The Koshare Scouts is primarily made up of Boy Scout troop 2230 in La Junta, Otero County, that has studied Native American lore and performed tribal rituals since the 1930s. This imitative white group is part of a long American history of “playing Indian.” In the twentieth century, groups like the Koshares wanted to preserve an authentic identity for the Native Americans, who they believed were losing their cultural heritage. But the interest in indigenous culture also had to do with a personal search for meaning. Post–World War II Americans lived in a culture that celebrated the nation and the lifestyle it promised while also dealing with questions about “othered” cultures within the country and what it means to be American.
Since the 1930s, Troop 2230 has practiced Native American dances and preserved Native American art in its gigantic kiva, a functional replica of the traditional Native American ceremonial structure, in La Junta. Scoutmaster and Native American enthusiast F. “Buck” Burshears founded the group and led it until his death in the 1980s.
In 1933 Burshears returned from Colorado College to his hometown of La Junta to model the Koshare Boy Scout Troop after Colorado Springs troop 10. From a refurbished chicken coop in his backyard and a five-dollar dancing gig at the local church, the small Boy Scout troop of about twenty grew into a multimillion dollar enterprise within Buck’s lifetime. All the money the dancers earned was funneled directly into their impressive kiva and museum.
The Koshare Scouts spent a lot of time learning directly from native tribes by visiting reservations and attending their ceremonies. The Koshares initially performed at rodeos to make money, which enabled them to continue preserving native culture. However, in the 1940s and 1950s they had trouble finding performance opportunities outside of local fairs and staged cowboys-versus-Indians shows.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when many Native Americans began engaging in political protests in the face of ongoing poverty and racism, the Zuni tribe criticized the scouts’ indigenous costumes. In 1953 the tribe realized that the Scouts were re-creating the costumes of their sacred Gods and threatened to prevent nonnatives from visiting their reservation. But after visiting the Koshares, tribal representatives from the reservation decided that the costumes were accurate enough to serve as real gods. Even with this tacit approval, however, Zuni tribal members retrieved their ceremonial garb, stored it in sacred spaces on their reservation, and forbade the Scouts to don costumes to perform future Shalako (native dances). This placed the Koshares in a strange situation—they had created a new and authentic cultural object that was acceptable to the Zunis, but were nevertheless asked not to perform the ceremony.
In spite of this ambivalent message from the Zuni people, the Koshares continue to perform and their program has become an important part of rural Colorado life. “Papooses,” or young scouts, can only become Koshares after they have demonstrated knowledge of Native American culture and the ability to treat it in a responsible manner. They must read at least five books on Native American culture from the troop’s library and must accurately perform at least five dances. Then, after several other requirements, a council of their peers—the active Koshares—decides on their admission by a two-thirds majority vote.
The group has enjoyed local respect. In 1969, for example, Buck Burshears was awarded the Silver Buffalo Award, or the State Citizen of the year “for combating juvenile delinquency.” At the time of the publication of the book Koshare, the troop was awarded $50,000 from Colorado Springs’s El Pomar Foundation for their work. With the support they received from their dance performances and gifts, the group has been able to build and expand the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, a multimillion dollar museum that houses many Native American artifacts.