary, intimidating, or obfuscating. And the use of emblems and logos and inaccurate historical or tribal designs, just offends people, no matter how respectful you intend to be.

“Oh! That’s cool!”
No! But, also yes, sometimes...
  • Unless the historical accuracy of the item is the reason you believe it is ‘cool’, do not go down this path for ceremonies outfits
  • For dance outfits, we Boy Scouts are not innovators, we are participators. Do not innovate or create new items for dance outfits until you have seen many examples of that item already
  • Research, research, research – do not just assume you are correct, just because your lodge, chapter, or group has ‘always done it that way’. Many traditions have begun out of ignorance and have continued because of a lack of research.

Fine Lines
  • “We’re borrowing a culture. We either borrow it correctly or we don’t borrow it at all.” – Pat Collins, Vigil Honor, Colonneh Lodge
  • "We grow up romanticizing native culture, native art, native history ... without knowing native reality," - Shailene Woodley, star of “Divergent”
  • “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” - Maya Angelou
  • “When people of one culture meet those of another, it helps if both know what behavior is acceptable, which words will smooth communication and which should be avoided.” - Suzanne Walson, “Sharing a Heritage,” Scouting, Nov-Dec 1997
  • “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” – St. Ambrose

“No shirt, no shoes? No ceremony.” is the mantra I developed as a reminder to our youth that if you don't have an appropriate shirt or shoes to wear, we shouldn't be doing the ceremony. This extends to other pieces as well, and certainly includes the whole fire safety, be prepared, and so on. But, it’s sinking in. It’s been a few years since I last saw a ceremony performed by shirtless or legging-less boys. And even the most stalwart survivalist among our youth, who has the toughest feet, has conceded hiking boots are better for ceremonies use than wearing nothing on the feet.