Hyperactive Indian Camp

by Bill Rich

The 3 little Native American boys in the bus seat just ahead of mine crouched down so as not to be seen out the bus window. Each in turn sprang up, aimed a pretend rifle out the window and exclaimed, “Bang, got a white man! Bang, got a white man! Bang, got a white man!” One then turned to me and asked, “Hey, are you a white man?”

“Who me?” I said through my milky, WASP, pale face. “Heck no!” I lied. “I’m not a white man.” I hoped to buy some time before breaking the news to these kids.

“Ok,” said the boy and the little group resumed its game of shooting white men out of the school bus window.

Thus began the first day of my one-week summer job as a camp counselor after the teaching year had ended. It was great money, $500 per week since the project was funded through federal funds. My annual teaching salary was about $8,000.00 in 1979, so this summer job really helped with our new baby at home. I was hired along with one of my equally white colleagues because the county and local school district needed to hire credentialed teachers to comply with the funding requirements. There were a good number of Native junior high and high school students hired to help, and they were also paid well. And I love camping, hiking and fishing. What could be more fun than playing around for a week with a bunch of kids in the mountains? The radio was playing as we gained altitude on the two-lane mountain road.

The purpose of the camp was expressed well by one of my 8th grade students.who had been hired as a student-counselor based on his Native background and leadership potential. Sitting next to me he asked,

“So Mr. Rich, I guess we’re supposed to teach all these kids how to be Indians?”

“Yep,” I responded.

I had no idea how to teach anyone to be an Indian, so was looking forward to learning more from the adult Native counselors who were supposed to lead the camp.

“I’m sure we’ll find out more from the folks in charge,” I replied.

The music on the bus stopped on the bus radio and a serious sounding DJ said the program had been interrupted for an important public announcement.

“John Wayne has died,” he said, his voice quavering with emotion.

He had barely repeated the statement, “John Wayne has died,” when the bus broke out in cheering with whoops and Hurrays that continued for several minutes.

One of the little boys in the seat ahead of me turned around and exclaimed, “Somebody finally got that damned white man.”

But not every kid on the bus cheered. About a third of the kids on the bus were white and didn’t have anything to do with the Indian Camp. What were they doing there? It is an amazing story from this perspective, 35 years later. It turns out that the County Office of Education was actually the educational agency that wrote the grant for the Indian camp and that was in charge of managing the operation and curriculum of the camp. Since the grant writing team was small, as was the County Office, all grants came through the same small office in the Finance department. The general idea was and is to get as much money as possible in 3 or 4 year grants in order to shift funding for teachers and other staff out of local budgets which were always under tight scrutiny from folks like ‘Stan the Taxpayer’s Man’ so they could show how much money they saved.

During that particular Spring, the grant writers took on numerous grants that included both Indian Camp and Special Education needs. A small amount of money was available in Special Education to try innovative and exciting new methods in the treatment and education of students who were deemed to be Hyperactive. Doing their job well, the grant writers were awarded the grant and informed the Finance chief. From that point onward, it made perfect sense to simply combine the small Special Education funding with the larger amount in Indian funds so the Hyperactive kids could be ‘isolated’ (like variables) at a summer camp and a new red dye free diet could be tried on them. These kids had been put on a regime of regular doses of Ritalin to calm them down. Their camp experience was to be an experiment in taking them off Ritalin and restricting their food to something called the ‘Feingold Diet’ for the week. By the time the bus stopped, the Ritalin was wearing off and the cold turkey approach to Hyperactivity was about to be tested.

When we arrived at the lake, things went south immediately. Those kids ran off the bus yelling and didn’t stop or sleep for a couple of days.

To make matters more interesting, the people in charge didn’t appear. Or it also might have been that the people I thought were supposed to be in charge did not see it that way. A psychologist showed up to see how the hyperactive kids were doing and left quickly.

I had thought that this was a great failing in the running of this camp for several years. It seemed to me the camp was a perfect example of combining funding sources and purposes as a kind of pragmatic approach to providing educational services to children at the local level. But the combinations of funds can also result in patchwork programs that became surreal and the combination was something of an ‘Hyperactive Indian Camp’. This is the absurdity of budget folks with “programs, programs, programs” running education, as opposed to educators applying programs and instructional materials, creating curriculum for students they personally know and care about.

The rest of the camp week went both well and badly. The Indian adults and older Indian student counselors developed an active calendar of outdoor games, hikes and cultural learning. I confessed to my campers that I was indeed a white man and they told me I was ok. But culture broke out badly when my fellow teacher colleague thought it would be a good idea to build a sweat lodge. The Indian adults saw it, and were immediately offended for many good reasons. It is not wise for those seen as white dominators to teach (interpret) the culture of the dominated. At the same time, Native adults brought beer for after the nightly campfire.

I never found out the results of the experimental project to take the hyperactive kids off Ritalin and feed them the Feingold diet. I think that actually was not the point of the camp. The purpose was to try to increase efficiency in the delivery of programs by the county office. This efficiency was measured in factors such as the number of bus runs it would save to combine the groups of children instead of giving each a separate program at a different time that could be focused on their real needs. The experience also provides a lesson in the way the local agency can co-opt the purpose of a grant for its own bureaucratic needs, whether they be financial or programmatic or whatever. For instance, if you already have federal dollars paying for a credentialed teacher, just chuck in a few Hyperactive kids and the requirements of that particular grant will be met as well. In this way you have one grant paying for a good portion of another and no local funds had been touched. Was this education? The obvious bad news is it was camp education like swimming the lake with a bowling ball tied around your leg. On the other hand, and most importantly, I learned a great deal about both American Indian people and a bit about Special Education labels.