This has been a most interesting week for us, what with all the boy scouts in town. In case you missed it, there were over 7,000 Order of the Arrow boy scouts and their leaders on campus and about town dressed in various quasi-military uniforms and sometimes Native American costumes. Seems like they would have been difficult to miss, but admittedly our offices are located in the heart of campus in an area that also served as base camp operations for the troops.
Maybe we are just suffering from testosterone overload, but it was our sense that their presence stimulated a variety of emotions that led to public discussion, community dissension in some instances, and yet there was a camaraderie that was visibly shared by boys and men of all ages and difficult to ignore. And, we are pleased to say, the community didn't entirely ignore their presence. In fact, a panel discussion titled "Order of the Arrow: Racism, Homophobia, and Religious Appropriation in Scouting?" was held at Rachael's Cafe.
Sponsored by the Bloomington Committee Against Racism and Homophobia in Youth, the Native American Community Center of Bloomington, Inc., OUT, Ohio Valley Two Spirit Society and bloomgOUT, the panel drew a sizeable crowd for summer in Bloomington and was a mixture of community members, IU faculty, students, high school students, native Americans, scouts and members of the LGBTQ community and friends who came together to discuss the various charges of homophobia and racism leveled at the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).
As an institution, BSA is not in and of itself a reprehensible organization. There is certainly nothing wrong with a structure designed to provide leadership skills, direction, goal orientation, respect for self and others and a sense of belonging for young boys and men. In fact, we whole heartedly support such organizations and include them along with the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls on our list of those who are mostly doing a good job of providing structure and instilling values and a sense of belonging in youth programming.
"It was our sense that their presence stimulated a variety of emotions that led to public discussion, community dissension in some instances."
However, in the case of the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, there is no overt discrimination against lesbians, gays or transgender folks. But the same cannot be said for the Boy Scouts. In fact their Web site actually associates gay with pedophilia, which to us is an abject disregard for truth and reality, and certainly reinforces the attitude of discrimination against gay youth that exists within the various BSA troops around the country.
We know that many of our readers are already aware of the gay controversy involving the BSA and possibly share our shock and dismay that such a powerful and longstanding organization that exerts major influence over our developing youth is still thriving and discriminating! How can that be? Our own Monroe County United Way no longer supports the BSA as a donor agency because of its discrimination, and other United Ways chapters have done likewise. Some churches have refused to let troops use their facilities for meetings and activities in attempts to end this obvious discrimination against a segment of our youth.
Maybe the BSA continues to succeed because it has supporters, as well as detractors. For instance the American Legion gives BSA around $100,000 a year in financial support.
Maybe it's because an institution such as Indiana University allows the group to hold its conference on the main campus. Now we aren't completely chastising IU because it rents out its facilities to many organizations and for any number of events and activities that the administration probably doesn't always support 100 percent. We realize that this is partly about business, and in these rough financial times, especially, a huge conference is certainly a welcome source of income for both the university and the community.
But on the other hand, the BSA does discriminate against gays and also misappropriates Native American culture in a somewhat caricature form (while maintaining that the adoption of Indian customs is a tribute and not meant derisively), and those issues are enough for us to take offense.
According to Wikipedia, Order of the Arrow is the national honor society of the BSA that uses American Indian-style traditions and ceremonies to bestow recognition on scouts selected by their peers as best exemplifying the ideals of scouting.
"In the case of the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, there is no overt discrimination against lesbians, gays or transgender folks."
The Order of the Arrow was created by E. Urner Goodman, with the assistance of Carroll A. Edison, in 1915 as a means of reinforcing the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. The goal was to establish these as lifelong guidelines and to encourage continued participation in scouting and camping. Influenced in part by camp traditions, college fraternities, and Indian folklore, the OA uses "safeguarded" symbols, handshakes and ceremonies, to impart a sense of community.
An innocent enough description, but upon closer examination, “safeguard” translates to “secretive.” College fraternity traditions are being compared with those of Native American culture (oh, excuse us, they said "folklore") and the community to which they refer is certainly not inclusive. We are always leery of “secret” societies, don't always consider fraternities to be the best example of good behavior and take umbrage at misappropriating and trivializing Native spiritual tradition and customs into what is basically a white male community practicing what it considers to be mere examples of folklore.
While there are some natives who are not offended by OA, it seems to us from our many discussions and interactions with native individuals and groups that most are. The controversy over scouting that occurred this past week in Bloomington has played itself out across the country for many years, and large numbers of tribes and individuals, both native and white, have complained.
"The BSA does discriminate against gays and also misappropriates Native American culture in a somewhat caricature form."
It is true that some scout leaders and members have met with native representatives to learn about the cultural traditions they have appropriated into their ceremonies and to perhaps bring some truthful perspective to their rituals. However, the majority of native representatives with whom we have spoken (from local area as well as out of state) believe it is racist for OA to teach their children to "play Indian" while making a mockery (in the name of honor and tradition) of Native religious ceremonies and other cultural beliefs. They believe that it is harmful to native people and especially native children to see a farcical and stereotypical image of valued traditions played out in a non-spiritual, non-native activity.
Furthermore, such "acting" is harmful to non-native children who are kept from learning about the contemporary and diverse societies with over 500 semi-sovereign governments that are the reality of Native America today. They are certainly not being taught to take these populations seriously as valid human beings and cultural representatives. And native children are being indirectly encouraged to view themselves as cartoon-like and therefore worthless in the grander scheme of humanity.
We ask our readers to consider the outcry if a conference were held that openly excluded African Americans or any other specific ethnic, religious or racial group as the BSA openly excludes gays. And what if some conference group made a mockery of Muhammad, or Jesus or the Pope? Bet that would get folks up on their feet.
Our point is, should we support a group that openly discriminates and offends a large group of individuals by misappropriating their religious and spiritual traditions? While no easy solutions are on the horizon, and the BSA is a massive institution that represents our dominant leadership and culture, we do anticipate continued dialogue and can only hope that will lead to honest change in the near future. Usurping another's red badge of courage does not a true warrior make, and adopting the spoils by the victor does not appease guilt nor mend old wounds.
Helen Harrell and Carol Fischer can be reached at and work .