By Marianne Lyons, VI Form
The Camp Fire Girls and the Appropriation of Native American Culture
American camping associations are iconic. The camping movement from its inception and in all its forms has shaped American culture. In fact, I have had the privilege of attending Wyonegonic Camps in Denmark, Maine for the past ten years.
This past year as a counselor, I had the opportunity to pass down traditions directly to my campers. As part of this, I once took my cabin to my camp’s cramped museum, which holds the artifacts of Wyonegonic’s 120-year history. My campers humored me by asking questions about the different songs and pictures that covered the walls.
One of my campers paused as her hand hovered over a blurry, black and white picture. She called me over, and I studied the image. It was dated 1919 and showed a small white girl in Native American traditional dress. I paused. I thought hard about what to do and what to say next. Native American dress, lore, and appropriation are integral to the long history of the American camping movement. I didn’t know how to summarize and convey that history to my wide-eyed ten-year-old camper, but I knew I had to explain. I called my cabin over to the picture and opened up a conversation. I covered why this photograph might be offensive and encouraged the girls to share their perspectives. This conversation wasn’t easy, but it was important for my campers to understand the complexities of our shared history.
This moment didn’t exist in a vacuum. This summer was revolutionary, at Wyonegonic, and many other camps. We removed the Native names that used to adorn our buildings and competition teams. Our directors began conversations about the Native peoples who originally populated the land we play on and the lake we swim in. But as we continued to look back on our history and make necessary changes, questions arose in my mind; Why? Why did so many camps, including Wyonegonic, use Native American cultures in this way? What had inspired the founders of camps to do this? Where else did this occur?
These questions led to my research, culminating in my introduction to The Camp Fire Girls. During the early 20th century, several prominent camping associations appropriated Native cultures into their curricula. The Camp Fire Girls was one of these organizations that based its program on Native cultures. Luther and Charlotte Gulick founded The Camp Fire Girls to address the perceived impact of a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and diversifying country on the young women of America. However, in the process, they created a racist system that dangerously appropriated and simplified Native cultures. This appropriation has had lasting consequences that changed how youth camping associations, and the greater public, interact with and use Native cultures today.
This paper will first present the context of the Progressive Era, which formed the aims and mission of The Camp Fire Girls. Then it will delve into the specific background of The Camp Fire Girls and its founders’ goals. Next, it will go into specific details regarding The Camp Fire Girls curricula and how the Gulicks combined both discipline and romantic ideals to solve the issues girls faced in a modernizing America. It will then detail The Camp Fire Girls’ use of Native cultures. Finally, it will explain the impacts of this cultural appropriation, including how the Gulicks used Native cultures to form their own public and business image.
Marianne Lyons is a VI Form day student.