From “tribes” to “powwows”: summer camps finally count on the abuse of indigenous traditions | Indigenous peoples

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“I’m still learning the new names,” Holly Mueller Hecht said. She walks past the rows of booths, then nods toward one. “But this one is named after a plant now.”

Until August 2020, the 18 camper bunk beds at Camp Onas — a coed overnight camp in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, where Hecht is one of the directors — all had names derived from Native American tribes and languages, or built to sound like they are.

There was Seminole and Playwicki; Tulpehocken and Tinicum; Wissahickon and Comanche – a hodgepodge of cultures, not to mention fact and fiction.

The names, mostly chosen decades ago, reflect a long tradition in North American summer camps. Every year, millions of children are dropped off by their parents in the woods for weeks on end, in institutions that have appropriated Indigenous names – or their invented equivalents – and co-opted “Indigenous” practices into the camp culture, such as powwows, totem poles, war paint, certain camp songs and “tribes”.

It was the same at Camp Onas – at least until last August, when staff and older campers collaborated on a plan to rename the bunks: stars and constellations for the older bunks, plants for the older ones. youth. New names include Sundrop and Orion, Sycamore and Lyra, Bluestem and Silverleaf.

Onas is not alone. Across the continent, the camping community is finally grappling with Native American cultural appropriation. Many camps began the long work of repairs, beginning – but not ending – with changing their names. In February, Camp Kummoniwannago in Waterloo, Canada, changed its name at the request of the local Indigenous community. In 2021, Camp Iroquois in New York changed its name to Camp Evergreen. At the American Camp Association’s (ACA) national conference in February, the name change was on the lips of many camp professionals, presenter Andrew Corley said.

“We’re approached by other camps like, ‘Hey, is it okay what we’re doing with headdresses and totem poles? And we have these cabin names…'” Corley, who is at the head of the Sioux YMCA, the only YMCA located on a Native American reservation.

“They don’t have an ‘Irish’ cabin, why would they have a ‘Lakota’ cabin?” added Ryan Gagnon, assistant professor at Clemson University, who presented alongside Corley during a session on the Global Indigenous Youth Summit.

Not everyone agrees. Many camps still accredited by the ACA dress their campers in Native American attire or divide campers into “tribes”—often with names belonging to Native American communities such as Apache, Comanche, or Cherokee. While the ACA offers resources for camps seeking to change their names or practices, they do not provide specific guidelines for camps to follow, or rules prohibiting appropriation.

Indeed, some camps actively decide not to change. In 2020, elders at Camp Merri-Mac in North Carolina started a petition to end the use of the Choctaw, Iroquois, and Seminole names, which are part of a “tribal” system in which campers are “initiated “. But the petition fell short of its goal of 500 signatures, and although the director of Merri-Mac’s sister camp, Camp Timberlake, told the Guardian that the two camps had discontinued their “Native American motif” in 2021, the site The camp’s web always refers to its “Indian tribes“.

A screenshot from a 2012 promotional video for Camp Merri-Mac. Photography: Camp Merri-Mac

That matters, activists say, because American summer camps are a cultural force. In the United States, there are approximately 15,000 summer camps serving 26 million campers each year. “Outside of public school, more American children experience summer camps than any other institution,” said Dr. Paul Hutchinson, who teaches at Boston University and co-curated a museum exhibit about New Hampshire summer camps.

Day camps and holiday camps are booming. Some specialize (eg, science camp, drama camp, or space camp), but many simply focus on being outdoors, building community, and having fun. Some camps are single-sex, others are mixed; they run anywhere from a week to eight.

Summer camps were originally conceived in the late 19th century to teach wealthy boys in an increasingly urban nation how to survive in the wild. But commercialized parents often didn’t have much experience with the wilderness either.

“The only thing they really knew about this wilderness idea was what was being romanticized in Longfellow and in James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain, so that’s really what they’re fabricating,” Hutchinson noted. “You look at a lot of camp names and the names of their traditions and they’re straight out of The Song of Hiawatha.”

Boys at a summer camp in the 1950s.
Boys at a summer camp in the 1950s. Photography: ClassicStock/Alamy

By the mid-20th century, this idealized “natural” way of life—often represented by the appropriation of Indigenous tropes—was a hallmark of the camp experience. “In the post-war years, when westerns were all the rage, [camps] want to have powwows, they want to have these bonfires and dress like natives, and have these legends that connect them to the distant past. It’s all about romance,” Hutchinson said. “It ended up becoming cartoonish.”

Not least because, with 574 officially recognized tribes in the United States, appropriating Indigenous cultures also means mixing and obscuring those same cultures. “Native Americans aren’t a one-stop shop,” said Evanlene Melting Tallow of Washington State University’s Na-ha-shnee Steam Health Summer Institute, a summer program for high school students of Native ancestry. “We have different languages, different customs, different religion.”


IIn the late 90s and early 2000s, I was first a camper and then an animator at Onas. I don’t remember any discussion that my berth at home one summer, Cree, was the name of a people from the northeast of the continent; or that Chippewanna, where I spent another summer, was a variant of Chipewyan, a tribe in northern Canada. I just remember the childhood pride of belonging to a certain bunk.

“In our names, the theme was: Native sounds,” recalls Dex Coen Gilbert, assistant camp director. “It’s a bit of a shame that for so long it’s been like this.”

One of the camps that has made changes is Camp IHC in Pennsylvania, formerly known as Indian Head Camp. The process was not easy, explains its director, Lauren Rutkowski. “We changed everything. The name, the logo. You’re talking millions of dollars,” she said.

But, she adds, “If you really agree that this is harmful to Indigenous peoples… [then] it is not for us to use it.

Many former campers disagreed with that decision, she said. “Camp is something that people hold dear – it’s part of who they are,” Rutkowski says. “That the name be questioned in terms of: is it appropriate? Is it something that reflects the values ​​of what the camp is supposed to be? Or is it something that doesn’t match that? It was very difficult for people to hear.

Tradition is an important factor. “In some cases, you have five generations of a family that went to the same camp on the shores of the same lake in the same mountains and did the same ritual. There’s not a lot in American culture that you can say your great-great-grandfather did like you did,” Hutchinson said.

“A lot of people are reacting to what has become their family history and traditions, and don’t want to question it – but also don’t really want to delve into it, realize who is being silenced in this process.”

Cheryl Ellenwood, a citizen of the Nez Perce Nation of Idaho and Navajo, has worked with the ACA on ownership issues in the past. “When camps engage in activities such as giving campers ‘Indian’ names or holding ceremonies that make fun of Native Americans, they teach campers that this kind of behavior is acceptable and reinforce the idea that Native peoples are not equal,” she said.

She agrees that change is difficult. “These activities are not easy to eliminate,” she said. “Acts of cultural appropriation are seen as part of the nostalgic camp culture, especially with the generational aspect of some campers becoming staff or board members later in life.”

But according to those at the forefront of this fight, change is both possible – and necessary. “Names are powerful and important,” Thurson said. “We joked in our session that if you have to ask if something is okay, it’s definitely not. Maybe your camp doesn’t have a totem at the entrance but does it an ‘Apache’ relay? It’s important to continuously engage in cultural appropriation auditing across a spectrum.”

There are also opportunities for the camps to incorporate Native American culture in a respectful way, says Dr. Lonnie Nelson, associate director of special projects at the Na-ha-shnee Steam Health Institute. “Being a Cherokee, I can totally see the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, or the people of the Eastern Band, having a summer camp where they teach kids to play stickball – that’s one of the games traditions of our tribe. If it was taught by someone in the tribe who has expertise in this area…I see no problem sharing that knowledge with anyone.

Back at my old camp, Onas, they wait for the first campers to arrive in dorms with brand new names.

It’s just a first step, according to Coen Gilbert, toward a “more just relationship with the people who lived here and who still live across the country. We are far from done, but it was a big step forward.

“I think there will be some slip-ups and some people will have trouble remembering the new names,” Hecht said. “But then we’ll find out that it’s surprisingly easy.”

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