Excerpt: The Camp Fire Girls

Jennifer Helgren is a professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She is the author of American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War. Her newest book, The Camp Fire Girls: Gender, Race, and American Girlhood, 1910-1980 (Nebraska, 2022) was published in December.

Through the lens of the Camp Fire Girls, Jennifer Helgren traces the changing meanings of girls’ citizenship in the cultural context of the twentieth century. Drawing on girls’ scrapbooks, photographs, letters, and oral history interviews, in addition to adult voices in organization publications and speeches, The Camp Fire Girls explores critical intersections of gender, race, class, nation, and disability.


2. “Wohelo Maidens” and “Gypsy Trails”: Racial Mimicry and Camp Fire’s Picturesque Girl Citizen

Camp Fire officials used appropriative dress and symbolism to construct a mythic concept of universal girlhood. Camp Fire’s ceremonial costume, council fires, and camping activities invoked American Indian and sometimes Gypsy imagery. At regional council fires and at weekly meetings, Camp Fire Girls adopted as their own what they thought of as American Indian names and symbols. For special occasions, such as when girls advanced in rank or earned honor beads, girls wore a brown, fringed dress decorated with symbolic designs and worn with a beaded headband depicting their personally chosen symbol. Wearing Indian-style gowns, the thinking went, girls from various backgrounds would appear comparatively alike, and sharing rituals and symbols created a collective Camp Fire identity. The guidebook insisted that when “girls from every station in life came together all clad alike,” the costume was “just as becoming to the poor girls as to the rich girl.” It created “a true democratic feeling between girls of all classes,” and each Camp Fire Girl was “one in this great sisterhood.”

Dressed as Indian Maidens, or as Wohelo Maidens, as the organization literature regularly called them, Camp Fire Girls enacted what organization officials asserted were cross-cultural, timeless female roles. Like the boys who, according to G. Stanley Hall’s recapitulation theory, lived through a so-called savage stage in their play, girls accessed a female race history through Indian play. Both American Indians and women in general—associated with reproductive capacities—have been historically viewed as “rooted more directly and deeply in nature,” to borrow Sherry Ortner’s phrase. As historian Philip Deloria explains, early twentieth-century youth leaders like Charlotte and Luther Gulick and Ernest Thompson Seton were part of a group of Indian fanciers who placed “Indians outside the temporal (and societal) boundaries of modernity” where they stood for the “authenticity and natural purity” that might undergird a new modern identity. Camp Fire’s American Indian symbolism “was about reaffirming female difference in terms of domesticity and service.” Although Camp Fire presented Indian play as universalizing, the practice magnified racial hierarchies and, as historian Abigail Van Slyck notes, “served to embed ideas about race into children’s daily lives.” Seton and the Gulicks popularized the Indian imagery that took hold at camps across the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

In addition to Indian mimicry, or mythologizing, Camp Fire Girls enacted other tropes in their performative play. The Gypsy image was similarly untethered to historical fact—certainly not based on the experiences of actual Roma immigrants. It, too, presented camping and wandering through fantasy and poetic portrayals. On occasion, Camp Fire Girls performed blackface, but it never won the organization’s endorsement the way Indian and Gypsy play did. One suspects that it lacked the middle-class respectability that the other two signified. Only occasional images in scrapbooks and reports in newspapers feature Camp Fire Girls in blackface, and some of these sought to assert a degree of propriety. One Indiana group, for example, performed a version of Cinderella with blackface characters and “Negro dialect.” They called this rendition “modern” because it followed the recent Broadway trend of featuring Black casts. Although Broadway may have indicated style and taste for the Indiana group, at its core, minstrelsy was “a white obsession with black (male) bodies.” Its “fleshly investments,” disavowed “through ridicule and racist lampoon,” were not mysterious nor picturesque and did not invoke a noble ideal. In the gender and racial discourse of the early twentieth century, Indians and Gypsies (but not blackface) were deemed appropriate for white, middle-class girls.

Picturesque Indians and the Camp Fire Aesthetic

It may seem perplexing that only a few decades after the military campaigns against Native people had ended, white, middle-class youth leaders embraced Indianness for girls, who Camp Fire leaders viewed as society’s most vulnerable and protected members. After all, nineteenth-century characterizations of Native women as promiscuous, dirty, and uncivilized were not so far in the past. Yet youth organization imagery reflected the next step in the ongoing colonial struggles that marked U.S. and American Indian relations: confinement to reservations, allotment, and coercive assimilation in boarding schools. Seemingly positive images worked to obscure violence still being committed on the population as conquest continued through new efforts to assimilate American Indian youth in boarding schools. Indeed, conquest and assimilation programs made Camp Fire’s use of feminine Indian imagery for white girls viable by setting authentic Indianness safely in the past. Camp Fire’s imagery reflected the prevalence in early twentieth-century popular culture of Native people as noble, picturesque relics of the past. As anthropologist S. Elizabeth Bird writes, “Once Indians were no longer a threat, they became colorful and quaint.” Seton and the Gulicks admired and emulated American Indians. They reinforced familiar “tropes, in which the Indian was,” as one white camp architect explained, “an inheritor of old cultures and of wise, poetic and beautiful customs and beliefs, marvelously harmonious with his temperament and environment.” Luther Gulick used terms like “romance” and “picturesqueness” to describe American Indians. He maintained that Camp Fire’s ritual and symbolism invoking Indians “would take hold of the girl’s imagination and find its way into her soul.” It would form “an attitude toward life” wherein “beauty itself would enter her mind and heart.” The tropes placed Native people outside modern industrial society, denied their contemporary identities and political concerns, and “urged white children to see themselves as the rightful inheritors to North America.” Common narratives about the successes of assimilation further obscured the systematic harms that allotment and boarding schools were inflicting on Native populations.

Assimilation policies had particular importance for the Camp Fire Girls because of its presence as an assimilation agent in American Indian boarding schools. In 1913 the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania started a group. By the 1930s, clubs met at the Yakima Indian Mission in Washington and several government Indian schools, such as the Phoenix Indian School in Arizona and the Fort Sill Indian School in Oklahoma. The Phoenix Indian School required students to participate in at least one extracurricular activity such as Camp Fire, Boy Scouts, YWCA, Holy Cross, home economics clubs, literary societies, or athletics. Assimilation policies also had particular implications for Native girls. According to many assimilation advocates, girls as “mothers of the race” were critical targets of acculturation efforts. Boarding schools detached children from family, language, culture, and community and educated them for subservient roles in the capitalist economy. The tactics destroyed cultures by upending familiar gender systems and ties between generations. Boarding schools functioned in tandem with federal land allotment policy to undermine “collective land ownership” and “matriarchal forms of gender practices” by granting larger allotments and authority to male heads of household. Against this backdrop, Camp Fire clubs appeared as an assimilative agent within some residential schools for Indigenous children.

Authenticity, Eclecticism, and Indian Consultants

Camp Fire adults praised the authenticity of the imagery they presented to girls. In reality, they sought an Indian aesthetic, what Seton called “the best things from the best Indians,” rather than historical or cultural accuracy. In this spirit, Camp Fire advocated making up Indian-sounding words, mixing and matching eclectic practices from distinct tribes, and taking up white depictions of Indians, especially Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic The Song of Hiawatha. Still, the Camp Fire Girls sought advice on American Indian cultures from Native authors, translators, and storytellers to lend an aura of genuineness to the program. These cultural brokers, or intermediaries, such as Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux doctor educated at Indian boarding schools and American colleges, and Ella Deloria, a Dakota linguist and author who worked with Franz Boas, offered their ideas to white Camp Fire leaders. By 1930 Camp Fire had an advisory committee on Indian lore that included Native leaders like Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala Sa) and white Indian experts Mary Austin, John Collier, Edward Sapir, and Frances Densmore. Local Camp Fire groups invited Native speakers to give presentations about their cultures, performing their Indianness in white institutions where they were, in Bird’s words, “the object of the White, colonialist gaze.” At the same time, the Native consultants could “document and legitimize their Indian backgrounds for readers and scholars,” using white institutions for their own ends. Progressive American Indian organizations such as the Society of American Indians and the Real American, a Hoquiam, Washington, weekly that argued for U.S. citizen rights for American Indians, for example, cautiously promoted Camp Fire as a means to increase awareness about contemporary Indigenous people.

Eastman’s writings for Camp Fire Girls and Boy Scouts reappropriated, or adopted on his terms, the white romanticized Indian, casting the portrayal in contemporary and positive terms. Desirous of showing the presence of real modern American Indians participating fully in American society, Eastman showcased his “hybrid life.” As Deloria explains, “When Eastman donned an Indian headdress, he was connecting himself to his Dakota roots. But he was also . . . imitating non-Indian imitations of Indians.” Eastman’s reproductions of Dakota culture complemented Camp Fire, but Eastman also influenced the group’s teaching as he instructed young people to connect to nature and improve their health, strength, and outdoor skills. He also echoed the gender distinctions central to the Camp Fire Girls, prohibiting girls from the masculine Sioux traditions of wearing head feathers and adopting the symbols of bears and wolves, recommending instead activities such as a “maidens’ feast.” Here girls took a vow of purity, prepared and served a meal, and gave a gift of service. Eastman’s Indian Scout Talks: A Guide for Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls also challenged the notion that girls were frail and countered negative stereotypes of American Indian women. “Contrary to the popular opinion,” he wrote, “our Indian girls and women are not mere drudges, but true feminine athletes.” Young female readers who saw themselves as strong and independent would have been encouraged by activities laid before them that included vigorous physical activity and team competition in the form of field hockey and “canoe ball” (a type of water lacrosse). Eastman provided reassurance that Camp Fire’s gender-specific program was authentically Indian as he used his alliance with Camp Fire to recast perceptions of Native people.

Ella Deloria, likewise, gave lessons on Native cultures to Camp Fire groups, gaining “access to American cultural institutions in order to reshape popular conceptions of Indianness.” She was ambivalent about Camp Fire, chiding the “cut-and-dried, stereotype designs [which they] try to read into Indian material.” Nevertheless, she used the organization as an avenue of influence. Deloria reappropriated American Indian imagery by reintroducing elements of the Lakota Sun Dance ceremony, which the U.S. government outlawed in 1904. In “The Wohpe Festival,” a pageant that Deloria wrote in 1928 for children’s summer camps, the language resembled that used by Seton and the Gulicks. Deloria wrote that “the Indian way of presenting” a kinship with nature “is particularly picturesque and impressive.” Her use of “picturesque” to describe Native dances would have fit into the expected Indian aesthetic and increased the acceptability of Indigenous dances in youth programming. At the same time, she was introducing a banned ceremony into a new context. Through the subversive use of children’s productions, Native leaders like Deloria found a way to reappropriate and enact their traditions. In this context, we should understand Native participation in the Camp Fire program.

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