Midget Indians and the Teachable Moments of Everyday Racism

Every Memorial Day my daughter and mother go to a camp in the mountains to partake in nature and its attendant outdoor activities. Knowing that I’d get cool mom bonus points forever if I go, I decided to go meet them up there this year. Had I not, my writing drought may have continued.

My princess prides herself on the fact that all of the counselors know her and often engages them in conversation. While sitting lakeside with a lifeguard she and my mother took up a conversation about the counselor’s experience and the camp’s history. In conversation she mentioned a favorite old camp tradition that took place on a (very) small uninhabited island a short boat ride away.

The counselor giddily recalled a tale that they use to scare campers about the ‘midget Indian.’ As the (remarkably underdeveloped) story has it, there is a midget Indian who lives on the island. Each summer campers would boat over to the island, where there is a costumed counselor who runs around the island making noises in the bushes and scaring the campers. They even go so far as to decorate the island with the ‘bones’ of children past. All in good fun, of course. Or is it?

At first glance (or listen), this story may seem just a smidge ignorant, but harmless. Even after acknowledging that the term ‘midget Indian’ is a slight to both the differently abled and indigenous/native people, reframing the narrative to a story about a ‘really small indigenous person’ does not make it any less offensive. The tale is premised on stereotypes of savagery about native peoples, and plays on a fear of the ‘other’ with whom one is not familiar. And it only gets worse when one considers that said ‘midget Indian’ lives in the only uninhabited, ‘wild’ area that is otherwise inhabited by camps named after indigenous tribes or words on land that was originally inhabited by indigenous/native peoples. Further, it is not clear that this particular tradition is at all related to any myths of little people of many indigenous tribes, but even if it was perhaps it would be offensively appropriative at best.

Is a camp tradition like this offensive? Yep. But perhaps this can also serve as a teachable moment that allows us to reflect of the ‘harmlessly’ racist things we encounter or partake in on a regular basis. Personally, this was a reminder that I cannot control all that my daughter is exposed to, which includes any institutionalized perpetuation of racist stereotypes at summer camp. However,  I can have a little peace of mind knowing that although this was a camp ‘tradition’ for years, it is no longer practiced.

by: Portia Allen-Kyle


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