Camp Traditions- Old and New
I was a Navajo, Chippewa and a Mohawk. Later, in 1982, I become an Apache- the tribe for Counselors. For as long as anyone can remember, campers at Mishawaka were divided into tribes for the summer. (Though it is worth noting that this was not a feature at the Camp’s founding.) If I think for a minute, I could probably tell you which of the years my tribe won the summer competition, and who my “Chiefs” were. In 1981 I donned a loin cloth (a pair of red briefs that likely had not been washed in years) for the solemn Tap-Out Ceremony. This sense of ritual, belonging, competition has been a central facet of the Camp Mishawaka experience, and I hope it will for decades to come. However, starting in 2018, we will no longer make use of Native American motifs, tribal names or other references.
The truth is I am not a Navajo, Chippewa, Mohawk, or Apache. I am a Scotts-Irish white guy from Illinois. Truth be told, too, I am not sure the fundamental benefit of these affiliations would be changed in any way if I had been a part of a team that did not share a name with a real Native American tribe. At its inception, I imagine the tradition of the tribes at Mishawaka borrowed authentic Native traditions, along with some of the theatre. By the time I arrived as a camper in 1974, any real traditions of those who lived on Pokegama Lake and surrounding areas had vanished. We didn’t think twice about it- it was our tradition, and the intent was not to offend, mock or misappropriate any culture that was not ours.
The benefits of the system of halving the Camp into two teams, weaving both spirited and fun competition throughout the session are clear. Along with the opportunity to take part in baseball games, track and swim meets or other head to head competitions, campers have to earn points for their team by keeping a clean cabin, passing the “minnow” swim award, taking a trip, or passing any one of a number of other “ranks”. This affiliation, comradery, opportunity for leadership, and learning the importance of good sportsmanship are key parts of the Mishawaka experience. While the benefit of this tradition is clear, any benefit of continuing to use Native names or images is not.
I imagine there are many who will view this as a caving to “Political Correctness.” If we had just wanted to be “Politically Correct” we would have done this years ago. In some sense I think we retained this tradition for as long as we have out of a desire not to be so. This, along with the idea that it was not our intention to offend anyone and that we borrowed these names out of respect, kept us attached to this tradition. I took solace in the idea that I could drive 20 miles west and find a number of Ojibwa tribe members who took no issue with our use of native names and images. I would also find, no doubt, a number who were offended and saw it as an unnecessary cultural appropriation.
What has become clear to me is that someday a camper, when chosen for a tribe or handed a shield with the bust of an Indian Chief at the center might well refuse both, and I would lack an acceptable argument for him to comply. This decision is not political- appealing to the interest of one or more groups, but it is “correct” in that it reflects the current values of Camp Mishawaka, its staff and campers.
We will continue to award shields and feathers representing a camper’s accomplishments during the summer with a new centerpiece-replacing the bust of the Chief with a medallion featuring Camp scenes.
Camp Mishawaka was part of the original camping movement which began at the end of the 19th Century. At that time, many summer camps adopted Indian motifs- Mishawaka itself is an Ojibwa word that is taken to mean “coming out of the woods into a clearing.” The heritage of those who originally occupied the shores of Lake Pokegama no doubt influenced the early Camp days.” The view of the native as “noble savage” played large in any characterization of Native Americans of the time. One book on the history of the Camping Movement cites early camp directors as likening the state of boyhood to savagery that needed taming- presumably through a well-organized, Spartan camp regime. Needing a system in which Mishawaka boys could organize, practice leadership and conduct “battle” the directors surely found this the most logical-if not also mystical, and magical- system to turn to.
108 years later we have other options, and new campers, new challenges and new opportunities. This in no way can or should diminish anyone’s Camp Mishawaka experience as a member of a Tribe. Those lessons, experiences, games, victories or defeats are all of ours to savor, or regret. What is clear is that we have a better way to impart the values that are in line with the larger goals of a Camp Mishawka experience.
We are fortunate that there is another longstanding tradition in Mishawaka lore that will serve as a useful replacement. The “Founder’s Song” refers to a number of mythical creatures that are also part of early logging mythology and Paul Bunyan tales- the Hodag, the Gumberoo, the Snolligoster, the Squonk, and others. This summer we will use Hodag and Gumberoo for our team names.
Our intention at Camp Mishawaka is to help campers find their best selves, to develop young men and women into thoughtful, productive adults and we do this by use of many intentional activities and traditions. Those continue.
I don’t believe that the intention of the Camp has ever been to minimize, mock, appropriate Native American culture. Quite the opposite, I believe the intent was to honor these traditions and Native culture. In her book on the history of the Camping Movement, Historian Abigail Van Slyke sums up her chapter on the use of Native themes and the limits of intention this way:
The purpose of reading the camp landscape in this way is to acknowledge that the work of maintaining racial inequities often involves people who are acting with the best of intentions. This is one of the things that makes racism so hard to recognize and so difficult to eradicate. Equally important, such a reading highlights the central role the cultural landscape often plays in allowing people simply not to notice the inequalities that structure their daily lives. In short, the cultural landscape has given responsibility for communicating some of the summer camp’s most powerful messages.
For Mishawaka not to lead in this way would be a missed opportunity and an abandonment of our responsibility to help all campers and staff find their best selves- for this experience and beyond.