LA JUNTA, Colo. - For decades, Boy Scouts from Southern Colorado have been performing Indian dances during the holiday season at the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado.
The Koshare Dancers, named for a Pueblo Indian clown society representing ancestral spirits, have visited 47 states and three different countries, attended Pueblo powwows and feast days, and even traveled to the White House and Madison Square Garden in New York. According to their website, they have been "recognized and accepted by the Native American community - the highest honor bestowed on a non-Indian group."
But when Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation in Kykotsmovi, Arizona, learned recently about the program and saw video online of some of the performances, he was disturbed. The performers, he said, were "mimicking our dances, but they were insensitive, as far as I'm concerned."
Many other members of the tribe agreed with him, some of them posting their views on Facebook. "They're making a mockery of our Native religion," one person said on the group's Facebook page, while another wrote, "I can't believe this Boy Scout troop thinks this is ok."
Kuwanwisiwma wrote to the board of the museum asking for the dances to cease, and he followed up with phone calls. He called the Boy Scout performances "commercial exploitation" and said they were "mimicking the Hopi butterfly, buffalo and Tewa ceremonial clowns."
Kuwanwisiwma said he got no response. But when he went to the Koshare Indian Museum's website, he saw an announcement that the 2015 Winter Night Dances, scheduled to begin Dec. 19, had been canceled "for this year out of respect for our Native American friends and until there has been an opportunity to discuss the Hopi's concerns in a timely manner."
But Kuwanwisiwma said no one has contacted him. No one at the museum returned calls from a reporter seeking comment. And a representative of the Rocky Mountain Council of the Boys Scouts of America declined to comment.
Bette McFarren, a reporter for the La Junta Tribune-Democrat, said the museum notified the paper's editor earlier this month of the decision, and "we were all shocked. There's all kinds of respect given to the Hopi in those dances. Nothing is ever made fun of." And, she added, the experience is "kind of like going to church. It's just too bad. It's a big, big thing here."
According to Kuwanwisiwma, the Koshare Dancers perform a version of the Hopi butterfly dances as well as buffalo dances associated with the Northern New Mexico pueblos.
In Hopi culture, he said, younger boys and girls are "slowly guided through stages of life to engage in some of these dances." The attire of the Koshare Dancers, he said, was representative of Hopi dancers, but "they in no way represented how Hopis dance these dances." Moreover, he said, they don't understand the meaning of the dances. "You can't just decide to do these dances. It's a very careful process, founded on our kinship system."
This isn't the first time the Hopis have set out to stop outsiders from what they see as stealing their cultural traditions. In the early 1990s, Kuwanwisiwma said, a group of businessmen in Prescott, Arizona, calling themselves the Smoki Tribe, were presenting Hopi, Zuni and Plains Indian dances. They insisted they didn't mean any harm and were only trying to help the Hopis preserve their culture and religion, Kuwanwisiwma said. But the Hopis objected.
After a couple of years of protests, the group members' businesses began losing money, he said, and they finally stopped performing the dances.
Santa Clara Gov. Michael Chavarria called the Koshare dances a "slap in the face."
"They don't know what they're dancing for, the purpose of it. It hurts us," he said.
Chavarria said the All Indian Pueblo Council had discussed the issue and is expected to pass a resolution next month asking the Colorado Scouts to stop altogether. "They're mocking us as Native Americans," he said.
In a comment on the La Junta Tribune-Democrat website, a woman named Dee Dee wrote, "As a New Mexico Pueblo citizen, this organization does not have permission and never will obtain the permission because everything this group has been mimicking belongs only to our people. This Boy Scout organization is clearly violating and interfering with our centuries old Pueblo spiritual practices and beliefs."
The Koshare Dancers have a long history in Colorado. According to the museum's website, they started as a small group of Boy Scouts who were interested in "Indian lore." A scoutmaster named J.F. "Buck" Burshears, who served the La Junta troop for 55 years, was inspired to start a program called the Boy Scout Indian Club in 1933. The boys remodeled a chicken coop in his backyard as a clubhouse and presented their first show in the basement of a local church.
According to the website, the Koshares are black-and-white striped characters who portray unacceptable behaviors in comic ways to teach community values.
The dancers are members of Troop 232 and Venturing Crew 2230 of the Rocky Mountain Council, Boy Scouts of America. To participate, they must have earned the Boy Scouts' Arrow of Light Award and be younger than 18. They also must maintain a C average in school; read five books about Native American culture; and research, design and make their own costumes. They perform 50 or 60 shows a year, many at the Koshare Indian Museum's kiva. In 1995, girls were invited to participate as guest dancers.
The dancers' website says that the dances, which began in 1950, are "historically and culturally accurate" and "authentic representations of Native American dance."