A Cascade of Folk Traditions: Part 1 - CHB / Indian Lore Ceremonies

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"Describe a folk tradition...ugh...I've been here before," I thought. And I hadn't liked it. Ever. I've always felt so ordinary, so acutely normal and without much tradition. It seemed we spent more time just getting to the next marker in our lives as kids, and in my married life with children, we just tried to ensure a safe, healthy place to live and grow, interspersed with incessant driving from activity to activity, just like everybody else around me...

But (and in this case, it's a good "but"), as I began to read Dr. Bronner's book, Folk Nation: Folklore in the Creation of American Tradition, I experienced an onslaught of thoughts and memories - my brain was buzzin', connections were cracklin' and carryin' me away! Now my problem became which one to choose? Never excelling at making discriminatory decisions, I decided to relate three of them overall.  (heck, I'm old....almost half a century of great stuff in this cranium...and not always the energy or wherewithal to relate it)Here is Part 1:

Okay, this may sound like ancient history to some of you youngins, but even though this wonderful place  in Bushkill, PA is now the site of condominiums, it is still very much alive in the minds and hearts of thousands of former staff and campers. A YMCA camp with a funny name, this place was magical! For many of us, it was our home away from home, and the place we wished we could stay forever. We found our best friends, our first loves, and, ultimately, ourselves among the birches, around the campfires, and in the embrace of others.
Just this summer, when I entered the realm of Facebook for the first time, I found a special site for those who went to CHB, and I was instantaneously carried back to that place that played such a role in making me who I am!

There were pictures, many of them filled with kids in the 70s with short shorts and loooong socks, with smiles from ear to ear. And the comments, all attesting to the importance of CHB in our lives, united us once again. We can share our memories and our new stories of our children who have attended the "follow-up camps" after this place was sold.

 As I went to capture some of the pictures, I found this recent post from a CHB member, which might give you one idea about why we loved it so much:

From a blog I found--

I wasn't technically invited to Michael's wedding. I was the Dame's "Plus One." She and Michael are old friends. They grew up together in a small town in Pennsylvania, and spent their summers at Camp Hug...h Beaver. I've heard more than I ever wanted to know about their Hugh Beaver years, and though neither of them will admit it, I contend that it was a sex camp. Not just because it was called Camp Hugh Beaver - you gotta admit, that sounds like the subtitle of a Porky's sequel - but because most of their stories involve a gathering of teenagers in some state of undress, or misadventures in a coed shower with an alarming lack of adult supervision. I'm surprised when they don't end with a dirty punchline, like, "And that's how I got poked in the eye with a boner." Because honestly, that's where the plot always seems to be heading.

kids at the rock.jpeg(Infamous "Love Rock" where many relationships began, and where I got my first kiss!)

Okay, but that's not the tradition I care to share now, although there are so many that have become classic for us all. My immediate connection, the Indian Lore Ceremony, came from reading about Earnest Thompson Seton and Daniel Carter Beard's belief "that hearing animal stories, donning buckskins, and engaging in native woodcraft had restorative powers for modernized Americans" (13). Yes, Indian Lore was restorative for me, but it was so much more. It engaged me with a powerful connection to history - true history - and the beginning of some very deep searching about the nature of humanity.

The Ceremony
The mess hall echoes with laughter, song, requests to pass the "bug juice," teasing, and normal Thursday night shenanigans. Suddenly, someone near the door spots something, and the word zips through the room in an instant - the Indians are coming. There is immediate silence and bells can be heard with each approaching footstep. Two tall men dressed in loin cloths, necklaces of shells and bear claws, headdresses varying from that of the massive chieftain  with flowing feathers or the medicine man with his buffalo headdress, colorful war paint, and carrying large bows, war clubs or other shows of power, enter through the door and proceed through the room. They move purposefully, gazing over each table, selecting specific campers, and marking them. One of the massive men would stand behind the seated camper and hold their head to the side while the other slashed some colored grease paint down their cheek...and they would move on. Not until all of the appropriate campers were marked did they leave, and even then, the absolute silence would usually remain until they were assuredly off the porch - no one wanted to be marked for being disrespectful to the Indians. And then the excitement began to escalate - there was going to be a ceremony!

After the evening activity, as dusk was about to fall, we all gathered again on flagpole hill where we sat and waited in nervous anticipation about what would happen next. The whippoorwill whistled in the distance, crickets and bullfrogs sang in harmony, and we listened and watched intently. Sometimes we would see a flaming arrow arc over and into the lake, sometimes we would see the approach of flaming torches from down by the staff house or traveling toward us in canoes, and sometimes we would be silently surprised as Indians emerged from behind us.  Regardless of their dramatic method of approach, we would be greeted by one of the torch bearers who would explain the pressing situation at hand (sometimes created but usually drawn directly from history) and the need for a council fire. We would then follow them silently on the wooded path, hearing only the steady beat of a ceremonial drum pounding through the trees and seeing only what was lighted by their hand-held torches, until we came to  the ceremonial grounds where we were seated in rows on the hill marked by small pot fires.

Then the true drama would begin. The large council bonfire would be lit and history would unfold before our eyes. Whether a chief was negotiating over a proposed treaty with White men or the events preceding the Battle at Wounded Knee would play out, our attention was rapt. There was always some kind of a dance, comprised of the four basic steps we had all learned during Indian Lore classes at some point,  but often escalating until some of the best dancers became like whirling dervishes. At times of highest intensity, or when there was a devil dance, the council fire would hiss and shoot off colored flame. Before the ceremony could come to an end, there had to be some recognition of those individuals who had completed noteworthy tasks - usually by completing the requirements to pass to the next level brave or squaw. Those who had been "marked" at dinner were lined up to get "tapped out." A line of four or more "chiefs," hands places squarely on these individuals' shoulders, would raise their arms steadily to three beats on the drum, and on the fourth beat, they would land firmly back on the shoulders of those to be initiated. The line would move down, and each individual would meet the next chief. While this initiation was quite an honor, it was well understood that it could rapidly become punishment to anyone who disrespected the Indians or the sacredness of this ceremony. To smile, to laugh, to talk...any of this would result in a much stronger "tap" on the shoulder.

Ultimately the council would conclude with some words of hope, or sorrow, or historical wisdom. We would be dismissed to return to our world of laughter, and singing, and love, but with a greater understanding of what had occurred to these magnificent people. Our emotions, from fearful respect, to excitement, to absolute awe at  those loin-clothed males and short-skirted females, left us strangely charged up and exhausted at the same time. As a camper I was enthralled and I was hooked.

For the rest of my years at camp, from counselor-in-training, to junior counselor, to senior counselor, I was an active member of the Indian Lore Department. We taught Indian mythology, trail signs, sign language, dance steps, and history. We did make some crafts, from beaded jewelry, to clothing, to moccasins, usually to be used in the ceremonies. But ultimately, it was about learning the Indian mind set with regard to the land, to hunting, and to each other. It was about understanding the diversity of Indian tribes and customs. It was about capturing a history that has changed, even for a moment, and incorporating it deep within us so that we never look at the world in quite the same way again.

Whether it was writing my history paper on the Ghost Dances, reading historical accounts on my own, or processing a greater understanding of the nature of imperialism and the "pioneer spirit," my Indian Lore experiences have  profoundly colored the way that I see the world.  The activity itself may  be one in which I can no longer participate, but its Thursday tradition will never dim in my mind.

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