Cultural Appropriation: There is No Right Way to Do It

**Guest post from Jo Overton.
Jo is a 36 year convert to the LDS church, a feminist, a democrat,  and an outspoken woman living in Utah. She is Native American, a wife of 35 years, a mother to 6, a former foster parent, a retired homebirth midwife, a former crunchy granola mom, an Adoptive mother and social worker.**jojo

Let’s set some things straight, right from the beginning: I am Native American, I self identify as Native American, specifically as a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe. You, Native or not, do not get to argue with me about this. Why do I say this? Surprisingly enough, there are people, in and out of Indian Country who want to decide who I say I am. It would take a long time to explain to anyone who doesn’t have a very extensive knowledge of Native issues.

I am a human being, worthy of regard and I am on my very own journey to becoming more fully me. I am not you, I am not every other Native American you have ever met or read about. Some opinions I held years ago, I no longer subscribe to, while others I hold even closer than before. It my right to do so. Holding me to an opinion I once believed in the past, today, serves neither of us in the current conversation. It will, however, give you a way to observe how I have changed and grown in my journey.

Because we are all individuals, you will find other people, both Native and not, who are in complete agreement with my views on cultural appropriation and boy scouts. Not surprisingly, you will also find others, Native and not, who completely disagree with my views. You do not get to say, ALL Natives feel this way or not on an issue. You can say, I read an article written by a Native American who feels “this way” about it. Or if we are actual friends, you are welcome to say, “my friend Jo, who is Native American, feels this way” I am not the Lorax, I do not speak for all the trees, nor all the Natives.

I hope you are in a place in your life where you can be respectful of what others hold to be sacred. If I were asked to remove my shoes to enter someone else’s sacred space, I would do so. Not with resentment, but with respect and a sense of awe of having been invited into that place.

It would take thousands of pages to write about EXACTLY why the cultural appropriation of the Boy Scouts is problematic. This is where words like genocide, manifest destiny, white privilege, and religious oppression are not just words, but life lived every day in a country that feels it owns you, and your identity. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to protect and preserve the religious rights of the Native people in the United States. NOT 1878, 1978.

The complaints my people have about the boy scouts and Native American appropriation are almost completely religious in nature. Feathers, colors, head dresses, regalia, drums, Native dance, names, body painting, and eagles are all sacred to most of Native America. They are a direct connection to our history and our culture of today. The fact they even exist today is a testament to the courage and fortitude of our people in the face of cultural annihilation. The price paid by my ancestors and my family, for me to continue to participate, was and is with their blood and lives.

You can say, “but I do it with honor”, “I feel so connected to the Natives” ” I think it is fun”, “I want to”, “we have been doing it for 90+ years” ” I have friend who is Native who thinks it is fine”, “the church wouldn’t do something so racist” “we don’t mean anything bad when we do it” all you want, but it does not change the one thing that matters most.

When it comes to Boy Scouts and cultural appropriation of Native Americans, it is wrong.

What can you do? You can go along with the program, most people do, and there are just not enough Native American people to take this all on, and change it right this minute. We have tried and will continue to do so.

If you feel in your heart, you just can not go along in good conscience, there are so many things you can do. Start at home. Have a conversation with your children and family about why this is problematic. Ask them their opinions and get their suggestions about what you could do as an individual, family, troop, and ward. And then do it.

Refuse to go along with it. Encourage your child to not go along with it. Learn to speak up and then help your child speak up. Say it in scout trainings, in your ward meetings. Pull your child out of the activity. Set up an alternative activity and award to go along with with. Speak out, write letters, do what you feel you should. Let me warn you, some people will get very angry. This conversion to a more inclusive self is a painful journey. It is not easy one. Take a break when you need to, from discussions with others, when it becomes too hard. Continue on in your inner work. Most all, talk to your children and grandchildren. The change is within them, and when their hearts and minds change, the program will change to reflect this. Mitakuye Oyasin. (All my relations)

23 responses to “Cultural Appropriation: There is No Right Way to Do It

  1. Thank you.


  2. Thank you, Jo Overton, for your courage and your clarity. I hope and pray that your words will be heeded.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amen and amen. This has been weighing on me for weeks– that of all the things we are rightly upset by in our relationship with the BSA, and of all the public huffing and puffing, that no one yet seemed bothered by this. Thank you for saying what needed to be said.


  4. Jo, I’m so grateful for your friendship and your voice. We have a great opportunity to do better and I hope many many of us will.


  5. I have native blood in me, and while the cultural annihilation is and always has been absolutely abhorrent, I get a true kick out of the fact that the power of our ancient spirit informs these impressionable young people. One can only guess how these rapacious “caucs” would screw those kids up without our symbols doing at least a little something to shield them. From my seat, this woman needs to take a minute and see things how they truly are instead of from an “affronted” surface perspective that has no validity whatsoever.


  6. Cultural celebration: There *is* a right way to do it.

    With respect and reverence that promotes honor, integrity, helping others and respect for nature. These are shared goals of the BSA and Native American culture.

    People all over the world celebrate other cultures in song, dance and worship. The BSA does so in awards, rank advancements and ceremony. It is educational and promotes not only the virtues above, but also understanding and respect for all cultures including Native Americans. Why do you wish to oppose this?

    A better post would have been to show that the Goblin Toppler scout leaders and others that litter and damage nature, or that harm, abuse or disrespect other people are not following the BSA oath and law of honor and respect and also are disrespecting the Native American symbols they use.

    You would be correct in calling out those types of Scouts, but why on Earth would you do so for the entire BSA which uses the symbols and ceremony only in the most respectful way that promotes mutual shared goals of honor integrity, the betterment of mankind and preservation of nature?

    Please explain.


  7. “This is where words like genocide, manifest destiny, white privilege, and religious oppression….”

    The BSA has never been engaged in any of this, nor have they ever promoted anything like it. In fact they promote the opposite, respect and reverence for all people and cultures.

    The fact that you made the statement leads one to believe that you have issues with white people in general, perhaps justifiably so. If that is the case, make your case against Whites, but leave the BSA out of it. The BSA promotes honesty and integrity and helping all people at all times. These are shared goals with Native American culture.


  8. I sincerely appreciate your perspective and your feelings on the misuse of Native American symbols and culture in Boy Scouts and the Church. I wish to add though that the institutional appropriation of the cultures of people of color in the Church is not unique to the Boy Scouts program. BYU Living Legends (formerly Lamanite Generation) and the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) are enterprises run by white LDS people that use brown people, along with their cultural symbols and practices, to entertain other white people for money and profit. At the PCC they’ve set up a system that placates Polynesian students with educational opportunity and minimum wage jobs while exploiting them, their heritage and culture and raking in tens of millions of dollars in profits annually. None of these profits are used in any way to benefit the people whose cultures are being prostituted by PCC. The money goes into the coffers of the for-profit arm of the LDS church, where green is the only color and the only culture that really matters. The fact that the institution itself has no presence in or connection to the places and communities it claims to represent evidences how little regard the people who run the institution have for Polynesian people. We people of color in the Church need to shake people (especially and firstly others of color) and awaken them to this type of entrenched, unconscious racism and this blatant, offensive exploitation. If it upsets or angers people, so be it. Only when people’s eyes are open can you confront them and work to stamp this nonsense out.


  9. Thank you for writing this. I have to admit that I am not familiar with a lot of these scouting practices though, and even less familiar with Native American culture. I knew that Eagle Scout is the highest rank in scouting (though I’d never made the connection with Native Americans). I’m not familiar with how feathers, head dresses, drums, body painting, etc. are used in scouting however. Is this a universal thing or just something that some troops do? Also, I’m not sure what you mean by names and colors. I imagine that you are referring to either specific names/colors that are sacred for Native Americans or that they are using them in a way that is specific to Native culture. Do you mind elaborating on this? Thanks for bringing my awareness to this issue.


  10. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation: There’s No Right Way To Do It | Well-Behaved Mormon Woman

  11. “When it comes to Boy Scouts and cultural appropriation of Native Americans, it is wrong.” Can you please elaborate on this?

    I can hear this camp…. “but I do it with honor”, “I feel so connected to the Natives” ” I think it is fun”, “I want to”, “we have been doing it for 90+ years” ” I have friend who is Native who thinks it is fine”, “the church wouldn’t do something so racist” “we don’t mean anything bad when we do it”
    But would like to understand yours? Thank you!


  12. I could not agree with you more on this topic. I am a member of the Omaha Nation of Nebraska. I have served as a Bishop here in Nebraska and I was always bothered by the boys scout use of native culture and religion. I am also bothered by members who think that there is nothing wrong with what the Boy Scouts are doing. So much for being courteous kind and respectful. Keep speaking out on this issue. I for one was extremely disappointed that the Church decided to maintain their affiliation with the Boy Scouts. Hopefully it will change soon.


    • Bishop Zendejas, we recently move from the Omaha/Council Bluffs area – I knew of you, and we may have met once or twice. I have often been uncomfortable about the use of Native symbolism in ways that seem created by white guys with only a distant understanding of Native culture, more so as I got to know Native people (more common in Omaha than other places places I have lived). I appreciated Jo’s practical suggestions for ways to address the issue & start a change.


  13. Great thoughts, Jo. I especially appreciate the practical suggestions for things we can do to help facilitate change.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Message from Mormon blogger to Scouts: Drop the Native American symbols - Channel GE

  15. Thank you Jo for clarifying and discussing what has been a sore subject amongst most Native people for the longest time. As an advocate for Native images and symbolisms, I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached about the Boy Scouts culture use of these symbols. I believe the cultural appropriation of any culture is wrong and disrespectful. I have been up against this issue for the last 35 years in Hollywood, made some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. The answer I get the most , is the assumption that because it exists, I am entitled. That is wrong and as you well know, MASCOTS, EAGLE FEATHERS and NAMES continue to be the present national concern for our people. Again, wopila for taking on a very important subject matter. A fellow Sicangu Lakota tribal member.
    Sonny Skyhawk


  16. What I will be happy to teach my children on this subject is: sometimes people take offense to things that are not offensive. That is their right but it is not your responsibility or obligation to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Native Americans don’t own exclusive use of eagles, drums, body paint, arrows, or feathers and others should be able to use them respectfully without feeling guilty.


  17. Thank you for your beautiful truth.


  18. Thanks for posting this. Our local troop always does an arrow of light ceremony that features a local woman that puts on an Indian costume and does the drums and the whole bit. This woman is about as white as white gets, and so the effect is mostly a bit creepy, and you’ve done a great job articulating why. It always amazes me that nobody else in our area realizes how weird and offensive this is. For what it’s worth, we skipped out on having this ceremony for my son, and we told him exactly why. We are trying to make sure all of our children are sensitive to these issues and that they are learning to be respectful of what is sacred to others, even when those things are different than what is sacred to us.


  19. When I was a scout, a few local Natives (to use your term) would come and put on a presentation as part of a scouting ceremony.


  20. Green Corn Dancer

    I am part Native American, however due to the government and tribal regulations I can not be a tribal member. It is ironic in this age when the majority of First Nations children and teenagers want nothing to do with their tribal heritage that you would show hate towards those youths who desire to honor the tribal traditions. You would by his appearance think my son is degrading the ceremonies, traditions and dances of his grandmothers and grandfathers.
    The Boy Scout Order of the Arrow is essentially and honor society of the scouts. They do good. In fact this year they provided
    thousands of hours of service to society. They have also taken on a challenge to do 100 good deeds in 100 days #DareToDo .
    If you have attended the temple you have then taken part of ceremonies that are not traditionally yours. You now wear clothing that is not of the Lakota. You have adopted a religion that is not traditionally yours. Whether being a Mormon or attending the Native American Church that is not traditionally yours. Many Native American dancers do dances that are not of their tribe. Many sing songs and celebrate ceremonies such as sweat lodges that are not theirs.
    If you want acceptance and love you must spread acceptance and love to all people.
    To judge a man by the color of his skin is like judging him for the color of his eyes—Bob Marley


  21. Most of you don”t get it. Some of you do. When the early settlers came to America, Native American “Scouts” helped them to explore this land. Why? Because they most likely felt compassion for those who came here without any idea of how to live in a wilderness. These “Scouts” (both male and female) showed the early settlers how to survive. In the scouting program “survival skills are taught to those enrolled. There are countless cases of people who become lost in the woods and are found alive because of skills learned in Scouting. The titles of advancement through scouting are designed to honor Native Americans. Please don’t think it is politically correct to do away with the titles and ceremonies that we scouters do, to honor the native americans that were so crucial to the survival of our ancestors. To do so would be a dishonor to those who helped make this country great.


  22. Amazing! Its really amazing post, I have got much
    clear idea about from this article.


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