Camps: Educating or Appropriating?

“Imagine watching a video of excited campers: dressed in buckskin and a buffalo headdress reminiscent of a “Flintstones” episode, the announcer walks to the microphone and does a roll call of various camp troops.

“Bella Coola makes us hula!” cries the Bella Coola troop.

Their rowdy response doubles the joy of the young boys and their troop leaders. Some say there’s no harm in fun.

Adrienne Keene disagrees. Keene is a postdoctoral fellow
in Native American Studies at Brown University. Her blog,, works to dispel Native American stereotypes. In 2011, she wrote about her hometown’s YMCA program, formerly known as Indian Guides and Indian Princesses. The video was part of the post.

The roll call of the Native American-themed troops took place in 2007 despite the fact that the YMCA board of directors and the National Council of YMCAs changed the Indian Guides and Indian Princesses program in 2001 to be more respectful of Native American culture. The program was even renamed Adventure Guides and Princesses.

While the non-indigenous children in the video seem to enjoy themselves, Dr. Keene said Native American children don’t find joy in witnessing their culture on parade. Their displeasure, and that of other Native Americans, might be because camps are acting out their culture in the wrong way.

According to YMCA history, the Indian Guides and Princesses program stemmed from a hunting trip between Joe Friday, an Ojibwa man, and Harold S. Keltner, the YMCA director of St. Louis. Friday told Keltner about certain Native American traditions.

“The Indian father raises his son,” Friday said, according to YMCA history. “He teaches his son to hunt, track, to fish, to walk softly and silently in the forest, to know the meaning and purpose of life… while the white man allows the mother to raise his son.”

In the middle of the quote, Friday speaks of fathers giving their sons
hunting skills and an understanding of nature and spirituality. Keltner was an outdoors enthusiast and a person who appreciated Native American culture. He wanted to nurture father-son relationships like the one described by Friday. Thus, Indian Guides
was born – an imitation of Native American cultural traditions that Keltner admired.

Even though this program and similar ones used at other camps may have grown out of admiration for some aspects of Native American culture, some critics have serious misgivings about them. “Just because you have a native friend does not give you permission to do what he or she does,” said Randi Byrd, community engagement coordinator of the American Indian Center (AIC) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Byrd said knowledge passed from only one member of the community does not align with traditional methods of cultural exchange between the tribe and outsiders.

Byrd said non-Native Americans may view dressing in regalia around a campfire as a sign of respect toward tribes, but actually such acts “desecrate the culture.” Items such as war bonnets must be earned, not bought, she said.

Similar thoughts were expressed in an article originally written for the American Camp Association in 2002, by Bonnie Dunn, who was the director of the Patuxent River 4-H Center in Maryland, and Denise Frebertshauser, coauthor of the curricula “More than Feathers and Moccasins.”

They wrote that many people associated with camps believe that tradition justifies the use of Native American customs in camp activities.

Like Byrd, however, the authors reasoned that having campers wear Native American regalia can dishonor Native American traditions rather than paying them homage. The article, featured today on the ACA’s website, does not demand that camps stop all use of Native American culture

but encourages camps to examine their program for traces of cultural appropriation that do not show respect.

Dunn and Frebertshauser ask, for example, if a camp uses a pipe ceremony to start a campfire session, would it also start the session by singing “Amazing Grace”? Camps focused on religion might. That kind of song is not taken out of context and is sung in a familiar language.

Since the 1970s with the American Indian Movement, and even before then, Native Americans’ voices have advocated against the stereotypes attributed to them by mainstream society. Advocacy also extends to fighting against the misuse of Native American culture.

“There’s a feeling that a culture that’s not your own is a commodity,” Byrd said. Byrd and the AIC seek to counter such notions. She has worked with various tribes and Native American-focused organizations inside and outside North Carolina, including the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. She is also a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

The American Indian Center (AIC) works in association with
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but it is a public service center. The center’s mission statement is: “Bridging
the richness of Native cultures with the strengths of Carolina in education, research and service through four areas of engagement.”

Byrd is grateful that people attempt to learn the difference between respecting and appropriating Native American culture. But teaching this lesson has become repetitive.

“I partly blame this on a lack of presence for contemporary American Indian issues in the mainstream media and in educational curricula,” Byrd said.

She recalls a mother who homeschooled her children and wanted to form a Native American culture camp for the neighborhood children.

“That’s not how it works,” Byrd said, cringing. She said part of the problem with cultural appropriation is the general lack of knowledge among people using the culture, which undermines reverence for it. The way you teach a culture determines whether you are appropriating it.

“Understand the level of bias when talking about other cultures,” said another AIC staff member who prefers not to be identified.
Byrd said most of the average person’s knowledge about Native American culture comes from Hollywood movies. A key factor
in ensuring that an activity teaches rather than appropriates culture is learning from a member of the tribe.

“Have Indians sit at the table,” said the AIC staff member. She said leading the discussion can turn a moment of ignorance to one of teaching.

The Boy Scouts of America, which sometimes uses Native American culture in its camps and other programs, has made an attempt to give Native Americans a seat at the table. The BSA website urges troop leaders to contact tribe leaders to be part of Boy Scout activities.

Josh Cole, now a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, joined the Boy Scouts as a teenager. He said the Scouts are still misusing Native American culture.

He remembered wearing actual Cherokee regalia – his troop focused on this tribe.

“There’s white bread America brand of Native American ceremony,” Cole said.

He said this brand of ceremony appeared in plays, in which Scout principles such as cleanliness, frugality and courtesy mixed with Native American values.

Cole also remembers dressing like characters of Cherokee legend. He said the program “ripped characters” from legends, such as Meteu the medicine man.

“I guarantee you he would not say how great America was,” Cole said.

Cole and his fellow scouts danced for an audience of Cherokee tribe members. He also attended dance competitions where scouts competed against Native American youth. The Scouts won a few times.

“I bet they weren’t happy about that,” Cole said.

Cole performed the grass dance at the Lodge, a building at Camp Daniel Boone in Canton, North Carolina. He enjoyed making the regalia that accompanied the dance.

He also said the misuse of Native American culture appeared during advancement in Boy Scouts, such as the Eagle ceremony.

No one in his troop ever made an effort to contact tribal leaders for their input into activities, he said.

“We have a weird relationship with Native Americans,” Cole said. “The founders must have admired the Native Americans’ relationship with nature, which is cool, but then they decided to take it.”

The unnamed AIC staff member said Native American culture is interesting to people outside the tribes, but it’s also ceremonial and an important part of the Native American community.

She stressed that truly understanding the dynamics of Native American culture requires lessons from a Native American. Another example of cultural appropriation has been carelessly mixing different tribes’ styles. Cole said his scout group played in teepees – a Sioux dwelling form – even though the patch on his sleeve signified his group as the Cherokees.

“That’s just strange to me,” said Teryn Smith, a graduate intern at the AIC. “You wouldn’t do that with any other race.”

One week each summer, Smith works at a camp for children who really are Native Americans and who learn accurate details about their tribal heritage.

Smith, who has a master’s in social work, is the intern co- director of the youth camp for the Sappony tribe in Person County, North Carolina. When Smith was about 10 years old, she was a camper. She shares her duties with other intern co-directors who are also her cousins.

Smith said the week-long camp, held on the tribe’s historical land, helps to keep the bonds strong among everyone in the Sappony tribe, no matter their age. Smith is a member of the Sappony tribe.

The Sappony tribe is made of seven families, each of whom is represented in the Sappony’s political council. That is why Smith said maintaining the familial bonds ensures the future of the tribe.

To maintain these bonds, Smith and the other co-directors organize activities that focus on heritage and culture. The children map their family trees, so they’re able to see that they share ancestors. Dante, who Smith calls the “CEO of the tribe,” teaches the history of the Sappony from the 1600s to the present. A Haliwa-Saponi researcher of the Tutelo language, a  language that is also spoken among the Sappony, visited the camp to teach the children Tutelo.

Adult members of the tribe teach the children to farm and can vegetables. The co-directors also plan activities that promote healthy eating habits. Canoeing, fishing, swimming and team building exercises are planned to get kids moving and working together.

Smith said that the Sappony Youth Camp doesn’t have the Native-American-inspired activities seen in mainstream camps run by organizations such as the YMCA and Boy Scouts.

“We have prayer. We have morning pledge,” Smith said.

Smith said that it can be OK for mainstream camps to have some Native American activities – if they are done in the right way. But she said some of the activities that use headdresses and mix different tribal practices generalize Native American culture.

“They don’t need to emulate or mimic,” Smith said. “It’s appropriation at that point.”

The way culture is taught determines if it has been appropriated.

“There’s a difference between ignorance and willful ignorance,” Byrd said.