White Swan-Perkins: Koshare Dancers and Their Wildly Offensive Cultural Appropriation
To depend on a Boy Scout in times of trouble has been a long standing American tradition. After all, the group has an age-old tradition of making young men out of boys, and their credo alleges to support this:
On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law
To help other people at all times
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
Apparently, there is a bit of a discrepancy going on, because if you take a look the Pueblo peoples’ that the Koshare Dancers of La Junta, Colorado, are imitating are quite displeased.
The leaders of the local Boy Scouts troop seem to have an unusual idea of what constitutes help and straight moral fiber. Since 1933, the troop has seen fit to appropriate the customs and ceremonies of the local Pueblo Native American nations. Under the guidance of a J.F. "Buck" Burshears, and allegedly inspired by the cohesion shown in a holiday-themed boys choral performance, the group decided that the preservation of Native American traditions fell upon their shoulders. With no apparent permission, guidance, overview or critique from the original owners of these traditions, the troop of boys began dressing, singing and dancing in the Pueblo tradition.
“Through the preservation and interpretation of Southwest and Plains tribal art and artifacts, the Koshare Indian Museum provides a practical educational experience to visitors and residents of all ages and offers a Scouting program aimed at enhancing the lives of youth through an appreciation for and interpretation of the arts, cultures, and dances of the Native Americans,” read the Koshare Dancers website.
The group has even gone so far as to construct a museum in what they are calling a Kiva [a sacred meeting place for Pueblo men], which has been a recognized by the State of Colorado. They maintain a vast collection of Southwestern art and artifacts. Many Pueblo people are not very happy with this and maintain that they need no assistance from the Boy Scouts in maintaining their ceremonial traditions.
Bay Area Native American activist JoHanna Coriz, a member of the Kewa Pueblo, said that "Native people have fought through genocide and struggled just to keep our religious freedom. Koshare Indian Dancers do not know the meaning of these ceremonial dances they are replicating. Every song, every step has a meaning. As a Pueblo Native, I am saddened to see our sacred dances mocked by non-Natives. These ‘ceremonial performances,’ as they call it, are sacred prayers to our people. I also saw a Kiva that they built, which they refer to as a clubhouse. A Kiva is a sacred place for prayer and non-Natives are never allowed to enter one. What they are doing by building a Kiva is beyond disrespectful. That's like us building a church and mocking Christian beliefs.”
Coriz is not alone in her opinion of what is going on at the Koshare Indian Museum. There are many members of a Facebook page, “Koshare Dancers STOP WITH YOUR Idiocy,” which gained nearly 800 followers in under a week.
While Charles Eastman, Boy Scouts of America co-founder, was Lakota on his mother's side, and may have encouraged the implementation of some Native American tradition into the organization's design, groups like the Koshare Dancers may do well to remember that more than 100 years ago, the overall academic opinion was that Native Americans would likely be extinct by now. These days, Indian country is thriving, and tribes are beginning to represent real dollars in their respective states through agricultural, animal husbandry, and similar pursuits. There has been a major cultural resurgence in language, ceremony and dance in recent years. As such, it is considered passé for a non-Native American group to appropriate our customs.
Likewise, the subject of cultural appropriation and intellectual property rights is being debated by Native American scholars, and tribes have been defending themselves in court over their rights to withhold sacred objects and designs. Time will tell how the Boy Scouts of America and groups like the Koshare Dancers will recognize the rights of Native Americans. The Boy Scouts of America website states concern for the security of the children it reaches, while it promotes cultural mimicry of a major racial group. Many tribal members think it's time for the Boy Scouts to wake up and distance themselves from these harmful practices. Time will tell if the organization will listen to those they work so hard to imitate.
I reached out to Koshare Dancers on numerous occasions for a quote and did not receive a response.
Samuel White Swan-Perkins is of Tsalagi, Welsh, Siksika and German ancestry. His is the owner of White Swan-Perkins Cultural Consulting, and also a member of the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society. He currently lives in Northern California. Follow him at @sam_wspcc.
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