Summer Camp: The fake Indian thing

This American Life: CampI was nine years old when I chose my “Indian name”. “Tah-Kan-Yah” was said to translate to “Friendly Helpful Baker.” As a white, suburban Camp Fire Girl (now Camp Fire USA.,, I never thought to question the pseudo- Native American rituals that we acted out in our after-school club.
It turns out that fake “Indianness” is an American tradition that stretches back to colonial times. White settlers dressed as Native Americans to rebel against the British and establish their identities as citizens of a new country. “The Boston Tea Party has given the practice its greatest notoriety,” writes Philip J. Deloria in his book Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998; ISBN: 0300071116).
In the early 20th century, the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton believed that the values of the Industrial Revolution were corrupting American youth. He felt that they needed to return to the respect for the land modeled by the “Natural Indians”, as he called them. Seton incorporated native lore and ceremonies into the organization that he helped to found: the Boy Scouts of America.
“Note Four” of Episode 109 of the radio show This American Life, originally broadcast in 1998, describes how fake Indian rituals play an integral part in summer camp life today. Note that there are never any actual Native Americans involved in the development or deployment of these exercises, which often involve speech in which articles are dropped and the syllable “um” is liberally appended to words.


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