May 21, 2008

Indian origin of the Camp Fire Girls

Like the Boy Scouts of America, the Camp Fire Girls have an Indian origin. Here's some information on the subject.

First, from an e-mail dated 7/19/03:Have you done anything on Camp Fire USA's use of Native American symbolism?

Camp Fire Boys and Girls give service!

Here's a quote from the webpage of the camp I attended and was a counselor at:

"Camp Fire has always borrowed from the rich traditions of our Native American Cultures. At Camp Wilani, all aged campers in all sessions may learn about the Native American tribes that once lived in this region. Daytime and evening events at the new Native Village will focus on educating campers of indigenous ways through crafts, outdoor cooking, and sleeping in a tipi."

I was in Camp Fire for years and earned the highest award (WOHELO Medallion) and got a lot out of the program. Today however, I don't think I would let my kids participate in the program because of this "borrowed" "Indian Lore" nonsense.

Now, we were expected to treat this part of the program with the utmost respect—our "Ceremonial Gowns/Tunics" were *not* to be worn as costumes (I once went so far as to buy two old gowns from a costume rack at a thrift store and donate them to the local Camp Fire council so they would not be used for this purpose), and "Ceremonials" were rather solemn occasions, but at the same time, it was as if we were being taught about Native culture as if it were a *dead* culture. Like ancient Egypt or something. I can't recall meeting an actual Native American in all my years in the program.

I'm biased but I think the program is not nearly as bad as the Boy Scouts "Order of the Arrow" activities, and is "kinder and gentler" than BSA because of its former all-girls status, however, I think it might be time for the organization to move on. They claim to embrace multiculturalism—get this (from their official website):

"Camp Fire USA's programs are designed and implemented to reduce sex-role, racial and cultural stereotypes and to foster positive intercultural relationships."

Hmm. Reducing cultural stereotypes with beads and fringe?

If you have any suggestions, I would like to write to the head office and see what they say. Do you know if anyone has approached Camp Fire about this?

Love your website, keep up the good work!

The Indian background of the Camp Fire Girls (now Camp Fire USA):

Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman, a.k.a. Ohiyesa, Wahpeton Dakota Sioux (1858-1939)Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman was involved in the forming of both Boy Scouts of America and Camp Fire Girls.

As a Sioux, he was known as Ohiyesa. His father was a Sioux Indian; his mother was the daughter of a U.S. Army officer and the granddaughter of a famous Sioux chief. Ohiyesa had the traditional upbringing of a Sioux from 1858 to 1874, followed by an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and a medical degree from Boston University Medical School. He became a fully licensed physician. He was the only physician to aid victims of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Because of racism, his ability to earn a living as a physician was always difficult. To support his family, in 1895 he began working for the YMCA organizing programs for youth living on Indian reservations. In 1920 he helped verify the burial site of Sacajawea.

While it became politically correct to condemn Camp Fire and Boy Scouts of America for stereotyping the indigenous peoples of America and for "exploiting" their cultures, much of that early lore was offered to CFG and BSA by Ohiyesa. His 1914 book Indian Scout Talks was subtitled "A Guide for Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls." He wrote, "These chapters represent the actual experiences and first-hand knowledge of the author. His training was along these lines, until he was nearly sixteen years of age. It is with the earnest hope that they may prove useful to all who venture into the wilderness in pursuit of wisdom, health, and pleasure, that they are dedicated to The Boy Scouts of America and The Camp Fire Girls of America."

It might be argued that Dr. Eastman himself did not see the true picture of the Sioux, that he saw "the Sioux ways" through the eyes of a child, idolozing them or turning them "magical" as people sometimes do with the days of their youth. However, it must be noted that it was a Sioux Indian who gave Camp Fire so much of its Indian lore, tradition, and flavor.
Historical origins of Camp FireOhiyesa's book written for Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls is filled with ceremonies, symbols, words, and names which he suggests as appropriate for use by the youth of the two groups. He wrote of how names were given to a person in his Sioux culture, and he suggested it would be appropriate for young people to create names meaningful to them. He included two lists. Above the first, he wrote, "The following are Sioux feminine names appropriate to Camp Fire Girls, with their literal and symbolic meanings." Then, he listed some Ojibway girls' names. Those same names have appeared in Camp Fire books since.

The source, however, was forgotten. Until I began doing this research, I'd never heard anyone in Camp Fire credit Dr. Eastman in any way. THAT is the shame: That a man like Dr. Eastman did so much, yet his name and his deeds would be forgotten. Sometimes it's important to remember to tell a man's story, so he is not forgotten.
Comment:  This is the same Charles Eastman whom Adam Beach played as a tortured soul in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, of course. Despite the tragedy at Wounded Knee, Eastman managed to pick himself up and keep going somehow.

For more on a related subject, see YMCA-Indian Guides.


Marybeth Lorbiecki said...

Thank you for articulately remembering the contributions of Ohiyesa/Dr. Charles Eastman to the Camp Fire Organization and the Boy Scouts of America.

Eastman, who was raised traditionally until the age of 14, retained his language, both reading and writing in it, till death. At the time he attended American schools, Indians were known only negatively as savages. Eastman, through his famous classic American work "Indian Boyhood" about his early life, helped Americans change their view of what a "savage" education was. Prior to Eastman, it was either viewed as brutal and warlike or romantically "noble." Eastman showed that his childhood was both free in the outdoors and incredibly disciplined and systematic in his community teachings of values, respect, natural history, tribal history, mental acuity and ingenuity, survival skills, outdoors games, and spirituality. His book subverted the negativity of the word "savage" and suddenly educators were looking to him and to Indian life for strengths that American culture was losing in their youth because of required daily indoor schooling and the disrespectful "sassiness" of young people.

At that time, the Pan-Indian movement was growing among Indians nations as they met each other in the forced boarding schools and they realized that in terms of values and upbringing, they had more in common with each other than with the whites that were part of the mainstream American culture that was in a sweep of ethnic cleansing, stealing their lands, penning them on reservations, and militarily and legally making them "assimilate."

Eastman's Pan-Indian rituals and lore were born of this time period. He did not want the individual tribes to lose their identities -- he fought valiantly in the courts and in the press for their rights -- but he wanted to impress upon whites the values and skills that Indians shared. By educating American youth in amalgamated Pan-Indian traditions, Eastman and many other Indians of the time believed that American youth would have greater respect for the Indians in their nation and Indians could once again hold their heads up with pride.

Eastman was right about this. He did make great strides in these educational efforts. One cannot understand this unless one lived prior to Eastman and afterward, but the contributions of Ohiyesa/Eastman and his colleagues in the Society of American Indians (SAI) are immense and still felt today.

The challenge now for the Boy Scouts of America and the Camp Fire Organization is to acknowledge these roots and then send out all their members to learn more about the individual Indian nations living locally in their midst and as part of their membership. We do not have to disregard the past but instead enliven it with greater knowledge now.

So I agree that it is inadequate to just pass on the Pan-Indian materials without updating them and offering more depth, but we must understand the value they have and have had in opening minds and discussions -- and getting our youth engaged with the woods and plains and in service in positive ways. Eastman would be very supportive of the No Child Left Inside movement and those working to prevent the Nature Deficit Disorder, as noted in Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods." And he was a great supporter of the Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls all his life, and he strove to get Indian nations to create their own versions of such youth organizations to pass on their traditions. Unfortunately, they were hampered legally, because until the 1930s, their traditions and language were outlawed.
(P.S. Unfortunately, Eastman was erroneously portrayed in the documentary "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.")

Marybeth Lorbiecki
Eastman biographer
"Beyond Wounded Knee: The Life and Works of OHIYESA: Charles Alexander Eastman" to be released

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