Ah, Spring is in the air. Flowers are blooming, and the pollen count is outrageous. Schools are winding down, and across the country, summer camps are warming up. As camps gear up, so do the plans to “Indianize” camp participants. Dress like Indians, dance like Indians, do ceremonies like Indians and even give Indian names. All under the guise of “better understanding and respecting Native culture.” Sadly, it doesn’t work.
Respect for their culture cannot occur by creating plastic or paper headdresses or mimicking Indian sounds or songs while hopping, Indian-like, around a bonfire. And it is never appropriate to hand out Native names. In short, it is okay to study a culture, but not okay to usurp it. White men have been pretending to be Indian at least since the Boston Tea Party, and it has never worked out well.
Native customs and beliefs are not trivial or frivolous. They are the deep-seated connection between the people who practice them and their spiritual understanding. The practitioners of these ceremonies are not ancients, long dead and forgotten, they are real and alive today, and their lives are relevant.
Rather than make fake headdresses, talk about the fact that many tribes did not wear feathers at all. That in most tribes that did wear them, they were only worn by men. You might even teach how feathers were earned. What birds were most sacred and desired, and what was the significance of cuts, colors, or add-ons.
For other ceremonies, you might want to discuss the meaning and importance of the drum. Did it sound like the Atlanta Braves war drum, or was the beat more subtle and spiritual? Instead of making up pretend dances, learn the significance of real dances like the Jingle Dance, or the Shawl Dance, or the men’s and women’s Fancy Dances. All tribes danced at ceremonies and events, and there were reasons for every ceremony. How many ceremonies did a tribe celebrate each year? What was the significance of each one? The “Green Corn Ceremony” was celebrated by all the southeastern tribes. What was its significance and what did it accomplish?
Lastly, forget naming ceremonies. It’s okay to learn about the naming process, but it’s highly disrespectful to assign Indian names. You and your campers probably are not Indian. If any are, they already have their Indian name and don’t need you to make fun of how it came to be.
You can, and I encourage you to, learn and teach as much Native culture as you are able, but it is not possible to become an Indian, so don’t try. Don’t even pretend. It is just plain disrespectful. Remember, respect is the ability to recognize someone’s excellence or worth and to show consideration for that person or culture. What do you think?