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Indigenous Appropriation vs. Appreciation in
Summer Camp Arts and Crafts

While summer camps were not the first place where children learned about race and racial differences (this happened in their homes and communities long before becoming campers), they did serve as places that emphasized and “encouraged children to enact in play, under adult supervision, what they had read about or had seen performed on stage or screen” such as blackface minstrel shows, world’s fair exhibitions of “primitive” tribes, and Wild West shows depicting “native” people and villages. At this time, a common camp activity included pageants where (white) children would dress in costume and makeup to play roles of black and “Indian” characters. Camp staff often told “Indian” tales around the campfire, and countless camps adopted Indian (or faux-Indian) names for cabin groups, dividing children into “tribes.” In boys’ camps, this “colorful background” offered a “masculine retreat from…everyday life that ordinarily hemmed in white urban boys in favor of qualities ascribed to Indian cultures: greater playfulness, physicality, and emotional expressivity.” In girls' camps, indigenous culture took on a much different, more domestic role where many girls “practiced artistic skills such as sewing, dyeing, and beadwork while making their own Indian dresses” or headdresses. During this time, camp leaders were not generally concerned with historical accuracy and were inspired by the vast tribal cultures and rituals they were “free to pick and choose” from. The 1930s and 40s did see a gradual decline in these practices and activities, but not complete eradication. (Paris, 2008) 


A prime example of one of the arts activities appropriated at summer camp is the totem pole. The author of Camping and Education suggested in 1926 that modern interpretations of Native American artifacts were far more relevant than Native American intentions: ‘Totem Poles may have meant many things to the savage mind [but they] are mighty strong medicine for boys and girls. Grotesquely carved and weirdly painted, these fantastic bits of the magic Northland add a touch of romance to the camp, which can be obtained by no other medium. ’” While many arts and crafts activities are independent projects, full camp crafts, such as a totem pole, became significant to camp identities and long-standing traditions, making things like this a “more difficult gray area.”


Michele Racioppi poses the question: “Should these traditions, which can be central to a camp's identity, but at the same time, culturally offensive and inaccurate depictions of Native American history and life, be preserved or done away with? Is a compromise possible?” in their thesis, The Preservation Of American Youth Summer Camps: The Changing Cultural Landscape Of Girl Scout And Boy Scout Summer Camps (2013). The following information comes from this research: 


Figure 14 (RIGHT)

Figure 13 (LEFT)

“An old photograph (circa 1950s - 60s) in the Camp Mogisca archive shows a camper carving a long wooden pole into animal shapes and words. (Fig. 13) Mary-Ann Lewis remembers that this was a planned camp program that brought in an artist who showed campers how to do wood-carving and teach them about totem poles. The campers and camp caretaker then created a totem pole for Camp Mogisca. (Fig. 14) This pole became very important to the Camp, everyone was very proud of it. It was such a part of the camp's identity that when the camp moved locations in the late 1960s, it was dug up (not an easy task as Ms. Lewis recalls) and transported to the new camp site. Sadly, the totem pole was fair game to the many woodpeckers in the area of the new camp site and has disintegrated over the years.  


This is a prime example of the type of object that might warrant preservation in the case of a camp closure; made by both campers and staff, it was admired and accepted by the camp at large as something they felt represented the camp well. The Mogisca totem pole also represents a problematic side of camp cultural heritage, which is the common use of Native American imagery as a part of many traditions and camp crafts.” (p. 57-59)

“Other common material items of importance found at Scouting camps include logs of daily camp happenings, flags, camp uniforms, badges (in the case of Scout camps), canoe paddles (campers would commonly decorate them), musical instruments (such as the bugle that might have been used to call campers to breakfast), and any item that holds some type of special meaning to those who are familiar with the camp. Even those items that may seem of no significance, such as the popular "lanyards" that campers make actually have a long history and are quite iconic in the summer camp world. The value of these items lies in the fact that they represent a long-lived camp tradition that is still alive today. The image below [LEFT], taken from A Paradise for Boys and Girls, shows a scene of female campers from the 1940's around a table doing various crafts. This next image was taken in 2005 at Eagle Island, showing campers in an almost identical setting.” (p. 62-63)

Girls in Nature/The Nature of Girls: Transforming Female Adolescence at Summer Camp,


Susan A. Miller, 2001

Girls in Nature/The Nature of Girls: Transforming Female Adolescence at Summer Camp, 1900-1939 (2001) by Susan A. Miller provides a unique collection of information about this topic. In the section The Landscape of Camp: The Indigenous Program, Miller highlights the features of an indigenous program at this time: “The indigenous program - be it nature study, arts and crafts, or pageantry -allowed a camp to “express its own personality” and “develop its own genius,” and, if all went well, called forth similar developments in the campers themselves.” A common belief among camp leaders was that if these indigenous programs were “properly guided and executed,” it would give their girls more “direct access to the meaning embedded in the local environment.” The author’s information, specifically about arts and crafts programming and the appreciation/appreciation of indigenous culture, is particularly interesting:


“Leaders did not have to worry about the indigenous program should their girls, unlike the counselor from the Southwest, prove indifferent to “the treasure house of science” opened by an interest in nature study. No indigenous activity at camp held a greater promise, or proved more in need of a leader’s guidance, than the arts and crafts program. The goal of indigenous arts and crafts, an activity which came to dominate many camp schedules, was not to create artists per se, but to awaken girls’ interest in local folk arts.“Approach the arts from the point of view of folklore and natural materials, seeing what can grow out of the camp environment rather than approaching it from the town point of view of what is taught at art schools,” recommended the national camp advisory staff. In attempting to follow this directive, camp directors faced two challenges. Girls who arrived at camp steeped in an understanding of artistic expression they learned in school had to be re-trained to appreciate the “natural materials” they would work with at camp. Potentially more problematic for directors, however, was the fact that they were responsible for teaching art and crafts according to the dictates of a folk culture that had largely disappeared, or, in many cases, never existed at all.


Similar to middle-class tourists in pursuit of an “authentic” farmhouse vacation, camp directors often possessed a romanticized vision of the indigenous that was based on folklore of dubious accuracy. Camp leaders promoted what they believed to be an indigenous arts and crafts program that was in reality comprised of activities local people had happily abandoned, or had never actually done. Girls whittled “natural materials” into clumsy camp furniture and were encouraged to try weaving baskets out of pine needles. They carved animal figures out of acorns and pine cones and decorated their canoes using symbols “reflective of local Indian tribes.” Louise Price advised camp directors to try to “revive” English country dancing, an activity she believed held “broad appeal as both art and exercise.” Its reputed broad appeal, however, had not been much in evidence at the time Price visited camps across the nation. “Not many people in the country are doing it and it would be a real contribution to the cultural life of the country if we stimulate it,” she reported hopefully. In this particular instance, the power of the indigenous promised to be so strong that a willing director could not only help her girls, but make a contribution to the entire nation.”


Further in the paper, Miller discusses photography at girls’ summer camps: 


“Uncomfortable recommending the unrestricted use of guns, leaders looked for another tool of woodcraft that could confer upon their girls some of the power inherent to “the brotherhood” without burdening them with the taint of murder. They did not have to look very far. For decades, the camera had functioned as a stand-in for the gun among well-bred ladies and among gentlemen who did not care for blood sport. The trope of the camera as a surrogate gun was so widely used because it functioned on so many levels. Nineteenth-century domestic photography had been defined not only as artistic expression, but as an active, indeed strenuous, physical pursuit. Distancing themselves from other crafts that largely become pre-fabricated and mechanistic, adherents of domestic photography depicted their art as an interactive framing of the world. Women constructed their own point of view and exerted control over their world when they framed a “shot.” In parallel to the men who had made guns an integral symbol of the “strenuous life,” leaders of girls’ camps adopted the camera as a recognizable icon of fortitude, and as an instrument that conferred upon its user the ability to assert control over the natural world.” (pages 131-132)

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