Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A culturally insensitive Cub Scout meeting

Couple of nights ago, at my son's Cub Scout den meeting, the scouts learned and practiced a new song and dance. They're going to perform it for parents and older scouts at next month's pack meeting. I don't know what the dance is called, but if I had to give it a name, I'd call it Tasteless.

Each scout tied a feather around their head, pretending to be "Indians." They formed a large circle around one scout who was selected to be Chief. After the den leader waved his hand, the "Indians" began to dance in a circle around the Chief, patting their hands repeatedly against their lips. "Woo-woo-woo-woo, woo-woo-woo-woo," they sang gleefully.

The Chief would then randomly point at another "Indian," who would ask the question: "It it time for your poocha yet?" I have no idea what a poocha is — as far as I know, it may be a Native American word — but no explanation was offered.

The dance ended with the kids doing the Hokey Pokey (huh?).

Some of you may remember my blog posts from back in the early days (when I was just discovering my voice). Others of you may occasionally read my (super secret) blog, the one with cartoons. You know I'm not shy about dark or racial humor. My cartoons are often culturally insensitive (mostly with my own culture). Heck, I grew up on Richard Pryor and Red Fox. But something about the scene at the Cub Scout meeting just didn't sit well with me. I know it was meant to be all in fun — the kids were having a ball — but I didn't find it very funny at all, I think because it involved kids.

While I sat there, watching the Cub Scouts perform derogatory impersonations of Native Americans, I looked around the room at the parents. Across from me was an African-American mother. There were several Hispanic parents, and one Asian. No one seemed to be bothered. I wondered what would happen if the scouts performed a dance holding spears, pretending to be Africans. Or what if they danced around a Sombrero and sang, "Aye-yi-yii-yiiii," in an exaggerated Mexican accent? What would be said if they impersonated Asians?

Maybe I'm blowing this out of proportion, I mean, I'm sure there really are Native American ceremonies where people dance in a circle around a Chief while singing chants. I have no idea. But, since scouting is meant to be educational, and a place where boys can learn positive values and survival skills, I think a little education was in order.

I didn't complain. Didn't want to be the trouble-making, complaining parent. Didn't want to spoil the kids fun. But I plan to have a talk with my son. We read JINGLE DANCER when he was a baby, but it's time to read it again.

Before the scouts finished their song and dance, a young African-American kid raised his hand and said: "Oh yea, and their not called Indians. They're called Native Americans."

For the first time during that dance, I smiled.


Disco Mermaids said...

I'm with ya on this one, Don. Sometimes I feel too sensitive regarding these issues, cuz the people involved usually aren't doing it to be derogatory. But it is interesting to imagine their reactions if another group was substituted.

I used to be in the YMCA Indian Guides, which are now called Adventure Guides. I thought it seemed silly when people were talking about changing the name, but it makes sense now.

Happy Halloween!

- Jay

rindawriter said...

I had no idea stuff like that was still going on in scouting. I'm part Native American. It is very insensitive to say the least, and I've watched dancing from Native Americans now at least twice now--a far, far cry from what you described. It's sad to know.

Anonymous said...

I am a Native American and part of Don's Cub Scout group. Don, you seem to be injecting your own bias and judging our group without looking at the context. First, the skit was a skit. It's something our 6 year olds came up with and enjoyed doing and they were not making fun of anybody. Two, the Boy Scouts are one of the primary organizations which keep the traditions, names and skills of the various tribes alive. Third, there was nothing derogatory about the skit. It was the story of a tribe doing a dance and asking a question - and the question had a silly punchline. It was short and fun, like a skit is supposed to be. Four, if you have such negative feelings, talk to the Den Leaders first, before complaining on the worldwide internet. Also, and I realize there are many differing points of view - I think the name "Native Americans" applies to anyone born in America. I realize there are some of my fellow Native Americans (i.e official Indians like me) who do not agree. That's ok. But for the record I myself prefer the term Indian. I think it's a good term. Since you are clearly not a full blood descendant of a an Indian tribe, why would the use of the term Indian bother you anyway? The Scouts don't use the term in a derogatory manner.

Anonymous said...

Good lord! It is called humor. I have seen and help teach that skit to lots of boys. NO ONE has ever complained. It is not making fun of Indians. I bet you are a vegetarian and a member of peta. Try smiling once and a while. Life is so much more enjoyable.

hollycallender said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
I did it. said...

Now the world understands why Don didn't say anything, and it is no wonder the boys don't know that what they are doing isn't appropriate. They are innocents. But don't attack this father for questioning - he's just doing what he is supposed to do as a parent. That's a good thing! If more parents looked out for what their kids were learning, maybe we wouldn't have so many problems...

"Indians" in America didn't take that name - we have Christopher Columbus to thank for that - along with the beginning of the greatest era of genocide in history. People from India are the real Indians. We can't even use "Native American" anymore, since according to "anonymous" that applies to anyone born in America. We have our own words for ourselves - in our own languages - but as a group name, that is now being taken away also! But "anonymous" needs to understand one thing - we don't need the Boy Scouts to keep our "traditions, names and skills" alive. Our tribes and people are doing that much better in the context in which it belongs - or do you, like so many Americans, think we are "extinct"? "anonymous" may have some degree of Indian descent but if "anonymous" was really an "official Indian" like he claims, he would have identified himself (or herself) in the traditional way, and would know enough about the people to teach the boys instead of attacking a father in a decidedly "un-Indian" manner. The Boy Scouts are supposed to teach boys to grow up to be men of honor in the community - which automatically includes being culturally sensitive and understanding of others. I am sure no harm was meant. But harm was done to these boys by grownups standing by and tacitly condoning without gently teaching them correctly, without humiliating them or making them feel guilty about their lack of knowledge. Instead of attacking this parent, the group should have looked at this as an opportunity for EVERYONE to learn - grownups and children together. Find a real Native group who is willing to come in and teach everyone! Make it a positive instead of a negative; then everyone benefits. Then move on to other cultures - aren't you a lucky group to have such diversity in your families - you can learn from each other! I commend you Don, for being a good parent, and having a good heart. It doesn't matter what race you are - what matters is that the boys were not acting in an appropriate way, and they showed a lack in their socio-cultural education that needs addressing. Great opportunity for learning. THAT is what it is about.
BTW - I am Bear Clan of the Wyandotte/Huron Nation. I have Muscogee Creek family, as well as Southern Cheyenne, and Houma people. I do not know everything, but my elders have corrected me enough that I understand a little!

Don Tate II said...

Thanks so much for the heart-felt and insightful comments, on both sides of the topic.

somebody's mother said...

When my cub scout pack did this skit, I got the impression it was a imaginary tribe of people from somewhere south of the equator. Take it for what it was meant to be--funny! It is possible to laugh at ourselves and others without someone getting their feelings hurt or their hackles up. At least it used to be. By the way, did the scouts identify themselves as portraying the original inhabitants of the North American continent (how's that for politically correct)? If not, perhaps you are the bad guy for making that assumption.

Anonymous said...

why so much defensiveness? I agree somewhat with "I did it". Yeah, the boys did it in fun with no bad intentions. Maybe the parents need to get together and read the comments from "I did it" with open minds. Just because something was done in fun (and I don't think the dad was offended as much as concerned) doesn't mean the right thing was done. I was always under the impression that if humor is offensive (or at someone else's expense) it wasn't humor - it was a put-down covered with icing. I'm sure that all of you parents are educated and classy enough to teach your kids how to use humor that doesn't put someone else down. Good lesson there. Maybe some of you parents need that lesson too.

It seems to me that all of the "defensive" parents are making more noise than the parent who questioned the correctness... maybe because he has a point? All he was asking was that everyone look at what they were doing. And come on... the movie Indian whooping stereotype kind of gives the intention away. Get real.

Debbie Reese said...

Hello, Don,

I've got nothing profound, clever, humorous, or poignant to add. But I fully appreciate what you're experiencing. Most people don't realize that these programs are problematic. The intent is good; there is no active effort to offend anyone. Indeed, these sorts of programs think they're doing honor to Native peoples.

Savage or romantic, silly or honorable, these programs always portray American Indians as peoples of the past. Unfortunately, too many Americans think that American Indians no longer exist. These programs contribute to that false idea.

Conversation is necessary. And, open mindedness, too. Once you start to notice this, you'll see how saturated American society is with images of American Indians.

Anonymous said...

Hello Don,
Realizing this is almost a year old spot, I was doing research into the "history of Scouts and Native American Theme" using, as my son has become a member of the OA-Order of the Arrow. My husband and I were talking about how it seems that many troops/packs utalize Native American themes: Dances, ceremonies, headresses, lore, without actually researching or understanding the meaning behind all of it. Being a history major myself, and studying this part of our country's sad history, I wanted to see how a British organization came to the states, and drew upon the Native American culture. So far, I haven't come across much. Just a few interesting finds. Yours is one. Sounds like your pack has as much drama as our troop. I hope that your son, regardless of the disrespect the other parents and boys may have had culture of the Native American heritage continues to grow in Scouts through your guidance and that of those with positive influence. Good luck in all you do for him. Peace and Blessings!

thecyer said...

Hi Don,

I am a PhD Student working on a paper about the BSA and their use of Native American cultures in their curriculum and to teach about nature. I came across your blog post and the comments and feel they would work well in this paper. Can I get your permission to use them? I can change names if needed and would include "used by permission also.

If you need to know more about the paper let me know, I'm happy to share.


Gary B said...

I am a Scoutmaster, and the father of two Eagle Scouts. I saw this skit at a boy scout camp sometime in the past few years. In that skit, they weren't overtly indians, native americans, or anything ethnically identifiable. they just acted real silly. There was no dancing, but each actor approached a leader of some sort and in overexaggerated ways asked if it was time for "youpoocha." This word is a nonsense word, because it is delivered in the punchline of the skit. When after a few boys keep approaching and asking if it is time for "youpoocha" When the leader finally gives in and says it's time, they start singing loudly "Youpoocha right arm in" and do the hokey pokey.

The skit can be silly and entertaining (especially for Cubs) without being offensive, so your comments are appropriate, and maybe the point should be to determine if there is a way the skit can be performed without being offensive...which it didn't seem to be when I saw it, but who knows what others took from it. Dennis Hopper has said about art and communication, "I know not what you have received, I know only what I have given you."

jordine4 said...

I see you are not an involved parent because if you were, you would understand that when BSA does skits about Native Americans or "indians" they do so out of respect so let me help you before you write another blog out of not knowing. The cub scout learn the art of quiet by the the leader who is called by the indian name of Akela holding up two finger( the index, and middle). Next all indian dances and skits have a theme such as learning how to listen to the wind, learning the short version of how Mowgli of the Jungle book learn to respect nature. See those things you wouldnt know as an uninvolved parent. So the next time you want to criticize what you think is insentive become involved and then your input would be more appreciated

Rooster613 said...

I realize this is an old post but I came across it while looking for the possibility of a Native American religious emblem for a Native Cub Scout. (So far, there isn't one, although there ARE Native Scouts, but they must go thru a church or something to fulfill the Bear requirement to earn an emblem. Which makes me wonder if creating such an emblem with a program to teach REAL Native culture might be a way to raise sensitivity in general among Scouts about Native beliefs.)

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about the skit. On the one hand, when I was growing up on the East coast (MANY years ago, I'm in my 60s) I had never met a real Native person. But I did learn to respect Native culture thru Scouting. I never had any sense trhat we were mocking anything.

However, now that I have had contact with Native people here in Minnesota, I can see how this skit might be offensive, and I think maybe we do need to re-evaluate some of the skits. I think this one would still work without the feathers and "woo-woo" call -- maybe some sort of generic dance, with the "chief" being a rock star playing air guitar? This would make "poocha" some sort of rock group slang rather than a parody of an Indian language -- and still be a setup for the punchline.

Rooster613 said...

And by the way, Anonymous, vegetarianism is a legitimate part of many religions and spiritual traditions, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism. There are also many Jews and Christians who see it as part of their way to serve God. Since a Scout is supposed to be reverent, I do not think it is appropriate to use vegetarianism as a put-down, seeing as how it is part of various religions. (PETA, which you also ref, is a political org, so I won't discuss that.)

I myself am an Orthodox Jew who is vegetarian and I regard it as the best form of kashrut (keeping kosher.) The Garden of Eden was, after all, vegetarian, and represents the ideal of living in harmony with God's creation. (To find out more about Jewish vegetarianism, visit Jewish Vegetarians of North America.)

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog while looking for the relationship between the cub scouts and Indians. My son is now in his second year of cub scouts, the wolf den.
The first year I didn't have to worry about the typical stereotypes of Indians in Northern America until now.But now with the new book, it has activities on Native American Crafts and skits and Native American Sign Language.(which by the way "what is that?") Which is fine but I do agree with Rooster613 that there needs to be some updating or maybe bring a native speaker in to talk about what is culturally appropriate.

Being Indian myself and living around seven other reservations I know that each group has different beliefs and thoughts on what is appropriate. So maybe contact the one closest to your organization.

I do believe that the cub scouts can provide my son good values but it needs to open its values to other traditions.

I also was looking for a appropriate religious emblem and came across nothing. Upon searching I found the Native American Church. Which would be the closest one to the Ojibwe culture. But I also read another blog where a native family in Florida was told that they could not have the emblem unless there were 20 native American members in the den. My jaw dropped because I personally don't know of another Indian relative that has participated in Cub Scouts (You know with the history of the military and genocide. Since the Cub Scouts has a junior military recruitment theme going on.)

My point is that if they are going to respect Indians and their culture they should update their material and how to present it. For years the media and history has put us as "extinct" and we are still very alive today. I am just worried about what my son has to face today as an Ojibwe. I believe we are traditional in our ways and ceremonies and am proud to be Indian. I just want my son to hold his head up high and be able to admit to the general public that "yes I am Indian and we do exist". Especially since there is 356 different tribes throughout North America. This a touchy subject and will be for years to come.

Anonymous said...

Im a Native American from Montana and have seen such performances. people do not realize what the dances represent or how spiritual some forms can be. how Lakota and other plains tribes to this day hold feathers in high regard. how we earn feathers for acts of bravery and military service. I am a Veteran of the Army and served for 8 yrs. it is a discrace

Anonymous said...

This whole post and thread are an excellent example of how people learn to talk about Natives and (though they might not be aware of it) Native Appropriation. Thank you for initiating the conversation, Don.