I pull into the parking lot of Camp Puh’Tok in Monkton, Maryland, just a half-hour drive from my home in Baltimore City. I hop out of the car, walk past the 20-foot tall totem pole that sits outside of the dining hall — officially called the Thunderbird Lodge — and into the campgrounds.
To my left sits the Pioneer Village, the cabins for the youngest campers. To my right is the Trading Post, where campers can buy snacks and drinks during their stay. I walk past the field, and into the Indian Village, which is made up of cabins for middle-age male campers. In the Indian Village, there are three cabins: The Pueblo, the Long House, and the Hogan. We are told they are all named and modeled after traditional Native American architecture styles.
Just past the Indian Village, there is a structure, a pavilion where campers participate in Indian Lore, an activity where they make “authentic Indian crafts” like moccasins, bear claw necklaces, beaded bracelets and belts, and leather pouches. They learn Native sign language. They hear Native folk stories as told by the twenty-something white Indian Lore activity leaders.
Twenty feet from Indian Lore, there is the Council Ring, an arena-style structure with a sand floor where campers do “traditional Indian dances” like the Eagle Dance and the Hunter’s Dance — they do these dances while wearing loincloths and “authentic Indian dresses and shawls”. Inside the Council Ring, there is a flat stone bench called the Chief’s Rock. You are only allowed to sit on the Chief’s Rock if you have been named a Chief of the camp’s secret society: the Medicine Pipe Society. You can identify members of the Medicine Pipe Society because they draw arrows next to their eyes during the camp’s end-of-session powwows.
If I walk past the field in the other direction, I will enter the Tipi Village, which is the only coed village on the campgrounds and consists of six large tipis that each sleep up to four campers.
There are three other villages that line the perimeter of the campgrounds. Bontkirchin, the village for the oldest female campers, has six cabins all named after “Eskimo” words or places. Top Bar Ranch, the cabins for middle-age female campers, is modeled after one of the early American pioneer settlements. Stockade, the living quarters built for the oldest male campers and modeled after a war-time fortress complete with statues of white American Revolutionary War era soldiers.
Walking through this camp now is jarring. I feel like I am being hit over the head again and again by Indigenous cultural appropriation, racism, and the glorification of the systematic slaughter of Indigenous people and occupation of their land. I cannot believe I went to this camp for ten years of my life, that I worked there, and that I called this camp home, but I did, and I am not a special case because of that.
Camp Puh’Tok is a former Boy Scouts camp. It formally dropped the association with Boy Scouts of America in the 90s. Regardless of this, they maintained many similarities to the traditional Boy Scout camp structure, including but not limited to the incorporation of activities and camp-wide culture contingent on the mockery of Indigenous people.
This is, in many ways, what most American summer camps boil down to: cheap imitation and caricature of Native traditions and culture pieces. Six and seven-year-olds running around in headdresses, cabins with offensive and inaccurate names, and White counselors teaching or facilitating activities called “Indian Lore” or “Powwow Dances.”
There are over 400 Boy Scout camps across the country and approximately 2.2 million Boy Scouts. The “Indian Lore” merit badge still exists — right now as you are reading this there are little boys all across America sitting at home practicing their 25 “Indian hand gestures” and designing the pair of moccasins they are going to make to acquire this prestigious badge.
A quick Google search of “cultural appropriation summer camp” will produce over 2.3 million results, so many of which are pages on official camp websites apologizing for a long history of cultural appropriation in their cabin names, camp activities, songs, chants, and stories. These apologies and new policies are meant to reduce and acknowledge the harm done by the camps in the past but this issue is far from behind us.
Summer camp culture in the United States can be almost cult-like — take it from someone who has spent their life in it. Lots of camps, especially older ones like Camp Puh’Tok, have “camp elders” who have been around for decades even after aging out of being a camper or ending their official employment. These people, often in their 70s and 80s, will linger around a camp and lobby on behalf of its culturally insensitive and harmful practices to preserve their childhood experiences. They will gripe and push back against “woke” young people trying to correct what is sometimes almost a century of violent offensive camp history. Even camps that have attempted to alter their appropriative practices have only done so incrementally because camp directors know that changing the camp too drastically will sever their ties to the camp elders and thus the camp community and any money it might bring in.
American summer camp culture is inextricable from the mockery of Native American people. It is steeped in a history of, at best, ignorance and, at worst, outright hatred. Most of the camps that have published apologies for their history have done so only because of the light shed on cultural appropriation in all forms within the last decade: had they not been asked to, they never would have released these statements or even attempted to correct their practices.
The Boy Scouts of America was founded over 110 years ago in Irving, Texas: formerly occupied by the Jumanos, Wichita, Kiikaapoi, and Tawakoni tribes. Since its founding, the BSA have built their organization directly on the backs of Indigenous people and culture. This organization cannot be separated from its past or what it has created: a nationwide industry that profits off of the parody and destruction of the Indigenous people who were systematically annihilated by the founders of this country.
Quincey Fireside is a true advocate for Indigenous people and can always be counted on to help educate readers. They can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Julia Young.