1. Ernest Thompson Seton - A Lost Legacy
Although Seton is best known as the first Chief Scout of the U.S.A., his roots are right here in Ontario. Born, 1860, in England, his boyhood was in Lindsay and Toronto (near the Don River Valley) and his latter youth spent in the wilderness of Manitoba. Despite ridicule from his father, Ernest developed an early love for the wilderness, and particularly for the birds and other animals which inhabited it. The first books about nature which he obtained as a young boy became quickly decorated with sketches, and annotated with detailed personal observations. His childhood and youth were filled with unusual adventures and tribulations which make his biography fascinating reading. There are many stories of his life which, in their retelling, would hold the interest of today's youth .
His father, thinking that the profession of "naturalist" was an unproductive and unprofitable one, steered Ernest towards the more honest profession of "artist". It was through his drawings and paintings, along with marvellous books and short stories that Seton eventually gained fame and reputation. By the early 1900's, having settled in the U.S., he had received countless honours and awards for his art, and associated regularly with such people as Theodore Roosevelt, Waite Phillips and Frank Chapman.
From the days of his youth to the period of his retirement, he was fascinated with the way of life of the North American Indian. He had learned their wilderness skills, and had respected their ways, values and ideals. (The book, Two Little Savages, tells an idealized story of his own boyhood.) This respect was to have a great impact and influence on his latter life.
As the story goes, Seton had bought some property in Connecticut, which included a lot of wilderness. Being respectful of nature, he was concerned when he found evidence on day of the local boys camping and lighting fires on his property. The following Saturday he stalked through the woods and waited for the boys to show up. (The stalking of energetic boys must have been a moderate challenge compared to his usual stalking of wild animals.) When he found them and presented himself they started to run away, but he persuaded them to stay and talk. The boys were undoubtedly expecting a scolding, but were very surprised when Seton invited them all to a BBQ on his property the following Saturday.
When the following Saturday came, the boys showed up and were fed. Seton then proceeded to start some contests between the boys and also began to show them some woodcraft skills. At the end of a fun day the boys asked if they could come back the following week.
As the weeks went by, Seton arranged the boys in smaller tribes, and had each small group elect a leader from among the boys. In 1902 Seton founded The Woodcraft Indians, with the aim of teaching boys wilderness camping skills and the values of the Native Indian.
Shortly after this his was visited by Baden-Powell, from England, who observed Seton's program at work. Baden-Powell, as we know, took the principles back to his own country and ended up originating the Boy Scout organization in 1908.
On Feb. 8, 1910, the YMCA, the Woodcraft Indians and the Sons of Daniel Boone were amalgamated to form the original Boy Scouts Of America, and Seton was asked to act as Chief Scout for the new organization. He remained in that position for five years, but was eventually forced to resign due to a difference in philosophy with other members of the organization. While Seton wanted scouting to be based on the ideals of the Native Indian, most others wanted to use the role model of the military. (This may have had a lot to do with the lack of world peace at the time.) Seton was not happy allying himself with military values and bitterly left the Boy Scout organization. He attempted to reform his Woodcraft Indian organization, but had limited success.
It is a tragedy that the man who co-founded Scouting ended his association with it in such a way, and has never received due credit for his achievements, even in the province and community of his youth.
In the opening passage of The Book Of Woodcraft, Seton writes:
This is a time when the whole nation is turing towards the Outdoor Life, seeking in it the physical regeneration so needful for continued national existence,
-is waking to the fact long known to thoughtful men, that those live longest who live nearest to the ground, that is, who lice the simple life of primitive times, divested, however, of the evils that ignorance in those times begot.
And later on the same page, he writes,
I should like to lead this whole nation into the way of living outdoors for at least a month each year, reviving and expanding a custom that as far back as Moses was deemed essential to the national well-being.
These are the words of a naturalist who has led a passionate life observing his natural surroundings. It should be noted that Seton was not a hardy man. In his youth he was often sickly and had serious respiratory problems. And yet this did not prevent him from seeing the benefits of existing simply in the wilderness.
Seton felt strongly that the role model and example for youth should be the Indian warrior or chief.
To exemplify my outdoor movement, I must have a man who was of this country and climate; who was physically beautiful, clean, unsordid, high-minded, heroic, picturesque, and a master of Woodcraft, -besides which he must be already well-known. I would gladly have taken a man of our own race, but I could find none. Rollo the Sea-King, King Arthur, Leif Ericsson, Robin Hood, Leatherstocking, all suggested themselves, but none seemed to meet the requirements and most were mere shadows, utterly unknown. Surely, all this pointed the same way. There was but one figure that seemed to answer all these needs: that was the Ideal Indian of Fenimore Cooper and Longfellow.
Seton goes on to explain that while current views of Natives are of lazy and dirty people, that is only because we have little knowledge of the Indian's proud and noble heritage. In The Book Of Woodcraft and The Gospel Of The Redman, Seton presents and underlines this heritage, using the words of the first settlers and the natives themselves to demonstrate the high spiritual, physical and social standards of these people treated badly by history. It is only in the most recent decade that we, as a society, have finally begun to come to terms with the historical misrepresentation of an entire race, and appreciate their original values.
Central to these original values were:
1. belief in one Supreme Spirit or Creator
2. immortality of the soul and spirit
3. reverence for the body, as the sacred temple of his spirit
4. self discipline, through fasting and other ordeals
5. reverence for parents and elders
6. the sacredness of property, but the charity to share and live in community
7. a simple life ("accumulation of property was the beginning of greed")
9. courage, truth and honour
To reflect these values, Seton established appropriate "Laws" for his organization. It is on these laws and the ideals mentioned above that we have based the "Law of The Seton Society", which you will find later in this manual.
As a naturalist, artist and writer, Seton had a unique perspective on the task of educating youth in the outdoors. He was concerned with self-discipline, not just discipline. He wanted to see awareness, not just regimentation.
His focus is very much the focus of The Seton Society, with certain allowances for differences due to time period. The Seton Society is resolved to have the following broad aims:
- an appreciation of native traditions & attitudes
- the teaching of primitive outdoor skills
- an awareness and reverence of nature
- high spiritual principles
- a dedication to adventure and challenge
Ernest Thompson Seton has left us with a rich written legacy. The Book Of Woodcraft is a source of inspiration, and of information about nature and Indian ways. Two Little Savages is the story of two young boys, their adventures and what they discover in the woods near their home. Wild Animals I Have Known is the collection of short stories for which Seton is best known, and makes fine reading around a campfire (either to yourself, or out loud).