The Koshare museum raises money and its ‘Native’ dancers perform even after being told they shouldn’t
Thus far in the series of articles on the Boy Scouts, Indian Country Today has reported on the Boy Scouts 100-plus year history and the associated factions of the Order of the Arrow and the Tribe of Mic-O-Say. Today's story is on the not-for-profit Koshare Museum and the Koshare Indian dancers.
The Koshare Dancers — named Koshare after the Pueblo Indian Clown Society—are arguably one of the most recognized groups that have performed all over the country to include powwows and celebrations in nearly all 50 states and even the White House.
The early groups proved so successful that a non-profit organization was formed and the Koshare Museum, with non-Native dancers, still performs to this day. Though the Koshare Museum did not respond to Indian Country Today’s request for comment, social media accounts have posted images of the dancers as recent as May 2019.
Currently, the Koshare Museum, located in La Junta, Colorado—the state which has been home historically to such tribes as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Jicarilla Apache, Kiowa, Pawnee, Shoshone and Ute tribes—does not post images of dancers on their website, though performances occur regularly.
Lenni Lenape elder and tribal pastor John Norwood—who had previously commented on the Order of the Arrow, told Indian Country Today in an email his opinion on the Koshare dancers.
The performances of the Koshare's Center, the website of which suggests that non-Natives are the presenters in “costume” crosses the same line into misappropriation of culture. Why not have tribal people do the performances? Or, why not gain permission to share videos of actual tribal cultural celebrations and dance, displays of authentic regalia and artifact (or recreations), and explanations of tribal history and lifeways that would actually honor the living culture, instead of mimic it?
The Koshare Museum - a non-profit, Colorado state registered historical site
Described on their http://koshares.com/ website as a “World-Class Museum Shaped Through the Efforts of Kids Whose Lives Were Shaped in Scouting,” the Koshare Museum is an active not-for-profit museum and an official historical site registered with the state of Colorado’s Historical Society in the town of La JunThe ta.
The museum has a history of collecting actual Native artifacts based on the initial efforts of Boy Scout Troop 232. In addition to displaying these artifacts,the troop has been performing their interpretive versions of ‘Native dance moves while wearing Native themed "regalia” since 1933.
The museum’s website largely leaves out any indication as to the Native American themes of the boy scout dancers and involvement of Koshare Indians. One description states in part:
“The museum is a powerful illustration of the importance of supporting and guiding the efforts of the youth in every community. It shows what is possible, no matter how little we have, when our imaginations and dreams are put to the test.
“With the top-notch collection, the tale of this museum is further enhanced by the efforts of the youth group that started it.”
A photograph featuring the museum’s welcome sign on a descriptive historical page indicates otherwise:
“The Koshare Indian Kiva Museum, home of the Koshare Indians, world-famous interpretive dancers. This building was built through the efforts of Explorer Scouts Post 2230 and their leaders. Open daily - visitors welcome.”
The museum has several rooms to include the Koshare Round Room, which claims to be the world’s largest self-supported ceiling of six hundred and twenty-seven logs that weighs forty tons. The round room had dance demonstrations but does not mention it on the website.
Another room is the Taos Founders Room, with artwork from Native-inspired artists from the Taos Society of Artists. The museum also has a ‘Youth Hostel” scout camp where scouts can travel to the museum and stay over an extended period of time.
The museum also offers an extensive amount of outreach to the community. Again, the museum makes no mention of Koshare Indian dancers on the museum’s activities page:
“From live performances to painting parties, guided tours, food samplings, and engaging hands-on events, events at the Koshare Museum bring to life a world full of inspiration, artistic expression, and educational exploration. These special events at the Koshare Museum are designed to stimulate creativity, spark imagination, and reveal the wonders of western art and the beautiful culture of America’s First People.”
The La Junta Tribune-Democrat said in 2019 that the Koshare Museum was actively celebrating the dancers’ 84th year of dancing as the Koshare Indians and the 70th anniversary of the museum.
The Tribune posted several photos of dancers involved including an article about the Koshare Indian Museum dancing season which reportedly began June 7th as cited in a Jun. 4 article.
Evidence that the Koshare Museum operates as a non-profit is publicly evident as a recent post by the La Junta Tribune-Democrat indicated a La Junta golf tournament was raising funds for the museum.
“It’s also a fundraiser venture for the Koshare Foundation, which supports the Koshare museum and youth group. Grants provided by the Koshare Foundation support many projects, including art restoration, museum display improvements, museum security and improvements, youth programs, transportation, and travel.”
The Koshare Indians
Soon after its creation in 1989, the Public Broadcasting Service aired an award-winning documentary titled Koshare. The documentary, based on the Boy Scouts of Troop 232 who go to extensive lengths to replicate Native dances was awarded the “Best Documentary Non-Metro Denver” category from the Colorado Broadcasters Association.
Award-winning documentary Koshare
In the documentary, you can watch scouts replicating from their views, Native dances to include sacred Eagle Dances and more. The scouts justify their actions as valid for several reasons to include careful documentation of dances in notebooks.
There are several posts on social media that also show the dancers in various types of regalia to include “fancy dancers, and men’s and women’s traditional including shawls adorned with ribbons and jingle dresses.”
In the world of the Koshare Indians, the newest members are referred to as papooses, but work to achieve the ranks of star scout, Koshare brave, clan chief, and even head chief. Other dancers include Koshare clowns, and in 1995 women dancers were invited to participate via the maiden program.
Since the Koshare dancer’s 75th year in 2008, and the museum’s 70th anniversary this year, the Koshare dancers have continued to perform even in the midst of backlash from Indian Country.
Beaten with police batons
In May 1972, several hundred Native people, including members of the American Indian Movement, attempted to break up a group of Koshare dancers that had been paid two-thousand dollars to perform in Topeka, Kansas.
In the book, Time It Was: American Stories from the Sixties Johnny Flynn, a Potawatomi/ Sac Fox and Dakota AIM member described his efforts to attempt to break up a Koshare Dance event that was stifled by police with nightsticks.
“We came back to Kansas that summer with a new sense of mission. Not long after the AIM convention, the Topeka Indian Center called the AIM house and asked for our help. The Boy Scouts of America had (and still have) an Indian dance group called the Koshare dancers. It was not bad enough that they were named after sacred Pueblo spirit dancers, but they were being paid two thousand dollars to dance in Topeka. Up at Mayetta, there was a dance group and a drum group composed of real Indians and they had never been asked to dance or offered any money.
“The Topeka Indian Center people wanted to organize a protest against the Koshares. Now, opposing the Boy Scouts is not really the "American" thing to do, but we figured we were more American than the Boy Scouts: our ancestors inspired them. But we needed to get the AIM people out front on any issue that Indian people wanted to address. So we decided not only to organize a protest but also to try to break the drum.
“Several hundred people showed up for the protest. There were signs, marching, and real Indians singing from a drum with real Indians outside the theatre where the fake Indians were dancing. Five of us, AIM people, managed to slip past the squads of cops guarding the Boy Scouts and went for the stage. J made it to the second door of the auditorium before a half-dozen cops beat me to the floor. We didn't break the drum but we accomplished two things. We proved to the Indian people that we — the American Indian Movement — were going to put ourselves, our bodies, on the line. And we captured the imagination of the general public. American Indians against Boy Scouts was embarrassing to the City of Topeka, who hired the Koshares. We also realized the power of non-violent protest coupled with direct political action which threatened violence. I am not sure what I would have done if I had made it to the stage. Our plan was to kick in the drum and stop the dance, not to hurt the scouts. I was just glad I didn't piss my pants when the first cop hit me in the back with his nightstick.”
In 2016, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he was disturbed when watching videos of the dancers emulating what they thought were Native dance techniques.
Kuwanwisiwma said the dancers were “mimicking our dances, but they were insensitive, as far as I’m concerned.”
In 2015, when Kuwanwisiwma said he reached out to the museum, he got no response. But the Koshare Museum website reportedly canceled the Winter Dances “out of respect for our Native American friends and until there has been an opportunity to discuss the Hopi’s concerns in a timely manner.”
Kuwanwisiwma said no one had ever contacted him. The Santa Fe New Mexican also reported they were not able to get comments, Indian Country Today has not received a response in 2019 when social media images of dancers were found online.
Stay tuned for the full list of source materials and research links following the last of five articles.
Indian Country Today reached out to a considerable number of sources connected to the Boy Scouts, including troop leaders, upper administration, media relations and more. None of Indian Country Today’s requests for comments were answered aside from one - listed and cited above.
Stories in the Boy Scout article series by Indian Country Today associate editor Vincent Schilling