'They know it's wrong.' Some call on Scouts to change use of Native American culture

©The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A lot of videos posted from personal accounts over the years depict the “Dance of Joy” celebration at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation in Osceola, Mo.

Shirtless boys holding feathers move in circles around a large fire while singing in a 2011 video. Older men stand in the middle, wearing headdresses and Native American regalia as part of a Boy Scout tradition.

Camps in Missouri and across the country like Bartle bring in thousands of scouts each year to participate in honor programs like the Tribe of Mic-O-Say and Order of the Arrow, which also base some of their traditions in Native American culture.

But while professional sports teams in cities such as Washington, Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City have been pushed over the years to change their mascots, names and traditions, criticism of the Boy Scouts hasn’t led to any widespread movement calling for change.

Members of the Boy Scout community have long said the ceremonies and regalia honor Native American culture, even though indigenous people have spoken out against it in the past.

“The Heart of America Council cherishes the rich traditions and culture of American Indian nations, and we encourage our youth, adult volunteers and staff to continually learn from, honor and respect others’ heritage and culture,” the Heart of America Council’s CEO Brick Huffman wrote to The Star.

“Mic-O-Say is a leadership program that helps young men and young women from all backgrounds to further develop the values found in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. The Mic-O-Say program continues to evolve with input from the American Indian community.”

It’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole of videos depicting young Scouts dressed in Native American regalia and performing different “ceremonies,” said Vincent Schilling, a Native American journalist, who wrote a six-part series in 2019 for Indian Country Today on the subject. When his articles were published, many of his Native friends told him they hadn’t known about the ceremonies that go on within the Scouts. Many were appalled, Schilling said.

“This is in some ways a secret Scout society that is a little more under the radar than a national football team,” Schilling said.

He said he reached out to leaders in Boy Scout organizations across the country repeatedly through websites, email, phone and social media for comment but never heard back.

If they wanted to appreciate Native American culture, Schilling said, Scout troops would bring Native leaders in to explain traditions, culture and history, and they’d be more open to criticism from the Native American community.

“They know it’s wrong, a million percent they know it’s wrong,” Schilling said. “There could not be that many people who just simply wouldn’t respond.”

Marisa Miakonda Cummings said she also never heard back when she reached out to Scout leaders and gained over 1,300 signatures in the past year on a Change.org petition she created demanding change in the organization. Miakonda Cummings, who is part of the Omaha tribe, didn’t want her children participating in scouting because of the stereotyping behavior she heard about.

She knew about “Boy Scout powwows” for years, but didn’t know the extent of the appropriation until her partner showed her a video of one of the gatherings. Miakonda Cummings watched as one Scout leader referred to himself as a shaman, other kids talked about “tom tom beaters” and in general she found people “mocking” her culture.

People who responded to the petition told Miakonda Cummings they had tried to change their local Boy Scout troops from within or were approached to teach troops about their culture without mentioning its appropriation.

BSA, the national organization that represents Boy Scouts, released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in June following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The organization also announced a new diversity and inclusion merit badge that would be required of all members attempting to become Eagle Scouts.

The organization is still developing the badge but said in a statement that it will “build on components within existing merit badges” such as the American Cultures and Citizenship in the Community badge, which requires scouts “to learn about and engage with other groups and cultures to increase understanding and spur positive action.”

Despite these announced efforts, Miakonda Cummings doubts the organization will address its issues with Native Americans because it still views its practices as positive.

While Native Americans were forced to assimilate and Christianize, Miakonda Cummings said Scout troops and sports teams took what they wanted from Indigenous culture because they wanted to “play Indian.” Some of those young kids go on to lead companies or run for political office, Miakonda Cummings said.

“When you look at the harm, the historical trauma this has caused Native people and then you look at an organization that has members of Congress and presidents and these very prestigious leaders that have gone through this organization,” she said, “and they are being taught nonsense about Native people. Their idea of Native people is stereotypical and caricature, and those are people that are making policy decisions about Native people when they get to these high-ranking places.”

Robert Prue, a professor of social work at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said his scouting experiences years ago didn’t involve Native American traditions, but when he moved to Kansas City he learned more about Mic-O-Say and its various traditions.

Digging through web pages, Prue said he found information saying Bartle had been “inducted” into a tribe, but that didn’t seem right. No one is inducted into a tribe, Prue said. It’s simply that people may make relationships with others and welcome them into their family.

Scout history sites say that Bartle had met with Chief Lone Bear from the Arapaho tribe and was allowed to assume his name before he moved from Wyoming to Missouri. There, he created the Tribe of Mic-O-Say and later another scouting “reservation” that bears his name today.

Prue doubts some of Bartle’s story, but even if true he said there still isn’t an excuse for the Scouts’ portrayal and teaching of Native American culture and traditions. The Boy Scouts’ use of Native American cultural symbols and names, Prue said, often rests on the legitimacy of one person who they say gave permission to Bartle years ago, but that doesn’t mean the Arapaho and other tribes approve of it as a whole or didn’t change their views over time.

Jimmy Beason, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence who researched appropriation in scouting, said scouting appropriated Native American practices and “romanticized” their way of life. Because Native American people were more focused on survival and also didn’t have the same technology people do today, they likely hadn’t spoken out against the practices, allowing them to spread and continue.

While the Scouts say they consult with Native American people and honor them, Beason said the organization has never been transparent about what tribes or people they’re speaking with and get defensive when questioned.

“That’s part of the issue,” Beason said. “They’ve been doing it for so long without any push back that they don’t really want to stop.”

Americans like to relive parts of the past through historical reenactments, Prue said, but those events don’t involve appropriating another group’s culture. And while strong movements have come out in support of Black people and companies have begun removing racist symbols and branding from their products, he said it feels clear that for many people it’s still acceptable to treat Native people differently.

“It’s deeply rooted in the kind of, I would say, ownership beliefs that the United States holds about American Indians,” he said. “That we’re their Indians, that we’re not our own people.”

‘We don’t need to be honored’

Studies have shown that Native American mascots and other forms of appropriation lead to lower self and community worth and higher rates of depression among Native American people, as well as negative stereotypes among non-Native people.

Winonah Bibens Trahan, 14, understands that experience. She’s made it her Girl Scout Silver Award project to get the organization to rename Tomahawk Ranch, a camp her Colorado troop attends where she said cabins also bear names such as Navajo and Tom Tom. Her mother once pulled her out of a craft where the Scouts made dream catchers out of fake chicken feathers.

If she tried to talk with leaders about the way her culture was being portrayed, Winonah said they dismissed her, saying the names and crafts honored Native American culture. Winonah said Native American people don’t need anyone to “keep their culture alive” because it was never dead.

“We don’t need to be honored,” she said. “If you want to give us our reparations that would be great, but honoring is just an excuse to steal.”

Her mother Angela Bibens said she doesn’t let her sons join Boy Scouts, even though they want to go camping and learn about scouting, because of the appropriation that continues in troops and at camps.

When they wear costumes and take on these traditions, Prue said the Scouts aren’t discussing Native American genocide and assimilation. They likely don’t talk about the forced removal of the Osage Indians from Kansas City, even though schools, roads and towns are named after Native American tribes and leaders, he said.

If the Scouts truly want to create strong leaders who respect everyone, he said, they need to make a change.

“We want young American boys to live up to everything the Scout motto says they should, but is it doing it when you’re taking somebody else’s culture and you’re not hearing feedback that maybe it’s not appropriate?” he said. “Exactly how Boy Scout are you being?”


©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)