The Importance of Ernest

A faded Canadian naturalist becomes an enduring Czech passion

A hundred years ago, Ernest Thompson Seton was a household name in Canada, the United States and many places in Europe, his books bestsellers. One of the inventors of the realistic animal story, he was also a key figure in the Boy Scouts, played a pioneering role in what would later become the environmental movement and took the lead in defending and indeed celebrating Native North American culture. A visionary, he was more in tune with concerns of the early 21st century than the late Victorian world in which he grew up and developed his ideas. Nowadays almost forgotten in Canada and the United States (which became his adopted home), he remains a continuing source of inspiration in parts of Europe, above all in the Czech Republic.

In many countries in the western world, at the end of the 19th century there was growing concern that young people—and particularly boys and young men—were becoming “soft,” “spoiled,” “indifferent to traditional values.” The reasons for this were many, among them the rapid growth of industrialized cities (which reduced young people’s physical activities and divorced them from the natural world) and the growing regimentation of young people’s lives, in particular through the expansion of compulsory education. Equally important, a growing sense of nationalism sought to mould young people everywhere into patriotic defenders of national or imperial “interests.” One of the responses to this “crisis” was a search for new ways of bringing young people together in voluntary organizations where they could be infused with the right “spirit.” Many different groups were created in response to this widely felt need, all competing for the attention and loyalty of young people. In the early years, there was a widely shared view that this would lead to a kind of peaceful coexistence of these different but equal movements with their varied methods and aims, but in the end the road taken was one of amalgamation on the one hand and marginalization on the other.

In this process, Seton had a head start. Born in England, he emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1866 at the age of six. After a short interlude in which the family tried, and failed, to restore their fortune by farming, they moved to Toronto. But the brief period in the Ontario countryside had marked the young Ernest indelibly. Partly in response to a deep love of nature, partly as a means of getting away from his harsh, demanding father, he took to exploring the wild areas that still lay within easy reach of the city—the great pine forest of Erindale; Castle Frank, then still a wooded hill; the Don River Valley. There he spent hours observing the local wildlife and employing his rapidly developing skill as an artist to capture their appearance. It was this talent that gained him a scholarship at the Royal Academy in London, but impoverishment and overwork broke his health, forcing him to return to Canada. There followed two years in Manitoba, where he spent days and weeks on his own in the wild, becoming an expert on the province’s animal life (later named the Official Naturalist to the Government of Manitoba, he held the title until his death in 1946). It was in Manitoba, too, that he met and came to know his first Indians, as Seton always referred to them. His growing reputation as a naturalist and wildlife artist led him to pursue his career in the United States, and it was there that he really took off.

His popularity with the general public began with the publication of his first short story, “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” in the mass circulation Scribner’s Magazine in 1894. The dramatic tale of a magnificent wolf he had hunted down and trapped, it met with instantaneous success. (Ironically, the experience of killing Lobo had radically altered Seton’s views; ever since then, he later wrote, “my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.”) “Lobo” was followed by many further tales, the publication in 1898 of his first book, Wild Animals I Have Known (three of the stories harked back to his Toronto adolescence), and from 1901 a regular column in, of all places, Ladies’ Home Journal, where Two Little Savages began serial publication in 1903.

Seton made programmatic use of Ladies’ Home Journal to promote the ideas of a movement that he was simultaneously working out theoretically and implementing in practice, the Woodcraft Indians. He drew on many strands, some common at the time, others his personal passions. Among the former were such things as a belief that children were naturally good, with a host of strong positive instincts (love, curiosity, pride, a constructive social spirit) that contemporary society tended to deform; that the world of nature held the key to personal development; that the aim of education should be to enable children to discover their own talents. Among Seton’s more personal passions was a conviction that Native North Americans had understood how to live properly in, and respect, the world of nature—something he increasingly saw as essential for human survival—and that they had a far superior relationship with their children and a more profound understanding of how they should be brought up, views he had been developing through personal friendships since his days in Manitoba. There was also an admiration of the principles of socialism (most likely initiated by James Mavor, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, and strengthened by a meeting in that city with the Russian anarcho-communist Pyotr Kropotkin on a visit the latter made to Canada in 1897). He had an intense dislike of any social institution that smacked of hierarchy and discipline imposed from above or that divided society into privileged and unprivileged groups.

Seton’s Woodcraft Indian movement, founded officially in 1902, soon became the leading young people’s organization in the United States. It was on a visit to England in 1904 to publicize it that he learned of efforts by Robert Baden-Powell to promote what seemed like a similar youth movement there. The two men agreed to cooperate, but their visions of what this cooperation should be like were radically different. It seems that Seton foresaw Baden-Powell’s Scouts as being limited to Britain, while he would continue organizing Woodcraft Indian “tribes” in the United States. Baden-Powell, however, was clearly more ambitious as well as both devious and ruthless: his Scouting for Boys, published in 1908, contained huge amounts of material taken or adapted from Seton’s Woodcraft Indian organizational manual, The Birch-Bark Roll, with only the most general acknowledgement of the source.

Thus began a process of growing alienation between the two men, the two movements and their backers. When the Boy Scouts of America was formally established in 1910, it included a wide range of groups, the Woodcraft Indians included. Seton’s pre-eminence ensured him the position of chief scout, but it soon became evident that this was largely honourary: the real power lay with the supporters of Baden-Powell, who shared with him the concept of “scout” in its military sense—a soldier employed to scout out the enemy. Seton’s understanding of the term—an Indian scout, fully at home in the natural world—took a back seat. Seton gradually became marginalized in the rapidly growing movement: as World War One approached, his socialism, his rejection of efforts to instil patriotism in the young, his quarrel with the Scouting movement’s quasi-military aspects and his increasingly passionate defence of aboriginal people, made him less and less acceptable to the board of governors (who were goaded on by Teddy Roosevelt). Seton was later to comment acidly: “My aim was to make a man; Baden-Powell’s was to make a soldier.” When efforts were launched to incorporate the Boy Scouts federally, Seton’s nationality—he was still a British subject (only in 1931 did he become an American citizen)—was used as a pretext to marginalize him even further. Finally, in 1915, Seton resigned as chief scout and withdrew his Woodcraft Indians from the organization, establishing them as an independent body.

Baden-Powell’s opportunistic and militaristic tendencies notwithstanding, Seton’s ideas enjoyed a quiet triumph in a distant land, leading to a culture that is still vibrant today. In the years before World War One, the emergence of the Woodcraft and Scouting movements in the United States and Britain did not go unnoticed in the Czech lands. The first Scout troop appeared there in 1911, followed three years later by the formal establishment of a scouting organization. Simultaneously, the Czech Woodcrafter movement was taking shape thanks to the secondary school teacher Miloš Seifert. Originally attracted to the budding Scouting movement, as a natural scientist and pacifist he soon found his model in Seton rather than Baden-Powell. Early in 1913 he wrote to Seton, who in return sent him a copy of the latest edition of The Birch-Bark Roll. Within months Seifert had established a boys’ group inspired by Seton’s principles, in fact the first Woodcrafter group in Europe; that summer, they erected the first teepee seen in the Czech lands.

Following the 1914–18 war, the youth movement exploded in the newly independent Czechoslovakia. In addition to the Scouts and Woodcrafters, the newly established YMCA flourished, and there were also significant numbers of young people who, rejecting any kind of organizing from above, gave birth to a unique Czech phenomenon called “tramping.” Referred to originally as “wild scouts” and later as “tramps,” these young people went out into the countryside on the weekends and during their holidays, meeting round campfires, singing songs and sleeping out under the open skies, as close to “nature” as possible. All these groups shared a broad base of shared practices and cooperated extensively at the personal level, and the main element that linked them was Seton and the Woodcrafter philosophy.

Seton’s writings were first translated into Czech as early as 1909; by the mid 1930s, more than 80 editions and re-editions of his works had appeared. Most importantly, these Czech translations comprised more than just his animal stories—they included The Birch-Bark Roll of Woodcraft and Two Little Savages, in which the basic principles of the Woodcrafter movement are presented in the form of an instructional manual and a narrative story, respectively. These ideas shaped all the young people’s movements in the country. There was a central emphasis on frequent and regular activities in the outdoors, climaxing in the annual summer camp: the young people left behind “civilization” and its comforts, set up their camps themselves “in nature,” and practised the skills that Seton had described so appealingly in his books. The insights and practices of indigenous peoples generally (and those of North America in particular) were stressed, with the teepee and the ceremonial campfire becoming key fixtures of most camps. The aim was to acquire lesní moudrost—“forest wisdom,” Seifert’s brilliant translation of the word “woodcraft,” suggesting as it does a whole approach to life.

Given that his ideas permeated the activities of young people and their organizations in interwar Czechoslovakia, the announcement in 1936 that Black Wolf (Seton’s Woodcrafter/Indian name) would visit the country aroused intense anticipation. Woodcrafter circles were particularly ecstatic: “The critical moment has arrived … when we will stand face to face with the man who has shown us our life’s path … Brothers and sisters, Black Wolf is coming!” The five-day whirlwind visit was a triumphant success, culminating in a special broadcast on Radio Prague to the Czech nation, the somewhat surprising content of which was a plea for peace and understanding among nations, based on Seton’s own experience in coming to know the “Redman.”

The next 50 years, however, were not propitious for western-inspired youth movements in Czechoslovakia: both the Nazi and the communist regime banned the Scouts, Woodcrafters and YMCA and imprisoned their leaders. But they went underground, continuing their activities by taking on the official guise of Young Pioneers or youth hiking divisions of sports clubs. The tramps, with no organizational structure and no leaders, could not even be prosecuted or closed down. And rather amazingly, at this time new groups influenced by Seton took shape, in particular the Czech Indians. Other individuals influenced by Woodcrafter ideas managed to establish nature conservation groups that became the core of the later environmental movement in the country. Throughout all this, Seton’s works themselves continued to be published, and in 1970 there appeared, under the title The Book of Forest Wisdom, an anthology of selections from The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore and The Birch-Bark Roll. This became a treasured possession for many young Czechs. I well remember watching with astonishment when, with the aid of a dog-eared copy of this book, my elder son and his teenage friends, as members of a young people’s hiking club, sewed a series of full-size teepees for their summer camp one year toward the end of the 1980s.

Following the end of the communist regime in 1989, all of the various organizations once again emerged from hiding and resumed their activities. Remarkably, even the Czech Woodcrafters reconstituted themselves; at the present time they appear to be the only organization on the European continent adhering officially to the Woodcrafter heritage. More widely, Seton continues to resonate in the Czech Republic. The translations have kept appearing. Seton’s name, and his ideas, can be found everywhere on the websites of young people’s groups. The Czech Indians, who have been inspired in so many ways by Seton’s vision of indigenous people as a role model, continue to thrive. Soon after the fall of communism they actually played host to three Cree and Ojibway elders from Manitoba whom they had invited to take part in their annual summer camp. The 1995 Zemma Pictures/NFB coproduction If Only I Were an Indian captures well the three guests’ amazement. As one of them, Barbara Daniels, an Ojibway elder, put it, “this trip was one of the highlights of my life. I’ve never been so proud to be a Native Indian as I have been with these Czech Indians.” Seton, too, would undoubtedly have been proud, although probably not surprised. For him, Woodcraft was something approaching a philosophy of life, its central concern a respect for “all living things,” a respect that included both the natural environment and the great diversity of people and peoples in the world. At its deepest, the Woodcrafter movement was/is an effort to view the world in holistic terms. Or, in the words of one of Seton’s favourite maxims, “Woodcraft is lifecraft.”