What comes to mind when you close your eyes and conjure images of camp?
Children’s laughter? The restorative powers of nature? Memories tied to a playful setting, making new friends, and strengthening bonds are the hallmarks of a good camp experience. Unfortunately, for too many camps, other images contrast the good in camp. We are referring to the elements of camp that are appropriated (or even invented) from American Indian cultures.
The sad truth is that cultural appropriation complicates and harms Native children’s ability to form their identities. It seeks to reinforce narratives of who they were (or who we imagine they were), not who they are. It has a similarly negative impact on non-Native children, limiting their capacity to see Native people as active participants in our society.
We share this perspective not to undermine the joyous memories of camp that have shaped countless lives, but to question the value these practices bring to camp and to suggest that memories can be made in a way that is not at the expense of another’s culture. How youth-serving organizations go about making memories is worth examining. Our journey into this topic has been through studying the former YMCA program "Y-Indian Guides" — a program that benefited millions of families and practically guaranteed a loving relationship between children and parents who participated.
In our study, we wrestled with a fundamental question: can an excellent program also inflict real harm? The answer is yes when the millions of families who were enriched through their participation benefited from methods that perpetuated harmful stereotypes that commodified culture and ultimately undermined the ability of Indigenous children to develop accurate self-identities and healthy visions for their futures.
Like Y-Indian Guides, the use of Native American names (whether real or invented) and images is widespread in camping circles. Camps themselves, their cabins or other shelters, and even groups of campers from week to week may have at one time been (or even now be) assigned “Indian” nicknames. For generations, camp youth have spent time crafting objects they believed were recreations of authentic Native American cultural artifacts. Many camps have “totem poles,” “teepees,” or other items that serve as social and emotional touchstones for generations of campers. While these appropriated elements are details that color memories, are they the core memory? Many camps are beginning to answer that question with a resounding no, changing names, pulling down totem poles, and rolling up teepees.
As camps commit to serving increasingly diverse youth populations, learning and moving beyond cultural appropriation will be foundational to ensuring that all children benefit from the restorative power of nature, make memories in a playful setting, and make new friends through camp.
Ryan Bean is an archivist with the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, a position he has held since 2009. However, his time with the archives stretches back to 2003 when he interned at the archives while pursuing his Masters of Library and Information Science through Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois. Before the archives, Ryan spent the first part of his career in Youth Development, where he was a Case Manager in afterschool programs for the St. Paul, Minnesota Salvation Army, and YWCA. Working at the archives has allowed Ryan to merge his two passions of studying history and serving communities. In his role as archivist, Ryan strives to communicate the YMCA's enduring legacy to students, scholars, and, most importantly, the YMCA movement. He does this through teaching, writing, and presenting to a variety of audiences; most recent of which is his book (coauthored) Inappropriation: The Contested Legacy of Y-Indian Guides.
Paul Hillmer is a soon-to-be retired professor of History at Concordia University — St. Paul, MN. He earned both his MA and PhD in History from the University of Minnesota. He has written two commissioned histories on YMCAs in Cleveland, Ohio (2004), and Minneapolis, Minnesota (2006), and authored the award-winning A People’s History of the Hmong (2010). His latest work, coauthored with Ryan Bean, is Inappropriation: The Contested Legacy of Y-Indian Guides.