Summer camps have an opportunity and an obligation to reintroduce boys to Nature, its power, and its beauty in order to offset the negative influences of society. Night Eagle tries to restore some of the simple living conditions of our ancestors and allow young people to have more contact with the natural world.
In a lecture given in 1851, naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world. We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe. To smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.”
We may never know if the camping movement that began in the United States in the 1870's was caused by the horrible conditions in the cities during the Industrial Revolution, inspired by Thoreau's lecture, or hastened by the now well known speech given in 1854 by Chief Seathl (commonly known as Seattle), a Squamish Indian, warning Franklin Pierce that "Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
What we do know is that parents responded by enrolling their children in summer camps where they could escape the big cities and spend some time in nature where they could live primitively and learn to build fires and shelters like their ancestors.
We also know that both Thoreau's and Chief Seathl's words are more meaningful today than they were in the 19th century, and ecologists, sociologists, and psychiatrists are all telling us the same thing. However, in spite of their warnings, fewer and fewer of our young people are spending time in nature.
In this time of overindulgence, rising costs, and competition for campers, most camps place an emphasis on recruiting large numbers of campers with fancy buildings, swimming pools, and lots of cool, expensive equipment. There are even camps that are not really camps at all: swim camp, soccer camp, basketball camp, computer camp, etc. In many cases, their campers never leave the confines of the gym, natatorium, or playing field, except to have lunch.
I’m familiar with one overnight camp that offers movies on Saturdays (complete with a full bag of candy, pop corn, and cookies for each camper) and build-you-own banana splits on Sundays. Thoreau would be disheartened to say the least.
I know of another popular camp that is set on a beautiful lake in New England. When campers go on “hikes” out of camp, they take vans and "camp" in motels at beaches or in hotels at tourist spots such as Mount Washington. This is a far cry from camps of the1800s when boys lived primitively and did all the work in camp, including the cooking and the maintenance!
I know of yet another camp in North Carolina that touts the fact that it has a weekly campfire. What the brochure neglects to say, however, is that the campfire takes place in the fireplace in their gym, and that a fire is never actually lit, for fear that some camper may be burned. I can only imagine what Chief Seathl would say.
For centuries the American Indians have known that the earth was alive and necessary for their very existence, and they kept their children close to its softening influence. Boys were free to play in the fresh air where they acquired the skills they needed to survive and developed a close connection to the earth and the animals around them.
Dr. Gilbert Roehrig suggests that, “In the heart of every American there is an inborn love of the outdoors.” I believe that is especially true of boys who seem to be irresistibly drawn to the forests and streams. At Night Eagle campers understand the power and immensity of nature. At some point they realize that they cannot fight nature or hide from it, so they become a part of it. Shoes and shirts are often left off. Instead of running through a sudden downpour, they begin to reflect on the importance of rain while they walk to their tipis. As they develop wilderness skills, play games, hike, and do chores around camp, they feel their stamina increase and their muscles grow harder, and they become more confident in themselves.
As a boy, I was fortunate to have grown up in Natchez, Mississippi, where my fascination with the Natchez Indians, eventually led to my earning a degree in early American history.
Growing up, I would spend many barefoot days wading in St. Catherine’s Creek searching for pottery shards and other Indian artifacts. In the spring I would walk through freshly plowed corn and cotton fields hoping to find arrow heads that tractors had brought to the surface while tilling the soil.
I would stand on the 200 foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and climb to the top of Emerald Mound -- the seventh largest ceremonial Indian mound in the United States -- located near the Natchez Trace and try to imagine what it must have been like to have been an Indian boy growing up in the deciduous forests of Southwest Mississippi.
As an eight-year-old Cub Scout, I had to choose an Indian tribe, learn about it, and make and paint a shield that would represent that tribe. I could not find an image of a Natchez shield, so I chose to create a Cheyenne shield instead. Even though my shield was not usable because it was made of heavy brown paper, I did learn quite a bit about the Cheyenne, which opened up a whole new world of Indians to me.
When I was eleven, I joined the Boy Scouts and couldn’t wait for our troop's monthly weekend camping trips, where we spent our nights in canvas tents and cooked our meals on a campfire. It was on those excursions that I learned basic wilderness skills: knot tying, fire building, first aid, cooking, and tracking.
In the summer I spent a week or two at Camp Kickapoo a Boy Scout camp in Clinton, Mississippi. Campers stayed in small cabins that were clustered in the woods in groups of three or four. Each cabin had one kerosene lantern, and each grouping had two outhouses. Each morning, Trusty (a counselor who was a bugler) played reveille, and each evening he played Taps. There was also a huge dining hall and a Canteen where we could buy soft drinks and candy bars, but all in all, it was fairly primitive, and I thought it was great because I could take so many different activities. I mostly focused on lake activities like rowing, canoeing, mile swim, but my favorite activity was Nature study led by a counselor named Chip.
They even had an Indian lore program at Kickapoo. I have to admit that to an eleven-year-old boy, the weekly campfires involving boys dressed as Indians were cool, but I was not interested in all the pageantry. I wanted to learn about the American Indians and their connection with the earth. I wanted to acquire their skills and understanding of nature, not wear a feathered headdress and body paint.
It was during my scouting years, that my parents gave me The Golden Book of Indian Crafts and Lore by Ben Hunt, which I began reading instantly. With every page I turned, I learned something and saw a craft or skill that intrigued me. But I wanted more than just a book about Indians and their crafts, I wanted to take my camping skills to the next level, put on a breechclout, and disappear into the woods for days at a time where I could be a part of nature and learn to live like the American Indians. That did not happen at summer camp, and unfortunately, as competent as my scout leaders were, it never happened with our troop either. But I often thought about what could have been if only there had been someone around who could teach me.
Then, almost twenty years of hiking and backpacking later, I was hired at a truly primitive boys' camp where I met, Allen Flying By, a Hunkpapa Sioux from Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. For three summers, I had the opportunity and pleasure of working with Allen, a soft-spoken man, who taught me about the Lakota, their culture, and the difficulty of life on the reservation today.
With his guidance and a lot of help from others, I set out to create the the type of camp that did not exist when I was a boy. In 2000, Night Eagle Wilderness Adventures became a reality. Our unique program is designed to build a boy's self-confidence as he learns to simplify his life, live competently in the woods, and acquire a better understanding of native peoples, their culture, and their relationship with the earth. Great care has been taken to develop a sensitivity to issues surrounding their customs, stories, and sacred rituals.
Each summer, Night Eagle deliberately sets out to create a world that is significantly different from the one we normally live in. In doing so, we invite boys to slow down, to explore and be daring, to examine themselves and their values, and to look beyond themselves and toward their relationship with the earth and others.
From the time a boy arrives at Night Eagle's gate, he knows he is not in a typical sleepaway camp. He shoulders his backpack, and accompanied by campers and staff, he walks along a trail that weaves through the forest behind our lower lake and then climbs a gentle hill to camp. When he reaches the clearing and the tipis come into view, the magic truly begins.
Boys can sense the feeling of community and openness that permeates the camp and is shared by campers and staff alike, as they strive to feel the ground talk to their bare feet and the gentle breezes cloak their bodies and welcome them back to our Mother -- Earth.
* Promote a better understanding of the American Indian and other earth-based cultures
through camp lifestyle, discussions, stories, and other activities,
* Give boys an understanding of the interconnection and value of all life, a deep respect for
the land, and the skills to live competently in the wilderness,
* Foster simplicity of life by emphasizing fun, simple living, personal fitness, and an
understanding of, and cooperation with, nature through practical experience,
* Provide a fun, innovative experience so that boys learn to appreciate the worth of each
individual, and build a close-knit community that values the strength that diverse
backgrounds bring to a community.