Friday, August 05, 2005

ABC’s “Brat Camp” Misuses Native American Spirituality


Above, the real Geronimo (left) vs. Chuck Connors as the Apache warrior in the 1962 movie "Geronimo." The real Connors, right, with blond hair and blue eyes.

Continued from previous page

For non-viewers, “Brat Camp” focuses on nine troubled teens going through Sagewalk, a wilderness program in the high desert of central Oregon. The kids are taught wilderness skills and given psychotherapy. The goal is to help them to handle life’s difficulties in healthy ways.

I’m not qualified to comment on the validity of Sagewalk's program.

But I do have a beef when a group of white instructors put white campers through a faux, hodgepodge Native American naming ceremony.

I should have seen it coming. Every instructor (all white folks all as far as I can tell) has a faux Native American name – like Glacier, Aspen, and Fire Shaper. For some of the time, the students live in a teepee.

On Aug. 3’s 9 p.m. episode, the campers completed three days of solo camping. To mark this occasion, they stand around a fire, daub their faces with paint, and receive an “Earth name.” One of the instructors plays a Native American flute as the “mystical ritual” goes on.

At this point, I feel like I am watching the Caucasian, blue-eyed Chuck Connors painting up in brown face to play Geronimo. Holy ta-tonka! What in the name of Kevin Costner is going on?

If you’re going to do Native American religion, do it right. Not every Amerindian group is the same. Languages, customs, and religions differ. The tribes of the high Oregon desert are the Paiutes, Yahuskin, and Yapadika. Did anyone at Sagewalk think of contacting one of these tribes and finding out about their heritage. Is a local Native American religious teacher available? How about learning the ethical practices that go along with the rituals?

Why do that when you can paint your face and play dress-up Indian based on your multiple viewings of “Dances With Wolves”?

Imagine a group that knows nothing about Catholicism other than what is available through popular culture. They decide that the Mass is a cool ritual. So they do their best to go through the motions of a Mass. One of them may even dress up as a priest.

What have they accomplished?

People engaging in such a ritual will have learned nothing about Catholic life, beliefs, morals, hierarchy, and history.

As an Oklahoman, I know that Amerindian groups are as varied from one another as are people of European descent. How different is a Frenchman is from an Italian or a Pole is from a Greek? Yes, all are Europeans. But there is no generic "European" you can imitate with any authenticity. And what would be the point of doing so?

For those who are unaware, here's a news flash -- playing dress-up Indian is no longer cool. If you don't believe me, consider this recent action by the NCAA. The athletic organization announced Aug. 5, 2005, that it would ban hostile and abusive American Indian names from post-season tournaments, the Associated Press reported. Starting in February, phony Indian mascots will no longer be allowed to perform in post-season games. Ethnically offensive nicknames and logos will be banned. And by 2008, band members and cheerleaders cannot wear images of American Indians on their uniforms.

Note to Sagewalk: Playing a flute and calling yourself Squatting Elk or Soaring Hawk does not make you an Indian. It makes you a white person playing dress-up. And if you want these kids to be confident in themselves, try setting an example by being who you really are.

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