MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, June 26, 2014

June 26, 2014: AmericanStudier Camp: Playing Indian

[With the school year coming to a close, many kids, including my own little AmericanStudiers, are soon headed to summer camps. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the histories and stories connected to this childhood tradition. I’d love to hear some of your stories and connections in comments, fellow campers!]
On the camp tradition that embodies a troubling American trend, and what we can do about it.
I’ve tried from time to time, mostly in the posts collected under the category “Scholarly Reviews,” to cite works of AmericanStudies scholarship that have been particularly significant and inspiring to me. But it’s fair to say that I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ll keep trying to find ways to highlight other such works as the blog moves forward. One such work is Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998), a book which moves from the Boston Tea Party and Tammany Hall to late 20th century hobbyists and New Age believers (among many other subjects) to trace the enduring American fascination with dressing up as and performing exaggerated “Indian” identities in order to construct and engage with individual, communal, and national identity. In one of his later chapters, Deloria considers Cold War-era practices of “playing Indian” through which children’s social experiences and burgeoning American identities were often delineated—and right alongside the Boy Scouts and “cowboys and Indians” play, Deloria locates and analyzes summer camps.
In the example cited in that last hyperlink, Missouri’s Camp Lake of the Woods held an annual “Indian powwow” for its campers—the tradition dates back at least to the 1940s, and apparently continued well into the late 20th century. (I’m assuming it no longer occurs, although I haven’t found evidence one way or another.) By all accounts, including Deloria’s research and analysis, such summer camp uses of “Indian” images and performances were widespread, if not even ubiquitous, as camps rose to their height of national prominence in the 1950s and 60s. Even if we leave aside the long and troubling history that Deloria traces and in which these particular performances are unquestionably located, the individual choice remains, to my mind, equally troubling: this is childhood fun created out of the use of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes, community-building through blatant “othering” of fellow Americans, and a particularly oppressed and vulnerable community at that; to paraphrase what I said in my post on the racist “Red Man” scene in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), I can’t imagine these camps asking their campers to “play” any other ethnic or racial group. The performances were obviously not intended to be hurtful, but it’s difficult, especially in light of Deloria’s contextualizing, to read them in any other way.
So what, you might ask? Well for one thing, we could far better remember these histories—both the specific histories of playing Indian in summer camps, and the broader arc of playing Indian as a foundational element in the construction of American identity and community across the centuries; Deloria’s book would help us better remember on both levels. For another thing, it would be worth considering what it means that so many American children experienced and took part in these performances, how that might impact their perspectives on not only Native Americans, but ethnic and cultural “others” more generally. And for a third thing, it would also be worth examining our contemporary summer camps and other childhood communities—certainly the most overt such racism has been almost entirely eliminated from those space; but what stereotypes and images, performances and “others,” remain? Summer camps are fun and games, but they’re also as constitutive of identities as any influential places and material cultures can be—as Deloria reminds us, play is also dead serious, and demands our attention and anaylsis.
Final camp connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?

2 comments:

  1. I have no real dog in this fight. I'm not a summer-camper as my family was never financially stable enough to afford anything other than Girl Scouts (for which I'm eternally grateful as I credit that organization with helping me through childhood trauma, making me one butt-kicking feminist and inspiring me to foster the inner butt-kicking feminist in both male and female students) so my understanding of camp traditions comes from 80s movies, which hopefully proves just how flawed my understanding is. But as I've understood it camping in the 80s movie tradition was larger white and Christian, which meant that any identity role play essentially demanded the campers to adopt an outside ethnicity. I've never been a fan of playing dress up in someone else's culture but I feel that we are entering a strange new age of playing dress-up in culture.
    It's a reach, and a possibly insignificant one at that but as a lover of comic cons and cosplay in general I tend to play dress up in Star Trek and Firefly culture. However there are many cosplayers who jump gender, body type and ethnicity freely and (because it's at a con) without fear of judgment. But I wonder if there is a larger problem here. Sorry to throw random a thought in the ring. You got me thinking about people play-acting at groups that have been (and are) marginalized, and unfortunately a comic con might be a safe-haven for unintentional (or perhaps intentional) racism.

    ReplyDelete
  2. No need to apologize, AnneMarie--any and all connections are always welcome, and that's definitely a really interesting one. Part of me feels that cons would be less of an issue because it's adults who are making aware and at least somewhat sophisticated choices based on their own interests, rather than kids being forced to do something of which they likely have no understanding. But many of the same questions might well apply for sure.

    Thanks,
    Ben

    ReplyDelete