Use this dilemma to help your unit discuss offensive names


DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins have been in the news as much for their name as for their on-field play. Critics say the team’s name is offensive to American Indians and should be replaced.

The team’s management counters that many in the American Indian community support the name and that two reservations have schools whose teams are called the Redskins. Tribes, civil rights groups and even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have weighed in on both sides of the controversy, the latest in a half-century-long battle over the use of American Indian names and imagery by athletic teams.

In an increasingly pluralistic society, the question of who decides what is offensive goes beyond team names. Here’s a story that can help your Boy Scouts or Venturers wrestle with this important question within the context of Scouting.

The Dilemma
Few troops can claim to be a century old, but Troop 2 can. Founded in 1913 as the second troop in its community, Troop 2 boasts a rich heritage of service and achievement. Somewhere along the way, it acquired a nickname — the Savages — and a logo that depicts a cartoonish American Indian in a breechcloth brandishing a tomahawk. Both the name and the logo adorn the troop’s T-shirts and trailer, though the troop long ago gave up its bloodcurdling war cry.

Trouble crops up when a Webelos den visits a troop meeting one fall. The den leader calls the Scoutmaster afterward and says her den will be joining a different troop in the spring. “As someone who’s part Navajo, I could never steer my boys to a troop with such offensive traditions,” she says.

For Discussion
To keep the discussion orderly, focus on three separate topics: the source of the complaint, the validity of the complaint and steps the troop could take.


  • Does it matter that the person lodging the complaint is not part of the troop family?
  • Would her complaint carry less weight if she weren’t a Scouter?
  • Does her complaint carry more weight because she is part Navajo?
  • Does it matter that this is the first complaint the troop has received in recent memory?


  • How valid do you think her complaint is? Explain your response.
  • Does it matter that the name is not specific to one tribe? Does it matter that the logo is obviously an exaggerated caricature?
  • In this case, who speaks for the potentially offended group (as opposed to a situation in which a specific tribe’s name is being used)?
  • Assuming you could poll all American Indians, what percentage would have to say they are offended before you would agree to change the troop’s identity? Explain your response.


Assume for the sake of discussion that the troop decides it should make a change to its identity or (as some sports teams have done) get permission from a recognized tribe to use its name. Brainstorm a list of actions the troop could take. These could include retiring the logo, changing “Savages” to “Warriors,” or completely dropping references to American Indians. For each action, discuss these questions:

  • How would this action address the concerns that have been raised?
  • How would this action preserve the troop’s traditions?
  • How should the decision to make a change be made?
  • Who should make the final decision (troop committee, patrol leaders’ council or some other body)?



  1. “As someone who’s part Navajo, I could never steer my boys to a troop with such offensive traditions,” she says.

    Is this den leader part of the solution or part of the problem? Is she seeking to take offense or is she working towards understanding?

  2. JScouter, to answer that question one need only see the word as Native Americans see it. “Savages” is every bit offensive as “n**ger”.

  3. I find it interesting that the Boy Scouts of America have printed in the Scouting Magazine an article about the “ethics” of Troop nicknames and logos that may be offensive when BSA allows the wearing of Face Paint as part of the Order of the Arrow ceremonial attire. Face Paint is very sacred part of Native attire and should never be worn by “Play Indians”
    As a side note – members of the Honors / Leadership program of Mic-O-Say have never allowed Face Paint to be worn in it’s long history

  4. This isn’t offensive, it’s racist. In fact there are many times I see offensive practices taking place in scouting. For example, I gasped first time I saw my pack’s cub master wearing a ridiculous “Indian head dress” Sorry that is highly offensive. When my husband and I took over as cub master and ACM we decided to do away with that offensive practice. If people don’t like something, step in and make a change. Often people need to be educated and their offensive nature is only one of ignorance not malice we need more education not only for scouts but for scouters. There is racism everywhere, scouting is not exempt from that and that I have seen families of scouts leave my unit due to it being “too brown” for their tastes. A friend of mine recently said she heard her son saying something racist things and when she asked her son where he heard it, he said it’s what they want to name their patrol. B.P. obviously had a very high regard for people of other cultures, there is no room for racism on any level in Scouting it goes against the purposes of Scouting. If we want to attract children and families from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds we need to be sure we make it a safe place for all children of all colors.

    • These types of complaints have always seemed a bit ironic to me since most North American cultures, especially the nomadic plains Indians and eastern tribes, were prolific imitators of the styles and patterns they encountered. If they liked it, they copied it. When Europeans appeared, Native Americans were quick to adopt and adapt European garments and accoutrements as they saw fit. In fact, they used all kinds of European items in their personal dress, including construction materials like brass tacks which spread across the plains indian fashion world faster than a Texas brushfire.

      Doesn’t it seem odd then, that imitation, though inaccurate, might seem offensive to folks who viewed imitation as a useful way develop their own personal appearance?

      • Generalizing about hundreds of cultures the way you have makes you seem lees than intelligent and far from realistic. Many Native tribes went out of their way to avoid outside influence, maybe you should do a little research before sharing a fully uninformed opinion. The behavior of some tribes does not excuse dismissive behavior towards other Native cultures for the rest of time any more than the behavior of 16th century Spain should impact the way Norway is treated today no matter how emotionally attached you are to the racist behaviors you seek to normalize.

      • Mick,
        Drawing things from other cultures and adapting them to your own isnt racist nor is it dismissive. It is the opposite of racism. It is seeing something WORTH imitating and attempting to do so.
        The height of irony is claiming offense on behalf of the same “hundreds of cultures” of which you nor I are a part.

      • Chet,
        I understand the perspective you re coming from, but I would like to remind you that at the same time the United States Government was actively supressing any expression of Native identity. In his 1923 circular Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent Charles Burke informed Natives that many of there ceremonies were being prohibited. The Sun Dance, sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people of the northern planes was outlawed in 1882, and in 1883 the government declared that “similar dances and so-called religious ceremonies” were Indian Offenses punishable by imprisonment, withholding of rations, and or destruction of property.

        The issue is not that we attempt (poorly, but thats another argument entirely) to emulate Natives, but that we began doing so in a time when we specifically forbade them from doing it right. Now they are bitter when we emulate stereotypes and completely misrepresent them as people.

        It is a little more complex than appropriation. Its appropration by the oppressors that is so disturbing to the oppressed.

      • We will first have to agree that that anyone who instituted such oppression is dead and gone and no one else, regardless of their skin color or heritage, is responsible for that oppression that occurred 100 years ago.

        You can make it complex as you like but nothing slams the door on a child’s interest faster than telling him he has committed some great offense, of which he was totally ignorant, simply by wanting to imitate something he found admirable.

  5. First let our Scout Oath and Scout Law help guide our discussion and decisions. So, yes the use of the word “Savages” and other offensive names needs to be eliminated. If we are to be an inclusive group we need to have participation of the people we are speaking of, Native Americans. Maybe invite them to participate in our cerimonies or serve as councilors? Maybe that has been offered but refused? Until today I have been a member of Troop 39 as Charter Organization Rep with the Fort Madison United Methodist Church. The reason today was we did not have enough Boy Scouts to recharter T39 into 2015 after over 50 years. (whole other issue)
    One thing that I would like to tell those that protest the BSA use of NA culture is that from my earliest memory in Scouting; was that I have learned a lot about our North American Native Brothers and Sisters and it was and still is a very positive message to all Boy Scouts including the undersigned. I sincerely believe that had I not been a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, OA Ordeal and Brotherhood member that I would not have the same admiration of their culture and knowledge of their tragic encounter with our European ancestors. As a teen Boy Scout I had the honor of hiking the Black Hawk Trail in Illinois and experiencing just a couple days of what it was like for the Sauk & Fox tribes 200 years ago. I earned the medal with Black Hawk’s image from the large statue of him along the Rock River in Illinois. Then to be selected by my fellow Scouts to be tapped out into the Order of the Arrow. I am very proud of those experiences and medal to this day. It was not just “playing Indian” it was a real experience that taught us to be tolerant and work together for the common good.
    I just finished reading Black Hawk’s memoirs published long ago, but still on sale here at the Fort in Ft Madison. One thing Black Hawk stated in many places in the book was “Warrior”. It seemed to be a special term used for the bravest, including his enemies. If the NA community thinks it is wrong for BSA to use the NA in our programs how do they think their history will be disseminated to new generations of all Americans? Schools? No in my opinion the BSA is one of the best programs to help the NA community share their rich history in a very honorable way. One of the tragedies of the NA is that they did not record their own history like Europeans did. So except for NAs like Black Hawk very little of their history was recorded first hand by the Native Americans. They passed their history down through their generations by word. Are they against sharing their history with the BSA? Like our long history in dealing with the NA community it may depend on who you speak to and/or the tribe. So are there just one or two complaints? Does the BSA keep track of protests? I really hope for the best to come out of this discussion for both the NA community and the BSA. The NA culture and teachings are a very strong part of the BSA program. If we neutralize or eliminate the use of the NA teachings and culture it would be a big loss for both sides.
    Thank you, Steve Rippeteau

  6. I think that the mention of a person with Navajo heritage having a concern distracts from the main point in this scenario. It should not matter what a person’s heritage may be, everyone, especially those in an organization like the BSA whether they are scouts, parents, or adult scouters no matter what their ancestry may be should take umbrage at such a situation and move to correct it immediately. However, there needs to be the understanding that society changes over time and this includes words and symbols that are designed to separate and denigrate a subgroup of individuals from the society. Of course there is rarely universal agreement on such words or symbols and so it takes open discussion. At this point in American society, there are some words and symbols and depictions of American Indians (note, that while there is not universal agreement, the most commonly agreed to name for the people of the first nations of America is American Indian, not Native American) that are offensive to more than a few and on this basis everyone at every level in the BSA should willingly move to change them to something more appropriate and it should not matter what a person’s ancestry may be for them to have the moral position to press for such a change.

    As for the OA that some people have mentioned, 98 percent of the images used on patches and other material plus the use of Lenni Lenape and other tribal languages is deliberately aimed at being respectful, admiring and celebrating the American Indian culture and society. Of course the very tiny amount of material that may have been produced in the past that use cartoon images or caricatures are clearly inappropriate and should never be made again. As for the use of body or face paint and clothing, I would think that this would be a topic that the BSA should approach some of the national representatives of the Indian nations such as the National Congress of American Indians located in Washington, D.C. and seek an open discussion of how the BSA and OA might move forward with common understanding and respect. Their website is It may also be a good step for the OA and BSA leaders to ask the Elder’s Councils of the Confederation of Sovereign Nanticoke-Lenape Tribes to have a discussion and seek their advice on how the OA may move forward with full respect of their culture. Here is a link to their website:

  7. Using Mark’s structure and my experience as a Scoutmaster, here is how I would handle it. (Full disclosure: my troop has a logo and legend adapted from the history of another country and I have never had anyone complain. Those who have heard the legend recited during troop neckerchief presentations have universally stated they appreciated insight into the previously unknown lore.)

    I give every parent and Scout who walks through the door the benefit of the doubt (meaning I assume they operate with constructive, positive intent) on just about everything, until they prove me wrong. If a parent chose to phrase their complaint as Mark wrote above (with the tone I believe Mark wrote it in), I would wish them well in their search for a new unit and be done with it. Their heritage, Scouting experience, and membership in the unit does not enter into the equation and it certainly doesn’t trump their intent. Someone has a sincere question? I am happy to discuss. Have a reservation about the program? Let’s talk. Someone wants to make a scene? Have a nice day. We have a program to deliver.

    As stated above, intent is far more important than the complaint. Although, it’s worth pointing out that anyone can take offense about anything (and people seem to want to do that more than ever). Do I really have time as a Scoutmaster to get into the minutiae (like calculating percentages. Really Mark?) of who has a right to be offended by what? Nope. Nor do I want to. Why? Because allowing a person who does not have constructive intent to claim aggrieved status creates a permanently reactionary (and no-win) relationship for the unit leader. That is not a recipe for long or happy tenure as a volunteer.
    As Mark’s outline illustrates, there could be lots of right answers and constructive paths to take. But let me give you a cautionary tale: There once was a man named Walter Wetzel. Most people knew him as “Blackie” because Walter was a member of the Blackfeet Nation in near Cut Bank, Montana. He was a US Army veteran and a distinguished alumni of Univ. of Montana where he was a standout athlete. Besides being a chief in his own tribe, Blackie served on several inter-tribal organizations at the national level, eventually being elected president of the National Congress of American Indians. And that is how he met and became friends with JFK and other well known personalities, but the name given to him by Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet Nation was more accurate: Siks-a-num – Man of The People. He always advocated for the betterment of people, Native American and otherwise, both politically and culturally. No one who knew him was surprised when, in the 1970’s, he approached the Washington Redskins about their logo. Back then, the Redskins were using a stylized “R” on their helmet, having discarded the spearhead a few years earlier. Blackie thought it would be better if they went back to the old Indian head logo. He wanted to help make the new logo an accurate depiction so he started sending them pictures of men from his tribe. Then, he started soliciting design input from leaders of other tribes. Eventually, he went to the Redskins head office in DC to present his proposal in person. They adopted it and that is what you see on their helmet today – a logo that a chief of the Blackfeet nation lobbied for and helped design. But what about that “Redskins” name? Here is what Blackie’s son Don said about that and the logo: “It represents the Red Nation and it’s something to be proud of.” And today, there is still a bronze statue of the logo sitting in the team owner, Dan Snyder’s, office. There is an inscription on it:

    ““Walter S. Wetzel will forever be a part of the Redskins family because of his work in getting this logo put on the helmets.”

    Now – you don’t hear a lot of people telling the truth when they talk about the Redskins but the truth is really, really important isn’t it? It shows us that real human beings with honorable intentions, good judgment, and lots of quality effort can’t prevent people from finding time to get indignant. You can be Siks-a-num himself and people will still get mad at you. Do what you think is best and do your best at it. That’s all we can do. We have to pick our battles and catering to the righteously offended isn’t a winner. There simply isn’t time. Speaking of which, I have to pack for a campout……….

  8. I have some Cherokee heritage myself (some of my ancestors survived the Trail of Tears), so it bring me great pain whenever I hear or see slurs, or other racist actions or remarks. I am also a member of both Order of the Arrow and Mic-O-Say. I am in leadership positions in both. I can assure you that while we as Scouts and Scouters have a lot of work to do, I am confident it can, and will happen because my generation is becoming the leaders of the future, and diversity and inclusivess are big values of my generation.
    Yours in Scouting,
    Joe Patterson

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