Culture  /  Origin Story

This Land Is Your Land

Native minstrelsy and the American summer camp movement.

Ernest Thompson Seton, the English-born pioneer of outdoor education who cofounded the Boy Scouts of America, spent his adult life in a juvenile world of his own invention. The son of a selfish and abusive father, he found escape in playing Indian, a pastime he later celebrated in the wildly popular 1903 book Two Little Savages: Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned. The book begins by describing a character with striking similarities to Seton himself: “Yan was much like other twelve-year-old boys in having a keen interest in Indians and in wild life, but he differed from most in this, that he never got over it. Indeed, as he grew older, he found a yet keener pleasure in storing up the little bits of woodcraft and Indian lore that pleased him as a boy.”

Seton would go even further, making Native minstrelsy a pervasive feature of American summer camps. In 1902, at the age of forty-one, he had established the Woodcraft Indians in the hundred-acre backyard of his estate in Cos Cob, Connecticut. An outdoor boys’ club and precursor of the Boy Scouts, it became the seed of a movement whose laws, practices, and principles Seton meticulously documented in dozens of texts, including The Red Book, or How to Play Indian (1903), the Boy Scouts’ Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-craft (1910), The Gospel of the Redman (1936), and The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore (1912), updated on a yearly basis and nearly six hundred pages in length, with “over five hundred drawings by the author.” His romantic appropriation of Native culture would have a decisive impact on American childhood, and through it on the evolution of white American identity.

Native play was not simply an amusing feature of the Woodcraft Indians; it was the practice around which the entire organization was based. Campers were sorted into tribal hierarchies with positions like Head War Chief, Wampum Chief, Chief of the Painted Robe, and Chief of the Council-Fire. The boys had the opportunity to “win” Indian nicknames based on their contributions to the camp. “Grey-wolf was the best scout,” while “Eel-scout was the one who slipped through enemies’ lines as often as he pleased.” Campers participated in battles, council meetings, and prayer circles, as well as Scalp Dances, Peace Pipe Ceremonies, and other performances. They learned words, songs, and war cries from a mishmash of different Native languages. They lived in tepees, constructed totem poles, paddled canoes, and mastered smoke-signal systems.