Boy Scouts Playing Indians
Hayley Cook was decorating the Michigan State University (MSU) campus landmark Rock on Farm Lane when the taunts picked up. “They said I looked like a boy, due to my short hairstyle,” Cook told her campus newspaper, The State News. The young commenters themselves were boys. More specifically they were from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) affiliate organization, the Order of the Arrow (OA), oncampus to celebrate the group’s centennial anniversary.
Gathering at the university were 15,000 OA members for the week long event. MSU campus social activists were alerted to the OA program by a letter to the editor published in the campus newspaper, which was written by a doctoral candidate in the music department who also had been an OA member. Phillip Rice described the faux Native theme and agenda that he was familiar, and now disgusted with. In turn, Ms. Cook, who is a member of the Mohawk Nation, and another former student decided to paint the MSU boulder, referring to the cultural appropriation concerns that they shared.
“They went out of their way to sit at the rock in the middle of the night, after their camp schedule, to heckle us at the Rock. We were like, ‘don’t they have stuff to do in the morning or curfews?’ I’ve worked in the dorms. I know camps do curfews or else they get in trouble,” Cook said to The State News.
The local newspaper provided extensive coverage of the opinion letter as well as the organized events, evoking numerous reader comments. Many of the readers had knowledge of the BSA and defended the OA assembly. Both Cook and Rice were scrutinized as to their motivations by some of the supporters. Some of the OA supporters questioned why they did not see any “full-blooded” Native people exhibiting any sense of outrage. Another commenter said she was an adult campus jogger who was yelled and whistled at by the throngs of juveniles throughout her workout, leaving her uneasy.
I took all of this in doing a general news review and began investigating the OA background. In short order, I was alerted to the organizational reliance upon the Lenni Lenape aka Delaware Indian “traditions” for some semblance of historical connection. Were there any enrolled tribal members advising the group?
Inquiries to the BSA for comment on the college newspaper articles were left unanswered. An email to the head OA “National Chief” student leader was responded to quickly, referring me back to the BSA. The OA National Chief Twitter account showed him at the event as a group presenter. Another image showed him wearing a headband with two turkey feathers while posing with a similarly adorned BSA adult leadernamed Ray Capp. Both wore the same matching face paint and some plastic bear claws around their necks.
Eventually I became aware of Native support of the OA in the form of an advisory group. Within that group is Wallace Ashley, a graduate of the University of Nebraska and an architect working out of the Albuquerque, NM area. While communicating with Mr. Ashley, I became acquainted with the sprawling story of his family and how they came to be involved in the BSA, as well as the OA.
His 99-year old father Vernon, a former and current chief of their Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and a U.S. military veteran, had encouraged his family to succeed, wherever it was in the world that they might end up. His study of organizational values led him to adopt the BSA structure on the Fort Yates, North Dakota reservation during a Bureau of Indian Affairs job placement, enlisting tribal community figures like the police chief to become scout leaders. By doing so he hoped to develop the young men who passed through the scouting system, Wallace said. His father eventually earned an undergraduate degree and accepted a position with the South Dakota Indian affairs department, leading to the departure of the family from that reservation.
Each and every member of the Ashley family then went on to become high achievers in the various professional activities that they became involved with, some also entering military service. “My father was very conservative in nature. He debated his one professor at Dakota Wesleyan University, George McGovern, on many an occasion, for things that he felt strongly about. Republicanism might be one way of thinking about his views,” Wallace Ashley said.
Married with children now to an Omaha Nation wife, Wallace Ashley drifted away from the BSA. Then, as his kids got older, the connection was rekindled. He got active with Boy Scout Troop 3 as a scoutmaster while both his son and daughter participated in their respective Boy Scout and Venturing programs in the BSA. The process was particularly empowering to his son. In fact, the boy enjoyed camping outdoors a great deal, despite having some diagnosed social development challenges. “My son just thrived in this environment, and he could really be himself. His lifelong love of art started to proliferate as well, resulting in a desire to visit Native American historical sites, such as Wounded Knee. Later, he applied Native images in his painting and just took off from there. He started this by carrying a sketch book while he was outdoors with the BSA,” Ashley described.
Different paths to knowledge
Hayley Cook took another route to her artistic development. Her family moved from Akwesasne when she was young and settled in Michigan. The extended Cook family is among the best known of family surnames, both on and off the St. Regis Indian Reservation, located next to the North Country region of Upstate New York, and Ms. Cook stays in touch however she can. She has kept her education focused on her own professional interests and still has managed to apply herself with regard to supporting Native American causes, such as her internship with the MSU Native Americans Institute this summer.
Leaving the Akwesasne Territory is often hard for local residents. The vaunted Mohawk ironworker profession broke many families apart during the week, but in most cases, the tradesmen tried to stay close enough to come back home on the weekends. It is a pride derived from knowing that their people were unremoved from their original homeland here, since before the American colonies broke away from their English brothers. It is a communal sense that is unmistakably found in many people from Akwesasne, wherever they may live. It was this willful sense of purpose that I could sense in Hayley as she communicated with me about her actions on the MSU campus. Her rock artwork had, in part, reached her intended audience’s conscience, whether they cared to admit it or not.
Not far from Hayley Cook’s geological expression, Wallace Ashley’s son was presenting his own take on the OA conference. Although the big name on the speaker list was current BSA leader and former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dr. Robert Gates, who wore his own scarlet OA sash while he spoke to the masses, young Mr. Ashley made his own splash. He unveiled a commemorative painting which was described by his father as the only official artwork created during the OA anniversary and at the end of the event was accepted into the National Scouting Museum archive. Another Native-themed piece he created was later auctioned off with the proceeds contributed to future OA sustainability for Native scouts.
As I pass their stories along, it is my opinion that there is more than one way to find inner development such as these two perspectives bring to this fraternal setting. I see leadership and fortitude from both Native sides on these issues. Ultimately, no Native success story is either greater or lesser than any other. Both the Ashleys and the Cooks represent the living survival of their people, from the low marks of Native North American populations as existed at the time of the formation of the OA in 1915.
Personally, I would encourage the OA / BSA to be who they claim to be, and do it proudly. Attend Native American pow-wows dressed as OA members. There are plenty of pow-wows to be found in Indian Country today, so do not be shy. Learn from the people that you are attempting to emulate. Do your best to not promote stereotypes. Do this through wide education and Native heritage outreach with regional tribal nations and cultural groups. Seek out those who can help you. The OA members might not like what they will hear from some Native people, but like me, they are entitled to their own opinion. Stand tall and facethe wind each day.
The worst thing that the OA as well as the BSA can do is to insulate themselves behind the thin red line of legitimacy that supporters like the Ashley family provide to them, and choose to ignore the realities of the wider growing, socially aware Native American population. This criticism will be steady and ongoing in the months and years ahead. It will come from more committed and socially interactive, collaborative activists. As the BSA is already involved in dispelling discrimination charges on one political front, I am sure that former Secretary Gates of anyone there grasps the peril of a second one festering. Weeding out the turkey feathers and shabby Halloween costumes should not be left to their existing Native allies, but could be resolved by the process of organizational renewal itself. Strive to survive or plan to step aside eventually.
Try to get to a better place.