When I was a camper at Farm & Wilderness in the early '90s, I went to Indian Brook and Tamarack Farm, but I really wanted to go to Flying Cloud, the boys-only Indian camp up on the side of Saltash Mountain. The campers there wore loincloths, received Indian names in a Lakota ceremony called a wacipi, and spent the summer living what looked to me like the best and most important game of "let's pretend" ever.
But when I went back to the camp as a staffer about 10 years later - armed with my liberal arts education and my lefty politics - I had a very different reaction. What are they doing? I thought. Lakota traditions in Vermont? Are they allowed to play Indian like this? What are they thinking?!?
Turns out I wasn't the only one having some misgivings; other members of Flying Cloud and the Farm & Wilderness community were asking the same questions.
Assuming Native American dress and rituals is an American tradition that goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party: When those patriot dissidents dumped Earl Gray into Boston Harbor, they were wearing war paint and feathers. Americans have appropriated Native traditions and dress to serve all sorts of disparate purposes and agendas over the past few centuries. I wanted to figure out how Flying Cloud, this Quaker back-to-the-lander hippie camp, fit into that larger history.
According to Philip Deloria, author of Playing Indian, taking on an Indian identity has always been a way for non-native Americans to liberate themselves from the social restrictions of mainstream society; to discover a more "primal," "authentic" and "pure" way of life. Deloria suggests that members of the '60s counterculture adopted indigenous identities and lifestyles because they symbolized "everything that could be true about America" and represented an escape from conformity. But, he writes, "like those who had come before, they found that Indian-ness inevitably required real native people, and that those people called everything into question. Playing Indian, as always, had a tendency to lead one into, rather than out of, contradiction."
That certainly was the case for Flying Cloud. Its founders turned to an Indian way of life in an attempt to live more simply, more purely, more sustainably, more authentically. And, like others before them, they found themselves in the middle of a big mess.
As a result, Flying Cloud has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past decade. Camp leaders have removed the Indian-ness from its rituals and tried to recreate new ones that still have the same power.
To understand how and why this transformation took place, I spoke with current and former camp administrators, as well as members of Vermont's Abenaki tribe. I wove the interviews into a 13-minute audio narrative, available on the Seven Days website. Listen to it to find out how Flying Cloud has managed to keep the magic of its old rituals while creating new ones that don't appropriate native culture.
Campers tell me the clearing up on Saltash mountain feels as sacred today as it always did. Something tells me that if I were a camper now, I would still be jealous that I couldn't go live on the mountain with the boys and learn to do all the cool things they do every day - tend a forest garden, learn to track animals and get a new name that represents their finest qualities. It's still the best and most important game of "let's pretend" I've seen around. But now they're playing themselves, not playing Indian.
Sarah Yahm is an independent audio producer whose work is featured on the Third Coast International Audio Festival website and has been licensed by various National Public Radio affiliates. She teaches courses in oral history, documentary studies and sociology at Burlington College, the Community College of Vermont and the University of California at Santa Cruz.