It’s one thing to hold inclusion as a core value. It’s another to put your values into action.
Although Camp Fire has been an inclusive organization since its inception we have recently recommitted ourselves to our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Recent action steps include the creation of the Equity Action Fund and hosting a fall family camp for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) kids and families. Efforts are also underway to further diversify our board and staff teams. Camp Fire’s leadership, staff, board and alumni have also been engaged in deep conversations, learning and action around cultural appropriation for the past several years.
You may be aware that many former organizational customs and traditions used words, imagery, and ideas that emulate practices of indigenous people. While we understand that the intent behind use of those ideas was honor and respect for practices of indigenous people, we now recognize and acknowledge that they have caused, and continue to cause, real harm – both directly to native people and communities, and indirectly to non-native people by perpetuating the idea that it’s acceptable to adopt the customs of a culture other than your own.
As an organization that values inclusivity and equity, we have decided that we will no longer perpetuate these practices.
There are two core ideas that have guided us in our approach:
- That inclusion has been a fundamental value of Camp Fire since the beginning; that Camp Fire and Camp Sealth should be a place where ALL feel welcomed and affirmed for exactly who they are.
- That the core experience of Camp Fire and Camp Sealth programs – connection to nature, to each other, and to ourselves – does not change, regardless of when you participated, what songs you sang, what clothes you wore, or what activities you did. Those are “trappings” and are a superficial representation of the overall experience (although they certainly hold meaning to individuals). Regardless of when you attended or what your experience looked like, many aspects of our personal growth and shared experience are the same.
Action steps that we have already taken to address our history of cultural appropriation have included removing all of the Totem poles and tipis at Camp Sealth, ending racially insensitive and culturally appropriative songs, and retiring names and practices that romanticized and homogenized native culture including the wearing of gowns or beads, emblems that use native-inspired symbols, use of terms like Wokanda and “gypsy”, and changing names of buildings that are native or emulated native words including Shutanka, Medamin, and Wohelo. This past summer we also removed the shields in Rounds Hall (made by previous participants that displayed many native symbols and words that are appropriative).
It’s always a difficult decision to remove pieces of history. In no way do we want to minimize the experiences of others or the importance that the shields and gowns held for people. However, there is no question removing them is the right thing to do.
The children who attend camp now, and the staff who work here, are impacted by the reflections of the past. For all youth, but especially BIPOC youth who have already experienced racism and bigotry in their young lives, it is detrimental for them to see images and artwork made by (primarily) white people that feels mocking to indigenous culture, in a place that we claim is fully inclusive, welcoming and affirming. We must prioritize the emotional well-being and safety of the children who attend camp now. Removing the shields is putting our values into action.
“When I first saw the shields I thought this place […] preach[es] equity and diversity and have a land acknowledgement but they display racist art on the walls. I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of bringing kids into Rounds Hall with the shields up, especially native kids. It felt like an unsafe space. I didn’t feel comfortable working in a place like this. I was close to quitting. When the shields came down I felt relief and hope that Camp Sealth is a place dedicated to its inclusive mission and willing to change so I happily continued working.”
– Cheddar (Camp Sealth Sealth Staff Member)
“I recognize that although the intent of the shields was full of meaning and meant to be appreciative, the truth is that the impact is harmful and appropriative. I think that we can keep the history and find ways to recognize the achievements of our individuals without it being harmful moving forward.”
– Sage (Camp Fire Alumnus & Camp Sealth Staff Member)
When we know better, we do better
Part of the discussion, that continues to be echoed by long-time Camp Fire alumni, was the acknowledgment that as youth participating in Camp Fire programs and attending camp, these appropriative practices had been sanctioned and guided by the adults. This both helps guide the understanding of how it is difficult to reconcile these conflicting ideas as adults and also illustrates how systemic racism perpetuates from generation to generation.
“I can keep the deep meaning my gown had for me, and now I can gain a new perspective about how and why we need to be doing it differently. I’m excited because I realize we can hold both things in our hearts. It’s not either/or. I just love Camp Fire for what it gives to people, and I want everyone to have that meaningful connection you get at camp; it should be a place for all of us.”
– Marsha (Camp Sealth & Camp Fire Alumnus)
“Since we know better, we can do better moving forward, we can set an example for those around us.”
– Camp Fire Alumnus
The Journey Towards Accountability Continues
It can be so challenging to navigate the transition between the “old way” and the “new way”, especially for organizations like Camp Fire & Camp Sealth with a long history and tightly held traditions. But Camp Fire has always been an organization based on inclusivity. The reckoning of our past and the ability to bring members of our community on this journey towards accountability is our responsibility. These actions are critical steps in our journey to address harmful practices, hearing past voices who have been silenced, and paving the way forward.
“Our hope is that our action steps as organization can serve as a learning opportunity for everyone, to support our work in building a more inclusive future without assigning blame or shame to those who unknowingly perpetuated harmful practices in the past.”
– Director of Camping, Carrie Lawson
Camp Fire National has also recognized the importance of addressing its history of cultural appropriation.
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