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Native Camp

By Andrew Parsons

Ernest Thompson Seton in 1901. Seton was influential in bringing Indian play to American camps. (Source: LOC)

Ernest Thompson Seton in 1901. Seton was influential in bringing Indian play to American camps. Credit: Library of Congress

Ah, summer camp. Swims in the lake; hikes in the pines; making lanyards and friends. For many Americans, summer camp is a right of passage – the first time away from parents, siblings and school friends.

Odds are good your camp had a Native American name, you were in a tribe and you canoed and learned woodcraft. Maybe you learned out to track animals and were told old Indian lore around a proper camp fire you were taught to build. None of this is an accident.

Connecticut College historian Abigail Van Slyck says white perception of Indian culture were embedded into camp culture at the turn of the 20th century. There was an influential psychologist named G. Stanley Hall who pushed a theory about childhood development called the “recapitulation theory.” Basically it argued that humans developed the same way as civilization. “Children had to start out as savages and move up through barbarism and then eventually into civilization,” says Van Slyck.

“And the notion was if you put children on the path to civilization too soon — if you required them to act like civilized adults when they were just children that you could actually derail their healthy development. And so he actually thought that children were more like Indians – more like other kinds of savages — and that there needed to be some kind of opportunity to act that out.”

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, dozens of Americans used Hall’s theory to develop organizations devoted to bringing children into the woods to teach them how to be Indians. The most influential — and probably the most eccentric — was a British man named Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton was a nationwide celebrity. A disheveled eccentric, he gave lectures around the country, claimed he could communicate with animals and wrote books and articles with titles like, Why Wear Clothes? “[L]ike missing the circus, a child’s life is incomplete unless he has heard and seen Earnest Thompson Seton,” wrote The Washington Post in 1905, saying that Seton “has done more for the youth of this country than any man of the present day.”

Independently wealthy, Seton used his manicured, sprawling 150-acre compound in Connecticut camp as a ‘wilderness’ to play Indian with

A page from Seton's 1918 book on Native American language. (Source: Wikicommons)

A page from Seton’s 1918 book on Native American language. (Source: Wikicommons)

his national organization, the Woodcraft Indians, which eventually folded into the Boy Scouts. There,  Seton taught young men (and even some young women) all the things you’d recognize in modern camps: how to build tipis, archery, hunting, canoeing and old Indian fables. After falling out with the Boy Scouts in 1915, Van Slyck says Seton began a grueling summer travel schedule to camps around the country that lasted into the 1920s. There he taught them the importance of a establishing a council ring around the camp fire, naming tribes, and generally playing Indian. “He frequently talked about borrowing the best things from the best Indians,” says Van Slyck.

So why were Seton and other naturalists obsessed with making sure American boys knew how to play in the woods? Van Slyck says there was a fear that overbearing Victorian mothers were civiling their boys too quickly and turning them into “sissies.” She says there was a worry that “this was creating a generation of boys who were not rugged, not active, who were worried about getting dirty and too much under the influence of women.” Seton even once called American boys “flat-chested cigarette smokers with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality.”

Nearly one hundred years later, it’s easy to see the racism in the theories of men like Hall and Seton. But the trapping of these ideas – naming tribes, dressing up with feathers, learning how to hunt and track – are still found in camps around the country. Van Slyck says that like Seton, those who advocate Indian play today are well-intentioned. For many current and former campers, playing Indian is wrapped up in fond memories of camp friends and tradition. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be reexamined. “One of the things that Indian play did was to cast Native Americans in the role of the perpetual savage,” said Van Slyck, “where they are somehow incapable of the recapitulation that white children were understood to take on.”

Unlike Seton, camp directors today tend to know that carrying on these traditions can be problematic. During her research for her book on the history of summer camps, Van Slyck says she was talking to one camp director when he politely gave her a heads up. “Don’t be alarmed but in a minute boys are going to come running at us from all directions. It’s just the end of a game of scalping.'” Van Slyck seemed taken aback, and the director sheepishly said, “I know. It’s awful, isn’t it?”

This story comes from our show on the history of images of Indians. You can read more about the history of the American summer camp in Abigail Van Slyck’s book,  A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960