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The Land of Laughing Water: Camp's Early History 

Being a camper at Winnataska sparked my interest in two subjects:   Medieval history (i.e., Knights of the Round Table) and the history of Native Americans.  As a grown up, I was able to share my love of these subjects as an elementary school teacher, particularly when teaching 5th grade, and the Social Studies curriculum covered the history of  America.  I have seen this process repeat itself – my second grader has been learning about the native Creek and Cherokee of Georgia (where we live), and his enjoyment of the material has a lot to do with what he’s learned from camp.  It’s neat to see what sticks with campers and then pops up in other places throughout the year.

Even as the camp director, who is supposed to know everything about camp, I can very humbly say that it is impossible! But on my quest to learn as much as I can about camp’s history, I spoke with our resident historian recently.  Katherine Ann Price Garmon (camp name: Kap) is the youngest daughter of Dr. D. R. Price.  She is a treasure-trove of stories, newspaper clippings, brochures, pictures, and other artifacts from camp.  She and her sisters spent a great deal of time playing in the woods at Winnataska, and she has memories back to the mid 30’s.  I asked Kap a little bit more about what she knew concerning some of the earliest traditions of camp.

I started with my most pressing question about the names of the huts.  I had known as a camper that the names of the “front huts” were all named after five native tribes which had once inhabited the land of Alabama: Seminole, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw.  How then, did the other hut become Navajo?  Because, as far as I knew, the Navajos resided in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico - known as the “Four Corners.”One of the many maps available online showing Alabama's native groups.

(On a side note:  Navajo is considered as a “back hut.”  At one time, Mohawk, Iroquois, and Pueblo have also been back huts, but are no longer standing. And I am pretty sure that those tribes did not grace the Alabama soil as well! Thus, the same question applies to them.)

Back to Kap’s answer, which made me chuckle:  “I have no idea!”  Really? Ok, well, I guess that mystery still remains!   But many of our camp quirks that make us unique can’t be pinned down, as I have learned.

However, as Kap and I delved a little bit more into the historical and cultural context of the early era of camp, the 1920’s, then it wasn’t so puzzling. During that time period, summer camping was experiencing a rapid growth. The birth of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and continued presence of the YMCA in the first few decades of the 20th century led to the establishing of many summer camps.  Many of these camps, particularly in the northeast, have recently celebrated or will be celebrating their 100th anniversary.

Also present at that time in history was a growing interest in the culture of Native Americans.  Not just among children, but historians, writers, anthropologists, and the general public as well.  I also asked Kap about the naming of camp: Why did they (her aunt and uncle, mainly) choose to base camp on a native theme?  The large majority of newly-established camps, as mentioned above, were given native place names or based on a Native American word or phrase.  Thus, choosing the name Winnataska, “laughing water” in the Creek language, seemed to fit right in the theme of the times and honored (as it continues to honor) one of the Native American groups that called the Winnataska lands home.

In the next blog update, I’d like to share a little bit more about our campfire ceremony. Before I do, I would like to address the fact that I am keenly aware that the subject of Native Americans is a complex issue. I feel that it’s my role as camp director to be thoughtful and discerning about our camp culture. What I understand about a complicated subject is very different from what an 8 year-old understands, or is even capable of comprehending. In all we do, however, whether it is listening to the legend of Winnataska, or singing “Follow the Gleam,” we seek to spark an interest in campers that will lead to a life-journey of understanding more about our world. Children are naturally drawn to stories, and the stories that we teach at Winnataska form a foundation of discovery.   I am truly a testimony to this, and I take great pleasure in seeing the spark in current Winnataska campers as well.

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