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...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).
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
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?...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...
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
Teenagers: Tell us about your native ancestors....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...
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?
Teenagers: Do you know about the sash?...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.
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.
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?