It’s an honor. Respect. Appreciation. Tradition. You just don’t understand. So go the familiar excuses made for appropriating culture to the objecting group.
The Boy Scouts are a prime ongoing example of this phenomenon, but perhaps reevaluation will lead to change. In mid-December, the “Koshare Dancers,” a so-called interpretive dance group from Boy Scout Troop 232, located in La Junta, Colorado, cancelled their Winter Dances at the request of the Hopi Nation Cultural Preservation Office. Whether this is permanent remains to be seen.
Since the 1930s, the Koshare Dancers of Boy Scout Troup 232 have been performing their version of Hopi, Lakota, Kiowa, Ojibwe, Blackfoot, Diné and Comanche religious ceremonies. Originally begun by James “Buck” Burshears as the “Boy Scout Indian Club,” mimicking Native American cultures became a core theme of Troup 232.
New members are called “Papooses,” and work toward the rank of “Koshare Brave,” which requires that troops learn five Koshare dances and create their version of traditional regalia. “Clan Chief” follows, upon reaching the rank of Eagle Scout.
Objections by Native Americans have punctuated the history of the Koshare Dancers. As reported by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, in the early 1950s a scout named Charlie Nickerson sought to include a Zuni dance he had read of in the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology series, called the Shalako. Photos of the troop engaging in the religious ceremony clad in mock regalia reached the nearby Zuni.
Tribal leaders were so angered they called upon the local Indian Commissioner to file a report and threatened to close their reservation borders. Thinking he could convince the Zuni the Scouts’ actions were acceptable, Charlie Nickerson invited the Zuni governor and religious leaders to La Junta.
After viewing their performance, the Zuni governor spoke, “We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing.” He explained that the Scouts had stolen the Shalako. At the subsequent debate back in La Junta, one tribal member stated, “These gods are powerful, and they do not belong to you.”
Charlie Nickerson ended up asking that the Shalako be given back to the Zuni, and the ceremony is no longer performed by the Koshare Dancers. The appropriation of other Native cultures and practices continues.
With the cancellation of the Winter Dances last December, the Koshare Board at the hosting Koshare Indian Museum Inc., argued their performances are designed with respect. “…It is anticipated that any misunderstandings by Native Americans which may have arisen will be discussed, explained and resolved in the near future,” they told local news.
Why is it that anytime a Native American asks a non-Native to stop dressing up as them, the response is it’s a “misunderstanding?” Do Native Americans not understand our own cultural practices? Are we not allowed offense at stereotypes and caricatures of our peoples? Why are our religious ceremonies and traditions free for the taking?
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the history of playing Indian in the United States is a long one. But sentimental racism is still racism, folks. Dehumanizing and caricaturing cultures that survived attempted eradication and claiming it’s an honor is privilege at its finest.
At the time the Koshare Dancers were starting up their “Papooses” and “Clan Chiefs,” the practice of Native religion by Native Americans was a criminal act. While Boy Scouts learned how to play Indian, actual Native children were being taken from their families to undergo forced and often brutality-laced assimilation.
By the 1950s, the Koshare Dancers were one of the most expensively costumed dance groups world-wide; in addition to their well-researched, self-made regalia, boys covered their bodies in paint and wore wigs. The group was and remains highly popular, performing upwards of 50 to 60 dances throughout the United States each year.
Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, Director of the Hopi Tribe Cultural Preservation Office, told ICTMN about the situation. “At our level, this is the first time [we] learned about the dances.” He continued, “[Initially, we reacted because] they did the Hopi Butterfly Dance… We also found video of the Hopi Snake Dance, the Home Dance, the Kachina Dance.”
Back at the Koshare Indian Museum, theft of culture has been so thorough that the museum even includes a mock kiva, a traditional room used for performing religious rituals that often involve kachinas.
“It’s simply not right what they’re doing,” Kuwanwisiwma said. “[It’s] clear in their website that they’ve been visiting the Hopi Villages for a long time as observers, appropriating without permission. How is it honor or respect if they haven’t asked us in the first place?”
Despite the protestations of honor and respect, one has to wonder – what exactly does imitating a culture do for the living people?
Does the tomahawk chop teach society about Native American treaty rights? Similarly, do non-Natives dressed as “braves” and “maidens” positively impact our communities, or further entrench the stubborn notion that Native Americans have disappeared or linger on as static stereotypes?
If Troop 232 is serious about listening to their self-described “Native American friends,” I hope they value the impacts to and perspectives of Native communities over the tradition of playing Indian. There are ways to respect Native cultures without mimicry. Volunteer on a reservation or in an urban Native center, visit a cultural event open to the public, learn about the past and the present.
End the legacy of theft from Indigenous peoples.
Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of NotYourMascots.org, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her: @zhaabowekwe.