Native American Heritage Month . . . you will never guess its origins!
November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States. Its celebration varies considerably across the continent. In communities where indigenous peoples are numerous and politically influential, government agencies, schools and historic commissions sponsor exhibits, student projects and lectures. In many other communities, citizens are not even aware that November has any special significance for Native Americans.
Ironically, the national organization that first promoted a National American Indian Day still does much to continue old stereotypes of Native Americans. Their programs tend to present America’s indigenous peoples in two flavors . . . Iroquois and Lakota.
Most Americans are also not aware that citizenship in the United States was granted to indigenous peoples four years after women were granted the right to vote. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 finally made it a law that if you were a Native American, you were an American citizen. However, many states and local governments in the Southwestern and Southeastern United States continued to ignore that law until the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress during the Lyndon Johnson Administration. No dogs or Indians allowed!
Typical of the situation in the Sun Belt, the State of Georgia had laws on the books that forbade American Indians from voting, owning real estate, attending public schools, holding a professional license or even testifying in their own behalf in court. In the early 1970s, Governor Jimmy Carter pressured the state’s General Assembly to abolish these, now unconstitutional, statutes.
The first outcries for Native American constitutional rights came in Oklahoma as a result of the dissolution of tribal governments and the allotment of parcels to former tribe members by the Dawes Act of 1895. In particular, members of the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee) found themselves stripped of protection by the law, when they were theoretically made citizens of the Territory of Oklahoma.
Most Native American tribes that originated in the eastern United States had long traditions of women being able to vote and own property. Suddenly, the Native women were put into the quasi-citizenship situation of Caucasian women. Both Native men and women were often subjected to abuses by the courts of the Oklahoma Territory.
A horseback ride across America
In 1902 the Woodcraft Indians was organized in Connecticut. Caucasian boys were divided into “tribes” and “bands,” then taught woodland survival and artistic skills, based on a Native American theme. In 1910 the Woodcraft Indians merged with several other groups to form the Boy Scouts of America. The American Boy Scout program had a distinctive “Indian and frontiersmen” theme that was different than the parent organization in the United Kingdom, which essentially prepared boys for military service and expansion of the British Empire.
In 1914 Red Fox James, a Western Blackfoot Indian, rode on horseback throughout much of the United States in a campaign to establish a national holiday honoring American Indians. On December 14, 1915 he presented petitions from 24 states to President Woodrow Wilson at the Whitehouse. There is no evidence that Wilson proclaimed such a holiday.
The Boy Scouts of America was the first institution in the United States to recognize a day that honored Native Americans. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Tribe member, was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, NY. From the turn of the century onward he campaigned for special recognition of the indigenous people’s many contributions to North American civilization. He finally convinced leaders of the recently formed, Boy Scouts of America, to set aside a day for honoring the “First Americans” in 1915.
The Order of the Arrow
That same year, E. Urner Goodman, a 25 year old Scoutmaster in Philadelphia, accepted the job of camp director of the Philadelphia Boy Scout Council’s Treasure Island camp on the Delaware River. He implemented Native American themes in the camp, based on the characters in Jame Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.” At the end of their time at the camp, the boys would vote on a select few scouts who they thought best projected the ideals of “Scouting.” Those so honored, were inducted into an Indian lodge with elaborate Delaware Indian rituals.
In 1915, Camp Director E. Urner Goodman and Assistant Camp Director Carroll A. Edson also searched for a way to recognize select campers for their cheerful spirits or service . Goodman and Edson founded the Order of the Arrow, when they held the first Ordeal Ceremony on July 16th of that year. By 1921, as the popularity of the organization spread to other camps, local lodges attended the first national gathering called a Grand Lodge Meeting.
The Order of the Arrow was one of many camp honor societies that existed at local Scout camps across the country. As the years went on and more camps adopted the Order of the Arrow’s program, it gained prominence and became part of the national Boy Scout program in 1934. By 1948, the OA, recognized as the BSA’s national brotherhood of honor campers, became an official part of the Boy Scouts of America. Its inducted members were supposed to emulate Hollywood-inspired qualities that were associated with Native Americans
The Order of the Arrow was originally more a pre-adolescent clique than a measure of Native American traits and that is still the case. Native American scholars and leaders have complained repeatedly about the superficiality and inaccuracy of the honorary program. As can be seen in the photo above, it has institutionalized stereotypes of Native Americans.
Apparently, no American Indians were members of the Order of the Arrow in its early days and there are still very, very few, who are members. Also, practically none of the leaders and instructors of the Order of the Arrow are Native Americans.
Here is a personal experience on the exclusionary nature of the Order of the Arrow. In reality, the organization is an extension of Euro-centric attitudes with Native American labels.
Just as I was about to become one of the youngest Eagle Scouts ever, my family moved to the Atlanta Area. The following month I would have been inducted by my old Boy Scout troop into the Order of the Arrow.
The new Boy Scout troop was dominated by three boys, whose fathers were wealthy airline pilots. One of their fathers was the scoutmaster. They were all OA members. I was the only Native American member in this troop, but the three preppy boys blocked me from getting into the OA the whole time I was in Scouting . . . only allowing those, who attended their exclusive private school, to be members.
There was something else, quite perverted, going on in this Boy Scout troop. Later on, the airline pilot-scoutmaster went to prison for being a pedafile with the very same boys, who were inducted into the Order of the Arrow! The special camping trips, just for Order of the Arrow members, obviously had a hidden agenda.
American Indian Day
In May of 1916, again at the behest of Albert C. Parker, the State of New York declared American Indian Day. Illinois legislators designated American Indian Day in 1919. Soon. several states began designating the fourth Friday in September as American Indian Day. Several states continue to have a Native American Day, but it has never had the status of a national legal holiday.
Throughout the 20th Century, the Boy Scouts of America continued to be the only national institution that consistently presented Native American culture in a positive manner, even if it promoted Plains Indian stereotypes. As generation after generation of boys went through Scouting, this positive image began to spread outward into American society. Former Boy Scouts became local, state and national leaders.
To this day, the Boy Scouts of America has a “Native American and frontiersmen” theme to many of the skills required for advancement in rank. Some merit badges relate directly to Native American culture, while others such as camping, canoeing, hiking, archaeology, etc. are indirectly related.
Hollywood celebrities get in on the act
During the 1970s several Native American entertainment and sports celebrities, along with Hollywood actors such as Martin Sheen, Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando began advocating that Columbus Day be changed to Native American Day. Some states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but this co-designation also had no national legal status.
After over 20 years of agitation by Native American leaders, celebrities and some members of Congress, a joint House-Senate resolution was finally passed that designated November 1990 as “National Native American Heritage Month.” It was signed by George H. W. Bush. In 1994 a similar resolution was signed by Bill Clinton. Since that time, similar resolutions have been passed each year by Congress, but Native American Heritage Month still has no permanent legal status within the federal government.
Educational programs associated with these proclamations are sponsored by some regional and local offices of federal government agencies, but there is no consistent policy. In general, participation by federal agencies in Native American Heritage Month declined dramatically during the GW Bush and Obama Administrations. In fact, nowadays, it is barely mentioned in federal government publications.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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