Trigger Warnings: Racism, Cultural Appropriation, Homophobia, Boy Scouts
Few of my friends in life and in Freethinkers know that I have a second name. It was given to me in 2011 by some of my closest and dearest friends at the time. It is:
When I was given it, I was told it translated as Cheerful Piper, in reference to my relentless cheer and the fact that I play bagpipes (never mind that “Piper” would have referred to the bird, not the musician).
I cannot wear this name with pride, because it was stolen. Had I been given this name by a local Native American tribe, it would be one of the few events in my life of which I am very proud. Instead, this was given to me by a bunch of white, middle-aged men and the youth they led in the Boy Scouts of America. This racist tradition is part of the Order of the Arrow, the BSA’s “honor” society (quotes are mine, to mock the idea that the O.A. is honorable).
I sincerely hope that this racism doesn’t surprise you and does offend you. I hope that it doesn’t surprise you because I like to imagine that most of this country already knows what I am about to say. However, I suspect that is not the case, hence the impetus for this post.
To give a bit of background: the O.A. operates in many ways like a fraternity, particularly with regards to induction rituals (minus any institutionalized hazing). These induction rituals are performed by boys in Native American costumes, which are in almost every case historically inaccurate (to put it mildly). The claim, both implicitly and explicitly is that these inductions take their origin from Native American traditions.
Ironically enough, one of the things a ceremonialist is instructed to do is research how to be respectful of Native Americans’ cultures. One of the blogs I stumbled across in that research is Native Appropriations. And the more I read, the more unsettled I was, until I eventually quit the BSA entirely (this racism was a major factor, as was the LGBTQ-phobia, sexism, and religious discrimination).
I’ve been thinking for half a year about how I would deconstruct everything the O.A. does to whitewash Native Americans. Honestly, it’s overwhelming. What I can do right now is give you three things that illustrate how the O.A. is racist:
1) The induction involves several vision quests, followed by a naming ceremony, where a name is appropriated from a native language. This name is sometimes taken from a local language, but is frequently taken from Lenni-Lenape, regardless of the geographical location of the induction.
2) The induction requires (mostly) white boys to dress up in Native American costumes. These costumes almost always involve the boy wearing a double- or single-trailer headdress or warbonnet and looking like either a cigar-store statue or Hollywood caricature. The costumes are mostly a “ceremony culture” thing (rather than mandated by the instructions), because boys think that dressing as a stereotype looks “cooler.”
3) Almost everything said in the ceremony plays into the idea that Native Americans have a mystical and magical connection to the earth, an idea Hollywood loves to perpetuate, and a gross misrepresentation of actual Native American religious traditions.
I’ve tried pointing some of these things out to several leaders of the local O.A. organization. When these people bother acknowledging my concerns, they give two defenses of this racism. The first is that there are some people working to change “ceremony culture” to be more historically accurate and more appropriately represent Native American culture. The second one is that there is an organization called the American Indian Scouting Association (ASIA) that supposedly reviews and approves of the ceremonies. However, I have yet to find any evidence that this is true.
The problem with these arguments is that the core of the induction and traditions of the O.A. are built and maintained by racist traditions. Changing things to be “more sensitive” is a way of deflecting criticism without doing any work to actually expunge the racism. Additionally, with the deference to AISA, members can avoid thinking about the issue for themselves and provide a justification that their appropriation is acceptable. I don’t know about you, but this sounds very much like something an ex-friend of mine once said: “I’m not racist because my best friend is black.”
Most media attention given to the BSA today focuses on homophobia. However, the problems with the BSA don’t stem from just one misguided view. There are several unacceptable policies that the BSA has that are a result of the privileged nature of its members (being almost exclusively white, christian, of middle and upper class, and cisgender males).
What is bothersome about the focus on the homophobia is that it paints not just an incomplete, but ignorant view of the BSA’s problematic policies. Homophobia in the BSA is not something that needs my voice. But the racist, sexist, LBTQ-phobic, and christian-focused policies and culture of the BSA doesn’t have much of an opposition. I’m merely in a position to be able to argue in detail about the BSA’s cultural appropriations of Native Americans.
The thing that makes this racism so dangerous is the same thing that makes the OA so appealing: the mystery. In order to make the OA a more attractive organization, the induction process is shrouded in mystery (even though it is not technically a secret). I hope in this post and future posts to be able to turn the spotlight on these issues and cut through the shroud of mystery.
And, if you are a Scout reading this post, I ask you: Do you want to be a part of an organization that cannot be trusted to treat each person equally, who isn’t loyal enough to their own oath and law to correct their privilege, who isn’t a friend to those marginalized by oppression, who doesn’t have the courtesy to respect their traditions, who isn’t brave enough to challenge their own preconceptions, and isn’t reverent of everyone’s religious beliefs?