Native Americans — The First Campers

by Bonnie Dunn and Denise Frebertshauser

Take a moment and let your mind wander to an evening around a campfire. Imagine looking into the flames of the fire. Let your heart follow the words of the chief, “Listen well, my people, for tonight we hold council.” Does this bring about memories of an evening at your camp?

Gathering around the campfire is an extensive tradition of many camping programs. Some camps may incorporate Native American imagery into their campfire programs. Indian ceremonies, tom-toms, cheers, costumes, and painted faces may be part of their traditions. But, do we really know why we are including any of these items? What is the reasoning behind each tradition?

Recently, many articles and discussions have condemned the use of Indian imagery or “playing Indian” at camps throughout the United States. Why should camps use Native American imagery in their programs? And when they do, they need to ensure that campers (and staff) learn about Native American history, beliefs, and culture — as well as which traditions in your camping program are Native American and which are simply camp traditions.

When camp staff are asked the question — Do you know why you are using specific Native American imagery? — the most typical response is “tradition.” The second most common response is “that we are honoring the Indian ways.”

The fact is that we are not always honoring the Native American peoples’ ways. Many traditions at camp include some Native American customs mixed among camp traditions with no distinction between the two. There are many nations of tribes, each very different in many ways. Native Americans are very different in their dress, religious beliefs, and customs — depending on their tribe and where they live. Quite often we mix cultures of Native Americans in our Indian imagery at camp — we may use Midwestern tribal dress with Southwestern crafts, and add in Northeastern history or tribe names. We simply put together the things we like or those customs that work for us at the time.

Honoring Native American Wishes and Customs

If camps use Native American history/culture as a theme, they really need to think about what they are doing and how they are doing it. They need to be able to step past the “it’s tradition” syndrome and listen to local Native American’s wishes. In order to determine if the use of Indian icons at camp perpetuate the stereotyping of Native Americans or if sacred Native American customs are being misrepresented, camps need to ask several questions.

  1. Do you utilize Indian icons at camp (feathers, songs, cheers, council rings, drums, totem poles, tipis, face paint, etc.) that perpetuate the stereotyping of Native Americans? Can these items be presented in a different manner to deter the trivializing of Native Americans?
  2. Do you use the Pipe Ceremony to start the campfire? Do you realize that it is a very religious ceremony? Would you start your program with a Catholic, Jewish, or another religious ceremony?
  3. Do you include Native American dances around the campfire or at some time during your camp? If so, do you know if they are authentic, the significance of the dance, or how the dance is used? Many Native American dances are for fun, but some are to honor the dead or are for strictly religious purposes.
  4. Do you “make up” Indian words or chants (“How How,” “Nichie-nichie,” Camp “Algawa”)? Do you teach Native American language, hand signals, or painted symbols?
  5. Do you know the tribes or nations that were in your area, or are you teaching about those of another region of the country? Do you actually teach about native people or do you just “PLAY Indian?”
  6. What do you know about the clothes, headdresses, shoes, etc., that were worn by the tribe whose names you are using? Why did the tribe whose name you are using wear feathers? How did they wear them and what did the feathers mean to the people?
  7. What about face painting? Do you know why or when Native Americans painted their faces? Did all tribes do it? If you were teaching about African Americans, would you paint the campers’ faces black? Have you really questioned why you do what you do, and if you would do it with another culture or group of people?
  8. Are your Native American arts and crafts really Native American? Or do they just look like Native American things? Examples — the small, beaded headdress made with safety pins, talking or rain sticks, headdresses, or headbands?
  9. Do you have tribe signs? Do they really represent the tribe you tell the campers they represent? Do you know what each of those “tribe signs” really means?
  10. Do you give tribe and/or camper awards like the “golden feather,” “spirit sticks,” or some other award that has always been a tradition at your camp? Have you done any research on “Indian awards and honors”? Or are these awards merely camp awards made to look like Native American awards?

Examine Your Program

Certainly, no camp ever knowingly shows any disrespect to Native Americans through its camp programming. However, over the years, camps can modify intentions, traditions, and goals without realizing that it is happening. Just like the Native American history has, in fact, been distorted by many different writers of American history; camp professionals may have lost their understanding of camp as a teaching venue — a venue in which you help your campers learn about a noble group of people — their customs, their traditions, and their beliefs. Examine your total camp program, your camp goals, and your camp traditions to see if the usage of Indian lore in camp themes truly honors Native Americans.

Teaching Native American Culture at Camp

In order to teach your campers about the history and ways of the American Indian at camp, you need to take the time to learn, plan, and understand the Native American culture. The People of the Americas are often referred to as “Native Americans” or “American Indians.” These people occupied the areas from the most southern tip of South America to the most northern tip of North America. Native people cannot be lumped together as just one group — they should be considered more as small nations of people of the same race. They had many similarities, but there was a variety of languages, customs, and beliefs among the Native Americans. (Similar to the many countries in Europe — France, England, Italy, etc.) Their customs and culture are part of the rich heritage of our country. In the United States their heritage is preserved today by 1.5 million American Indian people and more than 300 federally-recognized American Indian tribes. The history of Native Americans is also reflected in the countless names of cities or rivers, foods, crafts, games, and legends that are a part of the heritage of all Americans. (To find out more about the history of individual tribes see the Recommended Books and Web Sites.)

When you choose to incorporate the importance of American Indian imagery to accomplish the youth development mission of your camping program, take time to examine your program and ask yourself — Why are we doing this? Are we trivializing Native Americans? Are we perpetuating the stereotyping of Native Americans? Are we misrepresenting sacred Native American customs? Are we utilizing Native American icons in an educationally appropriate manner? Is there another venue in which to achieve our program’s goals? And then remind yourself that you are doing this for the children of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Program Planning for Camp

To develop an organized, educational, creative, and enjoyable program, you must involve camp staff, teen leaders, and campers in program schedules, planning of classes, and activities during training sessions as well as at camp. Set your goals, do your research, make your plans, gather your materials, and have fun.

Before camp begins
Choose and research the tribes you plan to use, preferably those in your area (or the area of your camp). Decide what your goals are for the camp and your campers. Encourage your staff (and/or tribe leaders) to do a little research about native people and the tribe whose name they plan to use.

Things to research

  1. Name: Is it a “white man’s name” or a name that they use to refer to themselves? An example of this is — the Sioux called themselves the Lakota people; the Conoy called themselves the Piscataway people.
  2. Location: Where did they start (before Columbus) and where they were moved during relocation?
  3. Typical symbols or designs: You may even determine the predominate color used with a particular tribe’s symbols.
  4. A legend: Discover the story behind the Native American rituals.
  5. Living habits: Research the type of home, clothing, foods, and traditions of the tribe.

There are many activities that you do at camp that may relate to Native American people, especially your environmental programs. These blend very easily into one. You cannot effectively teach about the environment unless you teach “cycles in nature,” and you cannot teach about Native American culture without including “cycles of life.” Remember that the native people are considered the Keepers of the Earth. Skills like archery, fire building, outdoor living, and crafts, were all skills of the first campers.

Things to gather

  1. Beads, feathers, bells, paint.
  2. Class items as you decide which activities you want to use.
  3. Campfire items such as tom-toms and/or rattles, headdresses, stories, etc. Preplan your campfire activities before camp starts. Review your plans with all the staff, and make a checklist of items needed.

Five-day program
The following activities are designed to create a week of fun learning experiences that will enhance you and your campers’ understanding and appreciation of different cultures, especially those of the native people.

A great beginning activity for the entire group would be the Beginning of the Trail. Make sure the campers know why you are using a Native American theme for camp, what is Native American tradition, and what is camp tradition. There are many Native American activities that can be incorporated into your program for the entire session such as archery, canoeing, crafts, games, nature, etc. The Grand Council is often used as a closing activity.

The following is a suggested outline for five days of classes — approximately one to one and a half hours per class. The week could have a theme about animals or birds or water quality, and each day’s activities could focus on the same theme. There are a variety of different subjects that relate to the environment. It is nice to have a Native American food or drink at each class — this teaches campers about how Native Americans lived then and how they have influenced our diets today (see the Foods for Campers sidebar above). Try to always incorporate a story — it is one of the major methods that the elders used to teach their youngsters. It can be at the beginning, middle, or end of the class. Native American children learned living skills through games and everyday activities. Your campers can eat and listen to a story at the same time, and they can learn about history through the games and activities.

Begin your introduction with a little history. Ask the campers to gather in a circle and teach in story form. Native American children learned from their elders through stories and legends. You might consider having a native food for them to snack on such as peanuts, popcorn, or berries.

Who are the native people? Share exciting things about the tribes whose names you use at your camp. Examples include:

  • The United States government’s democratic structure was patterned in a small way after the governing body of the Iroquois League of Nations.
  • The Cherokee are the only ones who actually had a written language.
  • Pocahontas was a member of the Powhatan tribe.
  • The Algonquins were great farmers.

Far more important for human and ecological survival are the Native American philosophies of life — respect for the land and love of every form of life, human and nonhuman. They believed in harmony between humans and nature rather than conquest and destruction of nature. These are vital characteristics of the Native American way of life. All people can and must learn to live in harmony with the natural world and with one another. You can discuss the medicine wheel and teach a game or craft to reinforce skills they learned.

Request that everyone gather together in the circle to tell a story while you offer a Native American snack. The story should lead into the activity for the day. Today’s subject might be wildlife. “Gluscabi and the Game Bag” or “How Fawn Got His Spots” from the Keepers of the Earth book. (The stories referenced here are from Keepers of the Earth, but can be found in almost any book of Native American legends.) Use these stories to teaches about the need for food, water, and shelter for survival. The campers could play Oh Deer and/or Hiders and Seekers/Camouflage game. The story of the Journey of the Abenaki gives us lessons in survival with nature, living with respect, sharing, silence, and circles. If we follow these lessons, we will be able to live in peace with other people and in balance with the Earth and all living creatures. Play the Predator and Prey game. Other activities can include “Habitracking” — find and make plaster casts of wildlife in the camp area. As you search for tracks, talk about habitats.

Gather again in the circle, introduce a new Native American food or drink, and begin with a story. The Buffalo and the Cedar Tree and The Coming of Corn teach lessons about plants and trees. Take a hike, learn about planting seeds to grow food, the nutrient cycle, plant trees, adopt a tree, and make a seven generation stewardship bracelet — seven steps toward living in balance and harmony. This activity ties in with the Circles of Giving and Receiving.

The story for this session could be Askami’s Story, as you talk about waste in the past, the present, and the future. Teach them the four laws of Mother Nature. There are many activities that relate to this theme — create a time capsule from camp, learn about recycling, have a camp contest to reduce and/or reuse items that would normally go in the trash. (This could also be used as a DAY 1 lesson).

Water quality is a very important lesson for all. Kolscap and the Water Monster and Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle are great stories that campers love while learning a valuable lesson at the same time. You might want to meet next to the lake and serve “ice water.” Then talk about where water comes from, goes to, and returns. This is also a great time to do stream exploring and a water quality test (especially for oxygen levels).

Bonnie Dunn is the director/manager of the Patuxent River 4-H Center. The facility is a year-round Environmental Education Center that serves over 20,000 visitors a year, more than 14,000 are school children. She is president of KMD Consulting, Inc. KMD specializes in staff training, environmental education programs, and risk management for camps. She is the coauthor of the curricula, More than Feathers and Moccasins.

For the past six years, Denise Frebertshauser has been a Maryland Cooperative Extension 4-H educator in Carroll County, Maryland. She is actively involved with the American Camping Association and has been involved in camping for over fifteen years. Carroll County 4-H Camping programs, both day and resident, includes over 250 campers each summer. Denise is the coauthor of the curricula, More than Feathers and Moccasins.


Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.