My boys have been enrolled in Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts for the past few years. Until recently, it has been a good experience for them. They’ve made good friends and learned some valuable life skills.
As I was preparing to send my oldest son to summer camp, I became aware of the OA (Order of the Arrow). The OA is the National Honor Society of the Boy Scouts. The society was founded in 1915 by E. Urner Goodman and Carol A. Edson; it was created to recognize outstanding scouts and reinforce the scout oath and scout law.
One of the adults who is actively involved in our troop described the OA “tapping out” ceremony to me. Imagine my surprise when he said there will be “Indians on canoes”. I asked him which tribe was involved, and he replied that the boys dress up like Indians for the OA ceremony. And so it began… I wrote him a heartfelt letter explaining why cultural appropriation is wrong. I communicated to him that wearing redface isn’t ok. I included a mini history lesson, shared some personal experiences, and touched on US policy dealing with Indigenous people. I even admitted to him that I myself, a multi-racial person, haven’t always been aware of cultural appropriation and its harmful effects. He did not directly address my concerns, but responded by saying there are tough requirements to even be nominated for OA, and scouters take it quite seriously. “It is not something they just do for fun.” He also stated that he believes they “use our Native Americans as role models”. He asked me to check out the OA because he knows the sincerity and quality of the scouts and scouters who participate.
So I did what he asked me to. The Order of the Arrow has been around for 99 years. According to what I read online, Edson and Goodman, the founders of OA, researched the language and traditions of the Lenni Lennape people. They wanted to include “Indian lore” in the OA to make the organization more appealing to the youth. This was during a time when our loved ones and ancestors were being taken from their families, assimilated, and “civilized”. This was during a time when native people were considered less than human.While native children in residential schools had their culture and language beaten from them, the Boy Scouts were using the language and their version of “Indian culture” in their OA ceremony. In fact, it wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom act was passed. That means non-Native members of the BSA were conducting their “Indian” ceremonies when Indigenous people in the United States didn’t even have the freedom of religion and culture that other people in the United States enjoyed.
As I searched google images of the OA and watched YouTube videos of the OA ceremonies, I became even more uncomfortable. In fact, I feel the OA ceremony is downright offensive. At the Wahissa lodge OA, they don headdresses, face paint, sit and sing around a big drum, and dance with a pipe. At other OA ceremonies, they mix West Coast native art and plains style headdresses. Ironically, some of these “Indian” ceremonies are held in churches and priests are involved. It appears there is ongoing use of the big drum, hand drum, pipe, “eagle feather”, and headdress within the OA. Use of these items by Boy Scouts indicates that there is very little understanding of the Native people they claim to admire and respect.
I have been told that if we are not using these sacred objects as they are intended, we aren’t walking the walk. Along with carrying and using these items, comes a great deal of responsibility. Not just anyone should have them. I want my children to know the truth that is the Drum, Pipe, and Eagle Feather. I want them to understand that traditional ways are not a costume or boy scout initiation. They are alive, they are sacred. An Elder often reminds me that before we were born, we all had something in common. We listened to the heart beat for nine months. We didn’t know how to speak, think, or see. I believe that drum is the heartbeat that is alive in all of us. I believe it is to be loved and respected.
There is nothing honorable about an honor society appropriating culture. I respectfully ask the Boy Scouts of America to acknowledge that it’s time to stop the cultural appropriation occurring within the organization. It’s time to stop spreading ignorance to our children. Why not modify the Order of the Arrow lodges and ceremonies so they will be conducted in an authentic respectful manner? Why not create some new traditions and ceremonies that are original and belong to solely to you? I know this would require a lot of changes for the OA, but I believe that if you want to teach values, good citizenship, authenticity, and respect, it’s time for awareness and change. There are people within the Native community who would be willing to work with you to foster a sense of understanding, respect, and cultural awareness.