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LETTER: Boy Scouts on campus demonstrate insensitivity to Native American traditions

August 5, 2015

Anyone on campus this week knows the Boy Scouts of America seem to have invaded nearly every corner of MSU. The Breslin Center is home to the centennial celebration National Order of the Arrow (OA) Conference, a massive gathering of about 15,000 scouts selected for the organization’s top honor society. The scouts attending this event were secretly nominated by troop leadership and inducted because they “best exemplify the Scout Oath and Law in their daily lives.” The organization professes to provide “quality leadership development and programming that enrich and help to extend Scouting to America’s youth,” indicating the OA’s high-visibility model of community involvement and service. 

High visibility is precisely what seems to be going on at the corner of Shaw Lane and Harrison Road, where two huge teepees stand next to a 15-foot inflatable Boy Scout gesturing the Scout’s honor sign of three fingers pointed to the sky. You might have seen a hot air balloon decorated with the stylized image of an American Indian’s face in profile gracing the campus grounds. But what do Native Americans have to do with Boy Scouts? The answer is —nothing — except that the Order of the Arrow has used American Indian “styled” images and attire in its events and ceremonies for 100 years.

As a member of the OA, I participated in the secret (or as the organization calls it, “safeguarded”) ceremony of induction. The process involved a silent processional through the woods led by a white troop leader wearing a feather headdress that draped to the ground. He was followed by another white leader steadily beating a “native” drum. Torches lit the way to a clearing in the middle of the woods where ceremony leaders wore fanciful colored masks, antlers, animal pelts and more headdresses. Before a roaring bonfire, nonsense “native” language was uttered and prayers chanted. Then, the candidate scouts were forbidden to speak for the next 24 hours and sent away to sleep the night alone without shelter on the forest floor. As an honored scout, I performed the ceremony dutifully and fearlessly. Although I never advanced the ranks high enough to get to wear a headdress, I proudly sported my white sash embroidered with a red “Indian” arrow at all scout events.

It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate student at Central Michigan University that the problem of appropriating Native American traditions for a white audience became clear to me. While at CMU, I applied for a student grant to fund a project to collect Ojibwe music and compose it into a work for choir, piano and drum. The project was funded by university trustees and performed for an audience of white spectators who hailed it with a standing ovation. When I posted the recording online and actual Native American people heard it, I received a very different reaction. One commenter said frankly, “Our [traditions] hold power. Ours, not yours. You saying this is ‘honoring’ and ‘reconciliation’ is about as sincere as a Pocahontas costume on Halloween.”

At first I was hurt and confused by this reaction. Like my OA brothers who taught me about “native” traditions, I believed I was honoring the “red man” by using his traditions in a context palatable to an audience of my peers. I had been enchanted by a romantic notion of aboriginal cultures that made it seem magical and exotic. But this notion of spirituality and mystery is not representative of how native cultures actually operate — and more importantly, it discards the right of those cultures to control who interacts with their traditions and how, when and where those interactions happen.

For years, the OA’s official logo was a stylized image of a generic “native” face with a swirling headdress. Their logo has since changed to a rough-hewn arrowhead, and although it is better than a dehumanizing image a la CMU’s old “Chippewa” logo or the current Washington Redskins logo, it is still a symbol deliberately and shamelessly appropriated from a stylized stereotype of Native American artifacts. The OA website, as of today, features a prominent image of the “original chief bonnet,” a feather headdress on a young white man’s head. There is nothing “original” about this “bonnet.” It is a symbol stolen from a culture that has absolutely nothing to do with the British tradition of Boy Scouts. Although the Boy Scouts have made some very recent advances toward being more socially aware — just last week the national restriction on openly gay leaders was lifted — their honor society remains guilty of flagrant cultural appropriation and borderline racism.

I am deeply saddened to see that MSU agreed to host the national OA conference, and especially that such public displays of cultural insensitivity are going unreprimanded. At a public university where diversity is celebrated and racism shunned, I expected an organization like the OA would have been denied access to our campus. 

I urge anyone in contact with University Conference Services to talk about these issues with those responsible for booking the event. Our university resources and land should not be used this way, nor our students exposed to this kind of public racism.

Phillip Rice is a doctoral student at MSU and member of the Order of the Arrow.

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