On Playing Indian and the Sin of Cultural Appropriation

Note: This essay was written by Ron Edmonds, a director of the Ertnest Thompson Seton Institiute. It represents his personal views and does not represent the official position of the Ernest Thompson Seton Institute.

I have been thinking a lot about playing Indian lately.  I suppose that is a strange comment coming from a sixty-something white man today.  I am actually thinking more about the implications of playing Indian, really.  What has triggered these thoughts is having read some articles that are highly critical of what is now known as “cultural appropriation.”

I grew up in Oklahoma.  The town where I grew up was originally in Indian Territory, within the Cherokee Nation and just next door to the Osage Nation. After a recent Supreme Court ruling, I think I can say that I grew up on the Cherokee reservation. (When I grew up in Oklahoma, there were technically no Indian reservations at all. They had been eliminated with the allotment system under the Dawes Act before Oklahoma became a state.)

We didn’t think too much about Native American issues when I was a child.  I did not really observe much in the way of anti-Indian discrimination in the corner of Oklahoma I grew up in.  Indian heritage was a bit of a novelty and I remember people claiming Indian heritage proudly back in the 1950s and 1960s where I lived.  There was a man who lived down the street from us and went to our church who had a noticeably Indian name.  It was a curiosity to me. It was not a curiosity in a negative sense, I was curious about everything.

Cherokee Chief William W. Keeler in Lakota-style headdress
Cherokee Chief William W. Keeler
in Lakota-style headress

Of course, part of the reason there wasn’t much anti-Indian sentiment or discrimination in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in those days was that Bartlesville was the home of Phillips Petroleum Company.  The second CEO of Phillips Petroleum, K.S.”Boots” Adams, had married a Cherokee, Blanche Keeler.  They were the parents of K.S. “Bud” Adams, Jr. of Houston oil and football fame.  He was the owner of the Titans NFL football team.  Blanche’s brother, William W. “Bill” Keeler, served as Phillips CEO from 1968 to 1975, a period that included my high school years.  Mr. Keeler was very active in Native American affairs, serving as the last appointed and first elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, having been appointed by President Truman in 1948 and then reappointed by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.  He was democratically elected principal chief in 1971 and served until 1973 when he declined to seek another term. I mention that all to say that I did not observe much anti-Indian discrimination.  It was not until I moved to Oklahoma City following college graduation that I observed the stereotypical Native America skid row then common in cities with large Native American populations.

I was aware of the American Indian Movement beginning with its occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 and events they held in Oklahoma, not too far from my home.

I was involved in Scouting from the age of eight, a popular activity in Bartlesville with strong support from Phillips.  In Scouting, I had additional exposure to Indian culture.   I suppose you would say this is where I was thoroughly exposed to playing Indian.  I do recall that there was at least lip service given to a focus on authenticity, partly as a concession to the interests of Native Americans.  For example, Scouts were encouraged to identify nearby tribes and use their regalia as a model, not mixing Woodland “costume” parts with those of Plains tribes, for example. Nevertheless, the Sioux war bonnet was very much the standard.  I was neither greatly bothered by these activities nor wildly enthusiastic.  I cannot deny that I wore Native American-style ”regalia” several times in my youth. (I will also admit that the commonly used term at the time was ”Indian costume”, the use of which somehow seems more offensive to me now than the attire itself. Happily, I do not have a single photograph of me in Indian attire, although I feel sure some exist in the wild which might magically reappear should I seek high public office.

I did, however, develop an abiding interest in Native American culture, one that is reflected in my thoughts and my own art collection to this very day. 

I have always been a history buff and have frequently read about Native American topics.  Sometimes I have been very surprised to learn of historical events that happened in the vicinity of where I grew up but were never spoken about, such as the Osage murders documented in the recent book, Killers of the Flower Moon.

Somewhere along this time, my interest in history intersected with my involvement with Scouting and I became fascinated with Ernest Thompson Seton, an eclectic man with interests as a naturalist, a writer of children’s books and natural science material and an advocate for Native Americans.  He had formed a precursor to the Boy Scouts called variously the Seton Indians, the Woodcraft Indians and the Woodcraft League.  He joined forces with the fledgling Boy Scouts of America in 1910 until a rancorous split in 1915, when he refocused on Woodcraft.  Nevertheless, he remained in a way a spiritual part of Scouting credited with introducing the Native American focus, along with a number of other elements of the program.  He is considered a cofounder of the movement with more-or-less equal standing with Baden-Powell and Dan Beard.

Ohiyesa or Charles Eastman, physician, Santee Sioux - black and white photo
Charles Eastman Santee Sioux Physician

With that interest developing, I began reading and collecting his books early on – during my college years.  One of Seton’s later books was called The Gospel of the Red Man: An Indian Bible.  It always was very curious to me that a white man compiled an “Indian Bible.”  He had been heavily influenced by The Soul of the Indian by Charles Alexander Eastman.  Eastman, who was also known by the name Ohíye S’a, was a Santee Dakota physician, author and lecturer who was very involved with both the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America.  Eastman was the son of a full-blood Santee father and a half Santee mother, whose father was a U.S. Army officer.  He received a European-style education at mission schools, followed by a boarding prep school in New Hampshire, Kimball Union Academy.  He attended college at Beloit College and Knox College and graduated from Dartmouth and medical school at Boston University.  He was one of the first Native Americans to receive a western medical education.  He returned to South Dakota and worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Eastman influenced Seton’s ideas in starting the Woodcraft Indians and also influenced the Camp Fire Girls and the YMCA.

The Gospel of the Red Man book cover (1936)

Now, I found The Gospel of the Red Man to be a curious book indeed.  There is little doubt that Seton idolized the American Indian.  I am only aware of extremely positive relationships with the numerous tribes with which he had contact.  However, the idea that one could synthesize the beliefs of hundreds of different tribes, very few of which had written histories into a common belief system documented in an Indian bible seemed like a lot to swallow.  I actually wrote a paper on the topic, focused on “Pan-Indianism” when I was a college freshman in 1973-1974.  I do not seem to have a copy of that paper in my personal files.  At the time, I thought that synthesizing Indian culture that way made no sense and was, in fact, offensive to Indians.

Interestingly, when I started writing this paper, I researched the current use of the term Pan-Indianism and got a big surprise.  According to Wikipedia, Pan-Indianism is a philosophical and political approach promoting unity, and to some extent cultural homogenization, among different Native American, First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups in the Americas regardless of tribal distinctions and cultural differences. It suggests that organizations that include members of many Indian tribes, such as the American Indian Movement and many others, should be considered Pan-Indian.

Accordingly, Pan-Indian doesn’t seem to be a dirty (politically incorrect) term today.  Perhaps, Native Americans who participate in such activities today might not consider a synthesized set of Indian beliefs to be offensive or morally reprehensible.  Except, of course, when it is prepared by a non-native man.

Wikipedia has this to say about cultural appropriation:

“Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.

According to critics of the practice, cultural appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or equal cultural exchange in that this appropriation is a form of colonialism: cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.

How do we make sense of this concept of cultural appropriation, especially here in what is usually (at least historically) considered the greatest of all melting pots.  I am told that Native Americans should be viewed differently than other ethnic minority groups for a couple of main reasons.  First, they are not immigrants, we (European whites) are the immigrants here.  We invaded their space. Second, not only did we invade their space, we made many treaties and basically ignored them.  Maybe the idea of colonialism does apply.

I think one thing to consider is the last part of the second paragraph from Wikipedia, “sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.

There is no doubt there is an express wish from some, perhaps many or most Native Americans today that non-Native Americans refrain from “playing Indian”.  What I don’t know and can’t really know is whether the activities launched in the early 1900s were against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.  If so, I can’t see evidence of it.  People like Seton who treated Native Americans with respect seemed to be warmly welcomed by many Native Americans.  There is a record of him being warmly received by a number of groups, including Plains tribes and among the Pueblo tribes.  He was “adopted” by several tribes, including the Yanktonai, the Lakota and several others. While the term adoption is widely used to describe these ceremonies, it is really a misnomer. Tribes did not have a legal concept of adoption into the tribe. Certain tribes did have ceremonies loosely described as “the making of a relative” in which non-tribal members were made a relative of an individual member. This seems somewhat similar to becoming a “blood brother”. These ceremonies usually included the giving of a name and tokens of friendship such as a war bonnet. In 1927, Seton was adopted by Yanktonai Chief White Bear (Mato-Ska or Thomas Frosted) at Standing Rock. White Bear gave him the high honor of giving him his own name.

There are many such stories of adoptions.  Back home in Oklahoma, Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum, was adopted as an Osage.  He had played a big role in enabling the Osage to be, at the time, among the wealthiest people on the planet.   Phillips was adopted as an honorary member of the Osage tribe. The tribe called him “Hulah Kihe-kah” which translates as “Eagle Chief.”

Frank Phillips (in headress) with Osage Leaders
Frank Phillips (in headress) with Osage Leaders

I thought I remembered seeing pictures of him with a delegation of Osage when the adoption was granted.  I investigated and found several.  The funny thing is the Osage tribal leaders in the photos were dressed as I might have expected, in traditional Osage garb, but Phillips was dressed in clothing apparently presented by the Osage, including an elaborate war bonnet that is not at all typical Osage.  He wore a Plains-style war bonnet, not unlike the ones there aren’t any pictures of me wearing.  I wonder what that was all about. I guess versions of cultural appropriation go back a long way and show up in unusual ways.

I guess you can say that Ernest Thompson Seton was guilty of cultural appropriation. It is unarguable since he, a white man, liked to dress as an Indian, built a hogan and a kiva on his property, used seemingly Native American terms in the group he founded, including “Chief” and “Keeper of the Wampum”.  He seems, however, to have done so with the complicity and support of his many Native American friends.

In this day and age, I think it is reasonable to consider “playing Indian” in the ways we did to be anachronistic.  In no way was it intended to be insensitive or cruelly colonial.

I do not feel guilty about having “played Indian”, although I do feel rather embarrassed about it in the context of contemporary attitudes.

I think rage about the actions of Ernest Thompson Seton and other early advocates for the American Indian is misplaced.  I do not, however, have a problem with Native Americans working for change when they see insensitive treatment of their culture and beliefs.  Many things have changed in the last one hundred-plus years.  We all may have seen things differently if we had been present then.  Just don’t recast the intentions of deeply honorable people or ask us to forget an important part of our heritage.

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