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The American Summer Camp and Universal Acceptance

OPINION/REVIEW: Sleepaway camps are enriching experiences for countless children, but too many stick to outdated traditions that restrict access and misrepresent indigenous culture. However, many modern camps are making progress at properly including everyone in our society.


For many kids across the United States, sleepaway camp was one of the most formative experiences of their lives. Full disclosure, I am one of those people. For those lucky enough to experience it, summer camp often provides an opportunity for kids to experience nature and autonomy in a way that is impossible or unsafe at home. Camp is a valuable experience for people of all kinds, which is why it's a shame that it hasn't been widely available to children for most of their history. Gender exclusion, high tuition prices, and a history of poor Native American representation have all been black marks on the history of summer camp, however, many summer camps are working tirelessly to rectify their pasts. Summer camps are well on their way to making camp available to everyone, but there is still a ways to go.

Summer camps vary wildly in their applications, focuses, and affiliation. One of the largest camp administrators in America today is the YMCA. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) is a non-profit that has become an essential player in the overnight summer camp industry. Now more commonly referred to as the Y, the organization focuses on improving lives by “empowering young people, improving individual and community well-being, and inspiring action.” They have a long history of summer camps and are some of the most prolific providers of overnight camps, making them a good litmus test for the industry.

The Y camps make a sound basis for discussing US overnight camps generally because of their abundance and long history. The Y has over 230 overnight camps and its first overnight camp was started by the Philadelphia chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1874—a full two years before the first private camp in Pennsylvania. The first YMCA camp was started in 1885 in Newburgh, New York, and it was much closer to what we think of as a modern summer camp, with overnight accommodations and a focus on introducing city kids to nature that was absent from their daily lives. Since then the Y has been a trendsetter for all camps in the United States, making it a good marker for the industry's progress as a whole.

One Y camp that has been working on improving its accessibility to kids of all backgrounds has been Camp Takodah in Richmond, New Hampshire. I spoke with both the executive director and the former assistant director of the camp to better understand what it is like trying to make a summer camp more inclusive.

Artie Lang is Camp Takodah’s executive director and gave some great insights into the administrative issues that arise when trying to change cultural elements of a camp that has been running for over a century. Some of Takodah’s recent changes include changing division names to ones related to notable alumni rather than indigenous groups, removing references to Christianity from meal songs, and expanding their gender inclusion programs—just to name a few. Even for camps without a century-long history like Takodah, the perception of legacy and tradition is integral to the camp experience. However, according to Lang, you don’t actually need to do something for a hundred years to make it feel like a tradition. “If we repeated [a tradition] for the next three years, it would be considered a tradition at camp, and people would swear that it had been around since 1960.”

One of the most prevalent issues throughout the summer camp community has been the representation of Native American groups. Since their inception, summer camps have used poorly understood iconography, gross simplifications of traditional practices, and mispronounced names as core elements of their marketing and identities, and Takodah is no exception. As mentioned before, the age divisions at Takodah were named after indigenous groups, and the original camp logo included the image of a Native American man in a headdress. These have both been removed over the last decade, often under the advisement of people like Andrew Corley. Andrew Corley, the executive director and CEO of the Sioux YMCA in South Dakota, has been working with camps (both Y and others) to improve how they interact with and represent Native American culture. He described how many camps have some kind of appropriation within their cultures and that it is important to be aware of how your camp may be appropriating culture and how one can address these issues. One of the most common ways camps address their spotty history of Native American representation is with land acknowledgments; however, these are often seen as performative by indigenous groups. In Corley’s experience “probably forty percent [of people identifying as Native American] are like ‘it feels performative to just do a land acknowledgment, but it’s a start.’ The other sixty are like ‘it’s a start and they need to keep going, but they still appreciate it.’” These land acknowledgments should also be accompanied by a cultural audit from an authority from the correct group. Corley stresses that making certain you are crediting the right group and using appropriate names is integral to actually improving representation.

Contacting the right groups also applies to who a camp chooses to perform an appropriation audit, which is a process where an authority figure from the affected group (preferably a representative from the tribe’s cultural preservation office, if they have one) examines the activities and procedures of the camp to make certain that they are being respectful and aware in their activities. Elements like the presence of land acknowledgments and names of age groups are easy to address, but where many camps slip up, according to Corley, are in practices like their arts and crafts or their opening and closing ceremonies. Often opening and closing ceremonies will reference some kind of Great Spirit or other entity tied to a vague awareness of what they think pays homage to the indigenous people who formerly lived on that land. In reality, it is just disrespectful. Corley explains that, when consulting these camps, it's often easy to pinpoint when these references are done out of ignorance by simply asking “Why?” and having them respond with “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it.” This is not grounds for continuing poor representation.

Corley is usually invited to speak at conferences or with individual camps regarding representation, despite some of those camps being parts of larger organizations that won’t necessarily transfer the same ideas about representation across all of their campsites. This is often why the actual change at a camp, according to Artie Lang, comes at the managerial level rather than an executive level. This is also the case with Camp Takodah, and I got the opportunity to talk with the former Assistant Camp Director, Carlie Fischer, about how they worked to create a more inclusive environment at camp over a little less than a decade.

Fischer had ambitious goals as Assistant Director for both gender and racial inclusion. “Camping has historically been a very, very white, middle-class space,” said Fischer, and while there may have been some progress on that front in the past, it wasn't until very recently that Takodah started gaining ground. Camp Takodah was originally a boys-only camp until “we eventually let girls in” said Fischer “and then it was 50 years before we started thinking about gender that isn’t binary,” and while Fischer couldn’t say whether the camp was working towards more racial diversity, she said, “We certainly didn’t make any progress until very recently.” Fischer explained that camp is incredibly important for many kids because it gives them a chance to make interpersonal connections and be connected to the outdoors, and if they are “only giving that access to a very specific type of kid, intentionally or not, that's a problem for us.” However, Fischer also clarifies that it isn’t enough to simply say “everyone is welcome here!” because if the brochure for the camp only includes cishet white people, it isn’t going to be believable.

Still, Fischer acknowledges that Takodah was lucky to be in their position and that it might not be the same for other camps across the country, explaining that it very much was a combination of “financial health and progressive leadership that made change possible.” Fischer explains that while it is essential to maintain an anti-racist stance, there are also realities relating to maintaining a customer basis to keep a camp afloat. These camps need to be cautious when making changes because they are businesses that require customer support to run. However, Artie Lang brought up how making small changes like the name of a building or the lyrics of a song can help build a basis for bigger changes in the future without risking an exodus of campers.

Camp can be a life-changing experience for any kid across the United States, however, the sad reality is that many feel rejected or misrepresented by it due to a history of exclusion and poor representation. However, it seems that camps like Takodah are always improving and are on their way to more exciting and positive changes to let every kid have a great summer away from home.

Aiden Kaplan is a second-year Journalism major in the School of Communication. He is a staff writer for the American Agora.

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