"The Fundamental Things": Camp Fire Girls and Authenticity, 1910-20

By McCallum, Mary Jane | Canadian Journal of History, April 2005 | Go to article overview

"The Fundamental Things": Camp Fire Girls and Authenticity, 1910-20


McCallum, Mary Jane, Canadian Journal of History


Camp Fire Girls etait une organisation populaire et influente qui etait remarquable pour son eloge, appropriation et fabrication de traditions indiennes. Nous examinons le commment et le pourquoi les Camp Fire Girls jouaient aux Indiennes pendant la premiere decade du mouvement (de 1910 a 1920). Nous soutenons que les Camp Fire Girls etaient une reaction antimoderniste contre les angoisses sociales et culturelles qui decoulaient de l'industrialisation, de l'urbanisation et de la technologie moderne qui affaiblissaient les jeunes, incitaient egalement les femmes a abandonner leur foyer et encourageaient les Americaines en general a delaisser la campagne salubre pour les villes avec leurs myriades d'influences immorales. Nous affirmons egalement que les Camp Fire Girls jouaient aux Indiennes non pas dans le but de s'evader de la modernite mais d'y apporter des ameliorations. Ce jeu d'Indiens renforcait dans les Camp Fire Girls leur sentiment de superiorite dans leur race plus evoluee, les entrainait a trouver leurs taches menageres plus attirantes et expliquait aux jeunes filles comment vivre dans un milieu urbain sans mettre au defi l'integrite des "choses fondamentales" telles que leur feminite, leur race blanche et leur caractere americain.

"THE FUNDAMENTAL THINGS": CAMP FIRE GIRLS AND AUTHENTICITY, 1910-20

In 1910 Luther Halsey Gulick, a medical doctor, educator, and nature enthusiast, founded an extraordinary youth movement called Camp Fire Girls. The organization endures today as a co-educational club called Camp Fire USA, but it originally targeted only girls aged twelve years or older. The purpose of the movement was to cultivate "the out-of-doors habit and the out-of-door spirit," to devise and put in use "ways of measuring and creating standards for women's work," and to "perpetuate the spiritual ideas of the home." (1) The Camp Fire Girls movement attracted more than 94,000 girls within just five years of its inception, suggesting the relevance of this message to turn-of-the-century Americans. (2) Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the organization is that almost every feature--including uniforms, awards, songs, ceremonies, and activities--encouraged girls to mimic North American Indian women. While it is true that playing Indian is an integral element of popular culture in American society, relatively few sources from this period referred to images of Native women, and fewer still argued for the utility of these images to the training of American girls.

In spite of the popularity, longevity, and distinctiveness of Camp Fire Girls, historians have largely neglected the movement as a vital cultural and social institution. (3) This is not true, however, of contemporary critics. Camp Fire Girls received widespread support from various individuals and institutions involved in youth work. Jane Addams initially served as vice-president of the Camp Fire Girls organization, presumably because it resonated with her work with working-class and immigrant children and their families. John Collier, then the civic secretary of the People's Institute and later Commissioner of Indian Affairs, initially gained his "deep understanding of Indian culture and civilization" from Dr. Gulick, served as one of the first directors of Camp Fire Girls, and composed the "Fire Maker's Desire," a song used in Camp Fire Girls rituals. (4) Other supporters included Grace A. Dodge of the Young Womens' Christian Association (YWCA), child psychologist George Stanley Hall, and founders of the popular boys' clubs Woodcraft Indians and Boy Scouts of America, Ernest Thompson Seton and Dan Beard. Their endorsements of Camp Fire Girls joined a host of others published in contemporary journals and books about youth, women, and education. Here, Camp Fire Girls was celebrated for its unique and "lofty" goal of assisting girls to "readjust" to the changing world around them by perpetuating the "old spiritual ideals of home" and by showing them that "common life contains the materials for romance and adventure. …

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