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My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, June 30, 2022

June 30, 2022: Summer Camp Contexts: Playing Indian

[This summer my sons return (after a frustrating Covid hiatus last year) to their favorite sleepaway camp. As ever that gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying! Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the summer camp experiences, stories, and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers.]

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 into its second (!) decade. 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.

Last camp context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?

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