Monday, April 23, 2012

Boy Scouts and the Order of the Arrow

I had a negative experience with the Boy Scouts growing up.  It really has nothing to do with BSA's official exclusion of agnostics, atheists, and gay people.  I didn't think of myself that way at the time, and anyway, BSA's pro-discrimination policies aren't typically enforced.  My problem was I just didn't fit in with the other kids.  They were immature and could be kind of mean.  I quit some years before 18, the maximum scout age.

My younger brother was in a different troop from me, and had a much more positive experience.  His troop always struck me as much more mature.  They also seemed more religious, though they had a large Buddhist population.  The difference between my experience and my brother's experience demonstrates the non-uniformity of Boy Scouts.

I was talking to my brother about scouts, and I found that he was in the Order of the Arrow.  What's that, you ask?  Let me tell you how I knew them.

I knew the Order of the Arrow from the yearly Camporee, when all the scouts in the local district would get together and compete.  The competitions were things like knot-tying, fire-building, whatever.  On one of the nights, they'd get all the scouts up late at night.  We'd walk a long way in the dark, guided by silent people in Native American costumes.  Eventually we'd reach a large field and form an ellipsoid.  More people in Native American costumes and soundmakers attached to their ankles would run around on the inside of the ellipsoid.  Occasionally, they'd stop at a scout, look real closely at their face.  Then they'd either go back to running, or pull out the scout to join the Order of the Arrow.  Those scouts would reappear later the next day, and wouldn't explain what happened.

Really, scouts were nominated beforehand, and the people running around in circles were trying to recognize people in the dark.  I suspected the Order of the Arrow was a glorified alumni association for honored scouts.  But my brother told me that's not what it's like.  In his description, there were a lot of little kids playing tennis, and adults who were crazy enough to dress up as Native Americans.

Then I realized that I had missed yet another problematic aspect of the Boy Scout institution.  There's so much appropriation of Native American culture.  They reinforce the stereotype that Native Americans are just people in headdresses, even though I daresay most actual Native Americans don't go around wearing headdresses.  When the number of scouts who dress up as Native Americans greatly exceeds the number of visible Native Americans, they're just seizing control of an image with little regard to whom the image applies.

Given how widespread the practice is, and how it's propagated among kids who don't know any better, you can expect a lot of people to rationalize it to reduce dissonance.  "No, we try very hard to be respectful of Native American culture."  "If Indians can act white by getting health care, then we can act Indian."

But what do I know?  I'm not Native American, nor am I invested in the scouts.  Obviously, it would be better to hear Native Americans speak for themselves.  A blog called Newspaper Rock has written on the subject numerous times.  It appears that the Boy Scouts are frequently disrespectful of Native Americans, although like most things in the scouts, it is non-uniform.

I liked this cartoon, found on Newspaper Rock.