A summer camp that’s been operating since 1947 and currently enrolls about 400 children is undergoing drastic changes after a social media campaign targeted the camp, accusing it of racism and cultural appropriation.
Camp Shi’ini — as it was known until Friday — has temporarily rebranded as “The Camp.” After a meeting with representatives from local Native American tribes, it’s asking kids who attend to help come up with a new name and theme, which it will debut later this summer.
According to one of the camp’s owners, Peter Kazanjian, commenters on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Yelp, and other platforms flooded the camp with complaints Tuesday. But the grievances weren’t limited to cyberspace.
“We couldn’t even make an outbound phone call,” Kazanjian said in a Monday phone interview. “Our email box was full.”
“I guess if you want your kid to learn racism this is the camp for you,” a user in Phoenix wrote.
The movement then escalated further: Demonstrators covered the building’s windows with fliers on Wednesday that said “Camp Shi’ini: Teaching children genocide since 1947.” They also distributed zines that explained what cultural appropriation is and why it’s problematic.
The origins of a viral crusade
It all began when Kimberly Robertson, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and an assistant professor at Cal State Los Angeles, dropped her daughter off at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center last week. She saw a bus there for Camp Shi’ini, which included the camp’s teepee logo. The back of the van said, “Chickasaw.”
“That was just the first red flag,” Robertson said in a Monday phone interview. She said the blending of aspects from different Native American tribes across the country — the word “Shi’ini” is Navajo, whose people live in the Southwest; teepees are associated with the nomadic Plains Indians; Chickasaw is a tribe in the Southeast — made it clear the camp had no affiliation with indigenous people.
Robertson said she called the camp with her concerns but did not get a response. So she took to Instagram, where her cause quickly went viral.
Stop Tribal Genocide, an organization dedicated to defending Native American heritage against cultural appropriation, joined the fight and posted images from the camp’s social media feeds to its roughly 40,000 Facebook followers.
Kazanjian said the deluge was so intense, it was impossible to address every comment, but he worked as quickly as he could to remove the camp’s logos from its building and vans. He also set out to meet with Robertson and whoever else she believed should be part of the conversation.
“We meant no offense whatsoever,” Kazanjian said. “We were going to look into this and try to rectify this as soon as possible.”
The reason for the outrage
Emilio Reyes, a member of the Tongva Nation who founded Stop Tribal Genocide, said in a phone interview his only goal is to educate the public and fight against what he sees as a proliferation of racist Native American stereotypes.
In particular, Reyes said he found it offensive that the Pasadena-based camp had never consulted with the Tongva people, whose ancestral lands encompass the city. But he also said there were broader issues with how the camp — and society in general — portrayed Native Americans.
One of the more common images associated with American Indians is the headdress. But Reyes said its common use as a prop is “disgraceful.”
“Feathers, for us, are objects we earn,” Reyes said. “These headdresses, for example, are restricted to our elders, who really have earned them.”
Reyes said it’s important that his culture is taught in the right context.
“It’s just completely wrong that they’re not educating their campers,” he said. “It’s not getting the real meaning of what the Native identity is. … When we teach our children our culture, we do it differently.”
Robertson agreed that many of the cultural inaccuracies she saw on the camp’s website — which the Internet Archive has preserved (the site has also been scrubbed of everything but an apology statement) — were “horrific” and “grotesque.”
But she said what concerned her most was that the camp caters to children ages 4-13.
“That’s a really, pretty important time in the development of youth,” Robertson said. At this critical time in their lives, she said, the camp “portrays Native peoples as being absent, as being gone, as some figures that existed 500 years ago in the past that we can dress up as.”
She said she still finds many of her own students at Cal State L.A. are “flabbergasted” when they learn that indigenous people still exist.
“I doubt that we would have a camp where people are dressing up as Jews and Nazis, or as slaves and plantation masters,” she said. “We wouldn’t do that because there are living, breathing Jewish and African communities that would shut that camp down, as well, that would have a problem with that.”
Kazanjian called Robertson on Wednesday evening, saying he wanted to meet to discuss what could be done.
The two, along with three other people whom Robertson had rallied, met the following day in Boyle Heights. After more than two hours of what both sides characterized as productive conversation, Kazanjian agreed to the group’s four requests:
- Make a public apology
- Remove all American Indian references and images
- Give all costumes and other regalia to the group, to prevent the items from being used as props by others in the future
- Get training on cultural sensitivity for the camp’s employees
“None of us were besties going in, but all things considered, I thought it was an excellent meeting,” Kazanjian said.
“It went much better than I anticipated. It can be difficult to even get people to the table to have a discussion like that,” she said. “Peter seemed — to me, seemed sincerely apologetic, and he was open to dialogue.”
Kazanjian said it was an easy call to make because “our job is to create a welcoming environment for every type of kid imaginable.”
“I’m glad we learned from this situation,” he added. “I look forward to continuing to talk with Dr. Robertson and the other representatives that work alongside Dr. Robertson, because we want to continue to make this right and be good citizens of the Los Angeles area.”