Scouting and Native American Culture

You have heard a lot about the Tribe of Mic-O-Say this week, and with good reason. Mic-O-Say is the beating heart of Camp Geiger and a big part of its appeal to our Scouts. Induction into this honor camping society is a major goal for most who attend summer camp here.


We now return to yesterday's question: what does Scouting have to do with Indian culture and traditions? We all known that Lord Robert Baden-Powell (affectionately known as ‘BP’) was the founder of the international Scouting movement. Perhaps less well known is that his inspiration came from events while he was with the British Army in southern Africa. So how is there a link to Native American traditions in British southern Africa?

During the Second Matabelele War, BP met and befriended an American scout, Frederick Russell Burnham. Burnham introduced BP to stories of the American Old West and to the ways of outdoor survival and success. Collectively, these skills, along with others directed specifically at intelligence-gathering, were know as "scoutcraft". It was also during this time that BP, inspired by Burnham’s attire, first wore the familiar Stetson campaign hat and neckerchief. These later became early emblems of Boy Scouting.

Burnham was born on a Lakota Sioux Indian reservation in Minnesota in 1861. From the Sioux, he grew up learning the ways of American Indians. As an adult, he served as a U.S. Army scout during the campaigns against the Apaches. Feeling that the ‘wild’ West was becoming too tame, Burnham sought a new frontier and headed to Africa in 1893.

In Africa, he worked for the British military as a scout and his skills soon became widely known and appreciated. King Edward VII of England awarded Burnham the rank of Major, among other honors recognizing his bravery and contribution to British Imperialism. He became friends with Baden-Powell during this Second Matabele War in what would become Rhodesia and, later, Zimbabwe. At this time, Burnham taught BP the ways of American Indian and pioneer scoutcraft. BP was keen to master these skills, having served with Army Intelligence in Central Europe. He would later use these skills to good effect at the siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War (it was his successful leadership of the defense of Mafeking that earned BP fame throughout the British Empire). In fact, BP was so taken with the successful application of the scouting techniques to military use that he wrote a book to teach these skills to other British soldiers.

This book, Aids to Scouting, became popular with the British military and helped secure the fame BP had won as the hero of Mafeking. Unexpectedly, the book found an audience among young people, especially boys, and among adult civilians who felt that something important was being lost in the rapidly-urbanizing Western World. Many folks felt that young people needed to be acquainted with Nature and the ways of the outdoors. Aids to Scouting, describing techniques BP had refined based on what Burnham had told him, served as a template for these progressive people to organize outdoor-focused organizations for young people. Inspired by the enthusiastic reception his book received among civilians, he adapted it into Scouting for Boys, which later became the inspiration for The Scout Handbook.

Runner Little Three Lakes
As the 20th century dawned, many groups were founded with the express goal of keeping youth in touch with the outdoors. Among these were the Woodcraft Indians. This organization, as its name indicates, based its outdoor focus in Native American-inspired traditions, lore, and skills. It was founded by popular author Ernest Thompson Seton, whose many books, such as Lobo, King of the Currumpaw, made him a nationally recognized figure. For instance, he was one of the literary figures involved in the "Nature Fakers  Controversy" which gained so much attention that President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to end it. Seton and BP met in 1906. BP had read Seton’s book The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians and found its ideas congruent with his own.

At about this time, 1905, Daniel Carter Beard organized the Sons of Daniel Boone (later, the Boy Pioneers of America) basing his outdoor program on the experience of American Pioneers. Trained as an engineer, Beard later attended art school, in keeping with his families tradition. He was a member of the Student Art League when he and E. T. Seton became friends in 1883. Beard became an accomplished artist and writer and illustrated books for Mark Twain, among others.
Dan Beard at the 1937 National Jamboree, family photo.

Soon after W. D. Boyce brought Scouting to the United States, Seton’s Woodcraft Indians and Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone merged with Boyce’s organization to become the Boy Scouts of America and Beard and Seton became influential leaders in the BSA, as did Frederick Russell Burnham.

Thus, even before the Scouting movement began in England in 1907, it was intimately-linked to the traditions of Native Americans, going back to its origin under Baden-Powell in England in 1907. Today, Boy Scout organizations such as Order of the Arrow and Mic-O-Say continue this proud tradition.

Again, as the night and the Tapping Fire ceremony grow closer, one's time for writing grows less. Thus, we may not hear of the night's events until the morrow.

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