Dear Adam and Ann Boyd, Camp Leadership, and Fellow Alumni of Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake,
We are writing to urge Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake to dissolve their “tribal system” and end the appropriation and homogenization of American Indian cultures. As alumnae who loved our summers at Camp Merri-Mac, we cannot remain silent on the inappropriate behavior we observed and participated in as campers for nearly a decade; especially since this summer, Camp Merri-Mac will celebrate its 75th anniversary with these practices intact.
We have a lot of love for Merri-Mac in our hearts, but we also feel shame over having participated in these hurtful, racist activities. We believe everything that makes summer camp such a wonderful place to be a child can and should exist without causing harm to indigenous peoples. Due to these continued practices, we would never send our own children to the camp that shaped us into who we are today.
We believe the cultural appropriation outlined in this petition informs the mockery of Native peoples and identities. This appropriation perpetuates misinformation and racist ideas about Indigenous American names, histories, stories, and religious beliefs.
We believe Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake can address these issues and reform their camp activities and programs. Many other summer camps across the country have already changed the same practices for the reasons outlined in this petition.
As campers, these are some of the examples of the cultural appropriation we participated in or observed at these summer camps:
- Use of the names “Choctaw,” “Iroquois,” and “Seminole” in a “tribal” system where campers are “initiated” within their first few days of camp, and remain a member of that “tribe” for life
- Referring to uninitiated campers as “palefaces”
- Selling merchandise related to this “tribal” system
- Using feathers, beads, warbonnets, drums, etc. in “ceremonies”
- During initiation, the “Great Spirit” gives a speech about three warring tribes coming together to form a time of peace, which perpetuates the idea of Native peoples as mythical or “vanished” relics of the past
- “War whoops” and chants with lyrics like: “We are the red men / feathers in our head men / down among the dead men / Choctaw” or “Swish tomahawk, fly tomahawk, boom I’m an Iroquois”
- Referring to relay races as “Apache” races
- The “White Feather” rewards system, which began as recently as the early 2000s
- The “Little Chief” rewards system at Timberlake
- Elected leaders are referred to as “Braves,” “Medicine Man” and “Chief”
- The tipi and “tribal council”
- The totem pole (and the camp legend that touching it would bring rain)
- Opening the summer ceremonies by finding the “buried hatchet”
These are just a few examples of how practices at Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake are perpetuating racist stereotypes. When you conflate and conglomerate traditional indigenous clothing, religious beliefs, ceremonies, and housing structures, you are teaching children that it is OK to steal cultural identities, erase them, and change them to suit your own entertainment.
We believe these practices erase the reality of American Indian and Indigenous American existences. We believe these practices perpetuate disenfranchisement and oppression. We believe these practices encourage children to engage in the erasure of other cultural identities; which amounts to cultural genocide.
When people diminish Native peoples to stereotypes, they engage in a long-standing colonial practice that dehumanizes indigenous peoples, and directly contributes to their continued oppression.
When we talk about this appropriation, we are speaking from personal experience. We both attended Camp Merri-Mac for ten summers. We were both “initiated” within the first few days of our first year at camp. We remember our “initiations” as formative moments, and for many of our summers at camp, our tribal “chief” was someone we looked up to and admired; she was someone we wanted to be. In our final year as campers at age 16, when Kat was elected “chief” of the Seminoles, and Eileen as “chief” of the Choctaw tribe, it was one of our proudest achievements. Unfortunately, this achievement is a source of shame for us, because now, as adults, we know better.
We loved camp. We owe our 24-year-long friendship to camp. Some of our happiest memories stem from those summers.
We also feel shame, guilt, and regret over our complicity and participation in the “tribal system.” We wore headdresses, painted our faces and bodies, and danced around a campfire; we initiated new campers by smearing paint on their faces. Collectively, we have twenty years of complicity, and almost a decade of silence between us. It makes us feel dirty.
When we look back on our summers at Camp Merri-Mac, it is with a sting of regret: regret for having participated, so ignorantly, in these practices, and in doing so having contributed to a cycle of oppression. Our hope in speaking out is that, among the thousands of other people who have attended these camps or camps with similar “traditions,” there are those who feel the same way about these outdated, hurtful practices.
As privileged people who directly benefited from this system, we feel it is our responsibility to ask that these practices end so that new traditions can be formed.
We urge our fellow alumni to add their voices to this petition, asking for an end to these practices. We urge anyone else in the public who feels the same way we do to sign the petition and speak up.
We believe happy memories should not come at the expense of other people’s lives, cultures, livelihoods, or identities.
First, last, & always,
Spirit of Sportsmanship, 2005
Camp Merri-Mac alumna, 1996 - 2005
Eileen Rush Tatum
Spirit of Good Cheer, 2005
Camp Merri-Mac alumna, 1995 - 2005