This blog is primarily a blog about beauty, so for anyone who chooses to skip this post, no hard feelings. However, today I witnessed something that was definitely not beautiful, and I wanted to take the time to address it.
I have two children who are active members of the Boy Scouts of America, and my elder child today had a banquet recognizing his upward progression from a Bear Cub Scout to a Webelos. This was a pack-wide banquet, so there were many scouts moving from Tiger to Wolf, Wolf to Bear et al. And everything was going just fine. Until we get to time for the Webelos Crossover Ceremony.
The Emcee for the day announced that we’ll be calling the Akela in for the Arrow of Light presentation, and I jokingly turned to my husband and said “Please tell me they are not going to bring in a den leader dressed up as an Indian”. Surely not, right? Right?
Well, sort of. No, instead of us chanting and bringing in our PackMaster or some such other adult from the Pack, no no, we passed the racism on to our newer generation. In walked a solemn teenager, dressed as a Native American, complete with feather headdress, beads, and blue eyes.
Sadly, only my husband’s and my own eyebrows raised.
They went through a little rehearsed presentation of the Webelos being asked a “secret question”, being deemed “worthy”, the Scouts lighting their candle and all the parents of the Scouts coming up to present their arrow. Surely, you’re thinking, the worst of it is over right?
You’d be wrong. We now have four white teenage boys dressed in what appears to be the Party City version of Native American dress (Faces have been obstructed by fuzzy black bars because I’m pretty sure they are under 18, and I don’t have parental consent to show their faces because I have no idea who these kids are).
I’m going to be honest, I have no idea what happened at this point because I was taking my personal upset over all this to the internet. I know the Teenage Chiefs conferred together, showed the Webelos how to walk over a bridge, the Webelos got their new pins from some other Boy Scouts and it ended with the Chiefs squaring off with arms around each others shoulders and chanting something, and walking out of the auditorium to the beat of a drum provided by an old bald white man in his den leader shirt.
Where do I start?
I suppose I should start by addressing the fact that many people might well be going “So, what’s wrong with this”?
A lot, actually.
Firstly we have the blatant cultural appropriation. We have four white boys, dressed not even in an accurate representation of time-period Native clothes, but in home-ec beaded vests and shirts and pants that bear a very strong resemblance to Native American costumes that you would find on ebay. Or that your great aunt made for you out of sheets and pillow cases as a costume for a Thanksgiving play. And what is wrong with some kids dressed up as “Indians”, some might ask. Why is that cultural appropriation?
Lets consider what most of the kids in this audience know about Native American culture. I asked my sons if they knew what a reservation was. Nope. I asked my sons what the Chief’s job is. I got a parroted reply that they were the ones who protected the people. I asked them if they knew who the Great Spirit was or what a Spirit Animal was. Only one knew that the Great Spirit was God. Worst of all, when asked about land and the fighting amongst settlers and Natives, my oldest thought that “both sides won”.
Now, my sons are in lower grade school. Most of the children there were under Fourth Grade. I’m willing to put money down that less than 5 children there could have explained the Trail of Tears to me, none of them could have explained the intricacies of a chiefs’ job nor of the religious beliefs among ONE tribe, let alone the subtle or major differences of religion amongst all the American Tribes. I would wager than none of them could have listed more than 5 nations of Natives, or the languages they spoke. Most of the children present learned much of their knowledge of Native culture by watching Disney’s version of Pocahontas.
Why is this important? Well, have you ever had something that was yours culturally, and had it twisted and turned into something that basically becomes a joke? How often do Irish-Americans have to endure the “Kiss me I’m Irish” “Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day” scenario? How many Americans think St Patrick’s Day is just an excuse to drink themselves into oblivion. How often do Catholics have to try to educate people that Mardi Gras is not about topless co-eds in the French Quarter, but the marking of the last day before the preparation of getting spiritually ready for the coming of Christ at the Easter celebration?
The problem with all of those scenarios is that an entire population’s culture gets lost into a homogenized celebration of something that has only the barest trace of the original meaning.
How many Cub Scouts even know why Native Ceremonial war bonnets were worn? Or even that war bonnets were almost solely exclusive to a minority of tribes, a handful of tribes at best. The problem is that the entire cultural identity of an entire population of peoples becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold at any generic party supply store as a costume, when that costume is something that means something to another person. A headdress becomes something that gets thrown into the back of a closet and crushed after it was used, rather than revered as a piece of heritage that deserves to be respected. If most of us wouldn’t even consider going out in blackface, how is it appropriate to dress up and “play Indian” for a Cub Scouts ceremony. There were plenty of ways that the bridge could have been crossed, without bringing in fake Natives.
Considering that fact that we live a very short distance from an actual Native Reservation an opportunity was missed to bridge the gap and teach our children about the actual way of Native life. A trip to the reservation, or a possible partnership WITH the reservation where some of the Tribe worked with our leaders could have taught our children so much more, and made a far more meaningful ceremony if we had invited them into it.
Sadly, our pack and many other packs from the looks of my google search, choose to simply use a racially insensitive farce for a ceremony, instead of opting to educate our younger generation more fully.
I, for one, am disgusted by the everyday racism, and believe me when I tell you I will be monitoring further activities much more closely. I’m unsure if this means the end of Scouting for my family, but I do know for damn sure it means I’ll be taking a more proactive role in education my own children about the history of a people that likes to get swept under a rug. And for the Masters of Ceremony of our den, shame on y’all, you should know better.