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November is Native American Heritage Month. Our Cub Scout pack wanted the boys to have a sense of authentic native culture but did we go too far? Navigate through Spider Grandmother's orange string game to find out...

...it all started during the Derecho that plunged Maryland into darkness this past summer. Our Cub Scout Pack was having it's yearly planning meeting for the coming year's activities, a lack of electricity certainly wasn't going to stop this "Be Prepared" group. One of the other leaders suggested we have an Indian-lore themed Pack Meeting, where the boys could dress up as Indians and "do something". There was enthusiasm from the others and foreboding from me, as it seemed like a poorly resolved opportunity for diseducation and indulgence in the worst of stereotypes...so I volunteered to be in charge of the pack meeting as well as an outing to the National Museum of the American Indian.

So I spent some spare time over the summer, trying to figure out what would be appropriate for the boys age level and representative of native culture, and in the end I chose "Traditional Native Games" from peoples across the continent The games represented three major categories; games of skill, games of observation/deception, games of chance and included...

Penobscot Hama'gan (known as hub-bub to settlers) a bowl and coin game of chance where a series of rare combination score points

Zuni Poke'an a corn husk and feather hacky-sack for the hands with the winner having the most consecutive hands slaps with hitting the ground

Hopi Motowu corn cob and feather jarts that must hit the target from a distance.

Cherokee Firekeeper a game of listening and stealth skills where kneeling blindfolded guard tries to catch firewood gatherers as they stealthily take firewood.

Makah Laughing Game a game of social skill where two teams try to make the other team crack a smile while retrieving the laughing stick

Shoshoni Pásitû a hoop and spear game of precision where one tries to throw spear so it lands beneath where the hoop comes to rest

Nez Perce Lopmix a hand game of deception/dexterity versus observation/guessing where one player tries to guess which hand holds the marked bone

Omaha Moccasin Game Four shoe monty is another game of deception/dexterity versus observation/guessing where one player tries to guess which shoe holds the object

Lakota Canwiyusna a game of careful observation where one player splits a pile of stick in two and the other players try to figure out which one has the add number of stick

...neither did we have the room and first aid for the very popular ball-and-stick games (we were playing indoors) nor the precipitation for snow snake (we live in Maryland).

It turns out that the games I chose were quite popular with the boys (and even their sisters). They really enjoyed the physicality and teamwork required. The challenge of developing skill and lucking out kept the boys going back for more. The laughing game was a big enough hit that we'll probably play it again at our next camp out. Probably the least popular game was the Moccasin Game. The most dangerous game was hoop-and-spear, the boys got so excited with the running and throwing nearby adults had to guard their achilles tendons.

Initially, I wasn't sure if the boys would try to play all the games, so in order to ensure the boys were excited about playing, there had to be something to win, earn actually. So for each of the games they played they got a different seed (which also doubles as a collection toward earning a particular badge) and if they got them all they earned a reward.

The reward is a small kit to make a strand of wampum. The kit included 25 purple beads, 5 white beads, and a length of sinew. All the components were simulated, our pack can't really afford real clam shell wampum to make more than one or two strings, even less if we wanted more purple or hand-made beads. I explained during my opening pitch, that the wampum not only had value for trade (like money) but that it was also worn like a badge of honor that could be personalized (I suggested they could spell out their initials in morse code) and when held while speaking publicly, conveyed an air of truthfulness and importance to ones proclamations.

And like every Pow-wow I've ever been to, we had a raffle. Each wampum kit contained a raffle ticket. Each adult running a game had one raffle ticket to give to a child who displayed remarkable sportsmanship. We raffled off all the extra wampum kits. We raffled of a five string wampum belt I had woven (a digital pattern of our pack numbers) to commemorate the occasion (and allow me to speak on the use of wampum to record history and treaty). We raffled off three finger-woven sashes purchased from the Metis Culture & Heritage Resource Centre in Manitoba, Canada. In the end, it turned into a one-way pot-latch as I decided to raffle off all the gaming materials too, right down to a pile of 23 sticks I'd gathered in the backyard.

By all accounts it was an amazingly exciting and enthusiastic pack meeting with lots of hubbub and the boys being reticent to stop playing. Everyone had a good time, everyone went home with something (even if a boy didn't get all the seeds they got a kit, why not? It was only to get them to try their best). As an added surprise, my son won one of the sashes, which he wore home, brought to school to share with his class, and decided to wear to our outing to the American Indian Museum in downtown DC later that week.

When we arrived at the front of the American Indian Museum about a third of the scouts showed up and we found to our delight that the Mvskoke (Muscogee) Creek Nation had sent 150 members to hold a festival/demonstration at the museum as part of Native American Heritage Month. Outside there was an arbor and regalia, of the sort you would expect to see in a warm humid place not the cold windswept National Mall in mid-November. In the main hall, there was a market place, the boys learned about the Mvskoke version of stick-and-ball and marveled at how small the nets were and how high the target was.

There was even an artisan doing finger weaving of sashes and straps in very complicated patterns. She took a very close look at my son's Metis Sash and took time to explain the differences in weaving techniques all of which are amazingly complex tasks requiring more concentration and dexterity than I could muster. She asked my son if he would be dancing that day, he said no, not really understanding that she had mistaken his tanned half-asian features as those of a mixed native american heritage (it's happened before). Good thing he said no because soon after there was a demonstration of the stomp dance starting at it's origin's (stationary singing) then evolving in complexity to it's present day form (circling spiral of men chanting and stomping, alternating with silent women wearing turtle shells rattles around their legs).

Now my Bear Den boys had specific knowledge to obtain from the museum, specifically, who were the people who lived in our county before the European settlers arrived, what did they eat, what kind of houses did the live in and what happened to them. By design the museum has a display conveying this very knowledge. The answers are; The Piscataway. They were three sisters farmers (maize, squash and beans) and hunted turkey, deer and clams. They lived in palisaded villages with barrel shaped homes of bark and woven mats. After allying with English settlers from whom they received little help, they were pushed back by the Susquehannock and Haudenosaunee to a small region on the north shore of the Potomac River. From there they were infected and eventually forced out of their homelands by the English settlers and further intertribal conflict. They fled to the Virginia side of the Potomac and to what is now Charles County, MD. In 2004 the Piscataway-Conoy were finally recognized as a tribe.

On our way to a top floor visual presentation on the nature of the universe, we were stopped by a couple of teenagers who wanted to interview the kids and the scouts agreed to do the interview as a group. I'm not exactly sure, who the teenagers were with, the museum or the Mvskoke, but they were native kids working on a video project that they said would be edited and curated at the museum. The interview room itself had the most amazing view of the capital dome, but the cameras were set-up to put that vista off to the side. So with a few cameras rolling they barraged our scouts with a variety of questions like...

Teenagers: Where do your ancestors come from?

Scouts: Brazil, Russia, Israel, China, America, Narragansett, Maryland

Teenagers: Do you speak a language other than English at home?

Scouts: Yes; Portuguese, Hebrew and Chinese, or No, just English.

Teenagers: Do you celebrate any special holidays that are different?

Scouts: Yes; Hannukah, Carnival, Chinese New Years, or No, just Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Teenagers: Do you eat special foods at home that are different?

Scouts: Yes; Soy Nuggets, Seaweed, or No.

Teenagers: what's your favorite food?

Scouts: Soy Nuggets, Pizza, McDonalds, Popcorn

...quite clearly this is a comparative anthropology project about the persistence of minority cultures in a sea world dominated by a massive, prolific, and convenient commercial culture. They just happened to luck out and grab our den of diversity. My son was asked to do a solo interview, I suspect because he said he was part Narragansett Indian and because he was wearing the Metis Sash...
Teenagers: Tell us about your native ancestors.

Scout: There was one, she was Narragansett and she lived during pilgrim times

Teenagers: What about you other ancestors?

Scout: They were mostly pilgrims, vikings and chinese people

Teenagers: What can you tell us about that sash your wearing?

Scout: It's a real Indian Sash, I won it in a lottery at a cub scout pack meeting

Teenagers: Do you know what that sash means?

Scout: No.

...uh oh, did I forget to tell the boys about the sashes? Did I forget to really research it myself? Yes and yes. All I knew was that the Metis Cultural Center was willing to sell them to me. And now I'm thinking, I actually only saw on of the Mvskoke wearing a sash and he was the master of ceremonies. Oh, now they want to interview me...
Teenagers: Do you know about the sash?

Me: Only that I bought it from the Metis, I don't know what it means.

Teenagers: Tell us about your ancestors.

Me: half swedish and half swamp yankee, which means settlers who've lived in the swamps of southern new england for the past 300 years, There's a fair chance I had relatives on both sides of the great swamp "fight" which occurred very close to where I grew up. My one verifiable Narragansett ancestor lived 13 generations ago, which makes me 1/8192nd native, which means that without some DNA recombination along the way, I am unlikely to carry a Narragansett chromosome.

Teenagers: So is it important for you to revive your native culture

Me: It is only through genealogical research that I came to find out about my native ancestor, I was raised as a Swamp Yankee and a Swedish Lutheran and it's hard enough to keep those cultures going and now we have Chinese culture to impart. I grew up going to local pow-wows, I've visited some scenic reservations, stop for fry bread where-ever I can find it, so I want my children to appreciate native culture and hopefully understand it the way they want to be understood. But I can't say I am reviving that heritage.

Teeneagers: What do you do at home to maintain your swedish culture?

Me: Not as much as I should. In many ways, it is already too late. I am only the second generation in the US and I know almost no swedish. My grandparents desperately wanted to assimilate, so pretty much the only thing that got passed down to me was Smorgasbord cooking and holiday decorating. Now as a new age pagan/christian, my mother took it upon herself to learn the stories of the old pantheon, but it is really a distant echo of a culture lost to christianity 1000 years ago.

Teenagers: Can you tell us one of the stories?

Me: No doubt you've heard about the superhero movie Thor? Well, Thor's journey to Jötunheimr wasn't at all like the movie. For the movie portrayed Thor as  merely a braggard prone to violence, and he was that, whereas the old stories also portray his man's valiant struggle against hunger and time, against forces that will inevitably conquer all those that live (for the scandanavian gods were mortal). But the story would take more time than I have to tell it now.

...so I was free again to hit the Mitsitam cafe for fry bread and then spend some time at the Mvskoke civic organization booths, from which son harvested a fair amount of swag (mood sensing pencils, notepads, some pens, fridge magnets, a pocket knife :-O ). I harvested a lot of info on the public services they are providing to their villages. The diabetes education is compact but designed to integrate into everyday life (my mother is a diabetic educator so I know). The Public Housing that is being built is impressive in it's forward looking design with geothermal loops and high R-value gap-less framing (I used to be a framer so I know). The small environmental agency is facing challenges of water table quality even without the future threat posed by present day fracking at the edge of the reservation (I used to work on water quality issues for the EPA). These are all big challenges being handled by small agencies, it kind of makes me think about Thor's journey to Jötunheimr.

We were both having a lot of fun, but we had to leave. We needed to prepare a pre-Thanksgiving Turkey dinner for our Chinese Playgroup friends. Back at home I searched the Internet about Metis sashes. originally, they were a sort of utility belt, used for a variety of purposes; tumpline, sewing kit, tourniquets. Eventually, the distinctive pattern became associated with Metis cultural identity and yet others reserve the sash for ceremonies to recognize those who have made a great contribution to the Metis. My internet search for Mvskoke attitudes and practices regaridng sashes was not so fruitful.

So I am left wondering whether my son's sash has unintentionally offended? Have I engaged in that age old practice of fetishing the regalia of other cultures? And if I have, what do I tell my son? Have I done the very thing I sought to avoid in the first place?

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Comment Preferences

  •  If you are thinking about what you are doing, (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlackSheep1, Enterik, wu ming, erratic

    you are not offending.  That's my opinion.

    If you are engaged in mindless stereotyping, war whoops, tomahawk chops, or mascot worship, then, yeah.

    But if you are trying to grow and to learn and to understand others, then no.

    That's just me.  

    I believe offense comes from the heart.  From reading this, I don't feel that you intend offense or theft or "fetishization."

    "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

    by YucatanMan on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 02:49:28 PM PST

  •  Oh, I meant to say, it sounds like the (5+ / 0-)

    teen interviewers were pretty good at doing 'reflective questioning" which helps explore more deeply based on each answer.  

    That's pretty cool.

    "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

    by YucatanMan on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 02:50:35 PM PST

    •  Reflective for me or them :-) (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      erratic, YucatanMan

      ...the real accomplishment is that we felt safe and their curiosity seemed non-judgemental

      (-9,-9) pragmatic incrementalist :-P

      by Enterik on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 03:47:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Reflective questioning is supposed to take a (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Enterik

        statement from you, turn it into a question in a neutral way, and pose it back to you.  

        Reflective (them) = listening to you and using your answers to form questions.

        Reflective (you) = exploring your thoughts more fully.

        This technique used in peer counseling can be very settling and help stressed people relax and think through what has been racing through their minds.

        I hadn't thought about the value of using it for interviews, but it is a wonderful way of accomplishing what the teens set out to do.  Nice for both.

        "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

        by YucatanMan on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:55:36 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  not a fetish; perhaps a starting-place for (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bmcphail, Enterik

    next year's similar pack meeting with more information about the customs that go with the sashes?

    LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

    by BlackSheep1 on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 03:01:47 PM PST

  •  I doubt you pissed them off much (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    YaNevaNo, lotlizard

    In my long history of fighting stereotypes about my people I find that our people will usually tell you if you've made a mistake. My only thought is that you should have asked them if they found the sash offensive. btw I think Metis is not a tribe they are the half-breeds who formed their own groups and culture up in Canada.

    I can tell you though that Boy Scouts are often offensive to Indian people. Probably the most offensive is the "dressing up like Indians" that boy scouts like to do. It usually contains all the hollywood stereotypes and very little Indian. In doing that boy scouts are mocking not emulating our culture.

    But IMO, the worst thing about boys scouts is their discriminatory actions against gay people which is definitly not Indian. It goes directly against the native understanding that there is an honorable place within the circle for everyone including LGBT humans. So as long as the boy scouts practice such blatent discrimination I wish they would ignore my people completely and stay far away from our youth.

    America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

    by cacamp on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 06:44:42 PM PST

    •  So the Metis are generally regarded as...? (0+ / 0-)

      something in between, native but not? Do recognized nations see them as posers or are they like LGBT humans with a place in the larger circle?

      I know lots of people find the Scouts offensive, I can only say, not our Cub Scout Pack, and especially not our den. I can't imagine anyone being ostracized for any reason. We don't really flaunt our openness because higher levels of the organization might seek to impose their outdated rules. At least one of our den leaders quit because of the national issue but not because of what happened around here (or the rest of the Scouts in the World outside the US).

      I can tell you that US Cub Scouts is an explicitly religious organization at the national level with religious requirements for every age level, but that our pack must be about half agnostic...yet everyone earns their badge none the less.

      One thing we can definitely agree upon. Is the offensiveness of the Boy Scout ceremony for transition from Cub Scout to Boy Scout. With silly "Chief Illiniwek"-like costumes and simulated blood drinking, it rises to the level black-face minstrelsy. I am determined that should my son desired to continue onto Boy Scouts that this optional ceremony won't be performed for our den even though it's been billed as "great fun for the boys"

      Thank you for your comments, they are thought provoking.

      (-9,-9) pragmatic incrementalist :-P

      by Enterik on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 06:40:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm no expert on Metis (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Enterik

        I really can't answer your question very well since I'm far from Canada. I don't think 'posers' is the right word I think they're just regarded as being a different circle neither inferior nor superior. Most are of Indian decent and have native ways within their culture. Those I've met here in the states were considered Indian by all of us but I admit we never discussed any deeper meanings. But to answer your first question, all people have a place in the circle. That don't mean all people are Ponca Indians like I am, there are circles within the circles of the larger circle of humankind and the even greater circle of life upon a living Mother Earth. To go farther would mean a longer teaching than a blog comment permits

        As for the other part of your comment it seems to me to be self-evident. First you make excuses about hate and deny you're supporting it. Then you go on to talk about some obvious hate crimes within your institution. (crimes seems like too strong a word perhaps but discrimination is a serious violation of human rights). Just ask yourself if you could function in your position while being openly gay and you'll have your real answer. It seems disingenous to admit the organization you serve is guilty of dicrimination and hate but then deny any personal responsibility for what it's "leadership" and policies do.

        Then you once again discribe an ugly stereotypical anti-Indian practice done by your organization (drinking blood?) then you deny it will touch your own kids as if all the other children it damages and more to the point all the Indian people it has damaged over the decades it has been performed mean nothing.

        Sometimes I'm amazed at what people can convince themselves to ignore if it serves their own selfish purposes. How you can place blame on others without accepting any personal responsibility is beyond me. But I suppose the German people taught us all that it can be done on a national basis didn't they.

        America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

        by cacamp on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 10:34:18 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Ouch that stings (0+ / 0-)

          You've poked my conscience at the crux of my unresolved dilemma regarding Cub Scouts.

          On one hand, I value the Scouts as an organizing set of activities where boys have a structure to interact with the outdoors, their peers and their parents, all at the same time. On the other hand, I am offended by their trappings of religion and stereotyping that decorate the national structure.

          I have always thought that not contributing to the offense, and actively opposing it locally, was enough to avoid implication in the offense, but clearly not in your eyes. If two trains are going to crash into one another unless I throw a switch to send one onto a spur that leads off a cliff, what is the right thing to do? Do nothing and many die but I am not involved, throw the switch and many live, but I am responsible for many deaths. I have never supported the war in Iraq, am I guilty for not stopping everything and protesting until arrested while I lose my job and my family loses their home?

          I sense that you would like to see me walk the path of ideological purity, to put it on the line for larger causes, and perhaps in failing to achieve the desired change withdraw myself and my son from the organization. Then my influence ends and the organization becomes enriched with the very sentiments that are objectionable.

          There is definitely more I can do personally, as a consequence of your blunt assessment (which I do appreciate as honest feedback) I have started thinking about what more I could do from within the organization. I could talk to my Pack leadership and the Boy Scout Troop about replacing the ceremony with something more appropriate. I could make a proposal at the regional council and shepherd change as far up the chain as I could, all the way to the National Level in Texas.

          But then I am just a Dad trying to good by his son and his peers with what little free time I have. Certainly, I don't serve the national structure, it serves me and only in a very nominal fashion, by providing a very modular franchise. In this regard, the Scouts are not akin the Hitler Youth, they are not vilifying native culture or trying to stamp it out. They may be guilty of indulging in noble savage myths and co-opting regalia, but it comes from a positive regard.

          They have not been inclusive when it comes to LGBT or nonreligious people, there's no positive regard there. And truth be told. I am already discriminated against and cannot function in my position freely, but in a purely selfish cost benefit analysis, there are levels of closeting I am willing to endure, as I must everywhere else in society.

          As you can hopefully see, I am being completely honest about my feelings and that I am aware of the duality I am expressing. How do you think about my response?

          (-9,-9) pragmatic incrementalist :-P

          by Enterik on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 06:24:54 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  thanks for an thoughtful and honest answer (0+ / 0-)

            You're correct in assuming I think you should take the high road and quit the organization. Some Eagle scouts here have sent in their badges too. They explained their reasoning better than I could, having had nothing to do with the BSA I fail to see its attraction... except for doing fun things with you boys and other kids, having raised boys myself I certainly understand that part of it. But at least you're thinking about what's right so I doubt I could be any further help in your decision. For me it would be very easy.

            But I doubt it raises to the level of the examples you cite, on the first I say "throw the switch" :), on the Iraq war one must do what they can and be satisfied in knowing that you did and humble enough to know your limitations. As a youth I gave up a lot to fight against the Viet Nam war(jail time, split heads and tear gas etc) but now as an old fucker I attend protests and that's about all.

            Good luck in your future and that of your boys.

            America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

            by cacamp on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 10:09:01 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  Too late to rec (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          cacamp

          Wish I could rec, and not just once, but a thousand times. Great post.

  •  Sir, I believe that you have done well. (0+ / 0-)

    Showing the children how and what other  children do in their culture is worth praise.  The one point I will make is that of the Metis sash.  While they are not actually a first nation,  They are still native.  And because of their particular heritage, many of the original customs of the people were lost or transformed.
      I would sugest that you consider not mixing native regallia from one nation with that of another.
    footsore

    •  I read up on the Metis before I bought the sashes (0+ / 0-)

      and they seemed okay with sharing them around. My son was enthusiastic about his sash.

      We didn't know the Mvskoke would be at the museum or what their attitudes were about finger-woven sashes.

      Perhaps, I misapprehended their attitudes by the Mvskoke artisan's willingness to sell her work and her technical interest in the sash weave itself.

      In fact, nobody really said anything to suggest the sash might have meaning until the interview.

      None the less, this is definitely a lesson learned (the not so) hard way. I'll just keep trying to do better. The kind of feedback that helps me do this and that I'm getting so far was the point of the diary.

      Thanks

      (-9,-9) pragmatic incrementalist :-P

      by Enterik on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 06:13:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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