Section 5: Constructing Meaning and Finding Lessons from Native Americans

September 27th, 2017 by Rebecca

Romanticized and stereotyped Native American imagery, philosophy, rituals, and culture play a complicated role in camp life.

In his novels, James Fenimore Cooper cast the native people’s of the northeast woodlands as the romantic ideal for nineteenth and twentieth century American audiences. Cooper’s heroes, both white and Indian, find adventure while travelling through the wilderness, hiking, paddling, tracking, cooking over campfires, sleeping under the stars, and learning from the natural world. These images went on to influence pulp literature, dime novels, theatrical performances, movies, and eventually television. Capturing the romantic understanding of what that involved, Camp leaders infused these romantic experiences into the core curriculum of camp.

Summer camps in the White Mountains and beyond often adopted Native American sounding names to promote their strong and intentional connections to romanticized Indian culture.

Courtesy of Camp Pemigewassett.

Courtesy of Camp Pemigewassett.

Both of the first two summer camps, Camp Chocorua and Asquam, assumed Indian place names. Camp Pasquaney took its name from the Abenaki word for “White Birch.” Camp Onaway’s name came from the scene in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha where Hiawatha marries Minnehaha. Camp Ogontz took its name from an Ottowa chief who lived in what is now Ohio; when Abby Sutherland rented the Ogontz mansion for her girls’ school, she adopted the name, and when she opened her camp in New Hampshire in 1923, she took the name along with her.

Original Mowglis themed artwork by former staff member and celebrated Native American artist, Richard West (Cheyenne name Wah-pah-nah-yah). Courtesy of Camp Mowglis.

Original Mowglis themed artwork by former staff member and celebrated Native American artist, Richard West (Cheyenne name Wah-pah-nah-yah). Courtesy of Camp Mowglis.

Euro-American perceptions of Native American culture influenced more than just the naming of summer camps; they were also fundamental to the educational curriculum of camp and the social science used to support the camp movement. Popular generalized representations of Native American religion became the standard within the curriculum of summer camp in the twentieth-century, in large part because of the work of Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton organized and popularized the Woodcraft Indian Movement, a role-playing experience where white children could live out their fantasies of being an Indian as sure as the Lost Boys of Neverland.  Even in camps that did not directly use Seton’s Woodcraft curriculum, Native American concepts impacted the experience of camp.

By the late twentieth and twenty-first century, Americans began to show a greater sensitivity to the racial assumptions, stereotypes, prejudice, and injustice visited upon Native Americans and many summer camps changed their programs to meet this larger awareness, especially in regards to the racialized images and rituals that had been practiced for over a century.

For some camps however, the focus on tradition and nostalgia within the culture of summer camp gives these rituals meaning apart from the Native American images they were meant to simulate. As camp became a truly intergenerational experience with children attending the same camps and participating in the same rituals their parents and grandparents had experienced, these rituals assumed a level of sanctity all their own. Although they are most certainly not authentic to the Native American practices, this sanctity of has made these traditions difficult to abandon.

Courtesy of Camp Mowglis.

Courtesy of Camp Mowglis.

 

Walk Through the Exhibit

Section 1: Children’s Resorts in the White Mountains

Section 2: The Literary Links to Experiential Romanticism

Section 3: Satellite Campuses for America’s Top Schools

Section 4: Camps for All, or the Egalitarian Worlds of Summer Camps

Section 5: Constructing Meaning and Finding Lessons from Native Americans

Section 6: The Technology Needed to Reject Technology

Section 7: The Legacy of New Hampshire Summer Camps

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