I first heard the term “Camp Indian” from my Grandma Flora. I only vaguely recall the conversation but the term stuck in my mind. I envisioned a remote camp out in the mountains but, in reality, it referred to tribal members who practiced the traditional ways of life and were considered uneducated by our federal government.
Agents, appointed men who oversaw the reservations, considered Camp Indians incapable of handling their own affairs and would discourage the educated Indians from marrying them. However, many educated Indians, after trying life away from their people, would return home and marry back into their traditions, thus becoming Camp Indians themselves.
An educated Arapaho girl had even fewer options than the boys in the early years of the reservation. In 1887, agents on the Oklahoma reservation reported that girls educated in boarding schools almost always married and returned to “blanket life” by marrying Camp Indians in traditional marriages.
There are reports that some of these girls were able to arrange better marriages for themselves before returning to their homes. They did this by staying at school instead of marrying the first choice their families had made for them. When the marriage was more to their liking, they would return home and marry back into camp life.
My Grandma Flora was an educated Indian. In the 1930’s, she was sent to St. Stephen’s boarding school and one of the lessons she learned well was not to speak our Arapaho language. She told me that when she saw the beatings the other students got when they spoke Arapaho, she vowed never to speak the language herself. She was taught to look down on the Camp Indians, yet, in her later years, she spoke with pride of our people and those that preserved our stories and traditions.
The Camp Indians are the ones who preserved our Arapaho culture and their families are now well respected in our community. These men and women stood up and refused to lose their identity as a tribal people. For that, I am in their debt.
For more on this debate and an interesting read, I recommend the paper, Presidential Lecture: Wives and Husbands: Arapaho Gender in Time by Loretta Fowler
Camp Indian: a tribal member that practiced the old ways of life
Blanket Life: a term coined by the Indian Agents in reference to people living traditionally
Noncompetent: a term applied to those tribal members viewed as unfit to handle their own money, manage their lands or hold jobs by the federal government. This term applied to the elderly, camp Indians, and unmarried women.