Tribal Times - The Official Blog of Chestnut Lake Camp

Campfire Tales | Week 2 (7/6/24)

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

I lost count of how many camps I visited years ago. There have been overnight camps, day camps, specialty camps, vacation camps…so many camps. Based on those hundreds of times being immersed (sometimes briefly, sometimes for much longer) in the unique environs that camps establish and protect, I can say that there are some things that almost all camps have in common. Here they are:

  1. Campers without parents
  2. Young adult role models
  3. Fun and growth
  4. Color War

At camp, we connect young people. Of course, when families are looking for the right camp for their child, they consider the campus, the programs, the schedules, and many other facets. But at the end of the summer when they reclaim their daughters and sons and assess whether sending them away for weeks to be cared for by strangers was a good idea, they just want to hear them say, “I made a friend.” Camps create the environment within which children that start as strangers become lifelong members of an extended family with bonds that are astoundingly strong. They do this with intention, with character, and with a devotion to whatever their unique mission and methods may be. Building harmony is a mantra at camp, and yet one of the most common similarities between many camps no matter where they are and what their tradition may be is the presence of something we call, “Color War.” A Color War by any other name such as Olympics, Maccabiah, or Tribal is still a Color War – an intensive, often multi-day activity that engages the entire community in battles both inane and profound – with intensity, excitement, and the antithetical splitting of camp friends between different sides of the war.

Although the tradition of Color War has come a long way since its creation (purportedly) at Schroon Lake Camp in 1916, including renaming, reframing, demystifying, and deconstructing some of the trappings to make it more effective and acceptable in today’s world, one common and consistent element can teach us a lesson. As camps strive each day to build healthy communities inside of their cabins in the woods, working dutifully to create a coalition and establish peace in these temporary homes, Color War often tests that process by making teams. Whether Green and White, different countries, or themed groups, bunkmates are divided. Friends that might usually choose their programs based solely on what the person who they sleep just a few feet away from is doing, or kids that would break up with someone if it was important to their BFF for any reason, now will spend hours upon days on opposite sides of this camp tradition. The competition can be fierce, even if the activities with the War include carrying an egg on a spoon. There are athletic contests that the entire camp may watch, rope-burning rituals that make for some of the most important moments – and awesome photographs – of the summer, and the writing and presentation of songs that can become part of the camp’s folklore forever. It’s a big deal at many camps, and no matter what camp professionals say and do to suggest that it is not the end-all and be-all of the summer, the dividing of kids and their staff between teams cannot be understated as a tricky variable. At Chestnut, we call this program, “Tribal”.

Camp leaders are not ones to do things without thought, and while they create environments that have inherent risk to give campers a chance to build resilience and independence, Tribal continues as much because of the challenge of having friends on different sides as it does despite it. They establish rules and structure for the program, of course. There are still shared values that govern the play, strong enough to sustain even when conflict arises. There are people in charge – independent and unbiased observers, referees, and surrogate parents – to shepherd the participants through their battles. There is an explicit agreement that all combatants must adhere to when the War is over: we will congratulate all for their efforts and then return to camp as we left it. There will be sad faces, tears, and lost voices, and the colored face paint may take a few days to fully disappear. But when Tribal is over, the colors fade. The issues that pitted teams against each other are over, we are back to working together for the betterment of the whole community, and the winners and losers of Tribal are just part of the nostalgia of camp with some funny or hard moments that we talk about at camp reunions for generations to come. Remember that fight song from 2009 with that line about the Unami Chiefs? Davey wrote it, and he’s now retired and living in Davie. Remember that Apache Relay from 2013 when Rachel cheated and edged Alex out at the end? Rachel is a prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office now. The fights on the fields of competition don’t linger, even if the tales of them sustain. Tribal creates stories, builds spirit, and proves that people who find themselves on two different sides of something can vie for a trophy without setting aside the decorum and humanity that is at their core.

Last night, we experienced our Tribal Campfire. This signifies the start of the TRibal process for the session, although the competition does not begin for a bit longer. We read the Tribal Story and recited the Tribal Oath together as an entire camp. The application of the Tribal credo that we will disagree and compete with each other fairly within the rules to determine a winner, only to shake hands or high-five at the conclusion to return to being on the same team could do us a lot of good in the real world, too. For me, Tribal is an ideal where people who might otherwise be friends can grapple with divergences healthily, never forfeiting their convictions or dedication to a cause, but also accepting that their adversary is only wearing a different color t-shirt. Seeing them wearing that color is okay, but holding that color against them is not.

Last night, we initiated all of our new campers and staff into the Tribal tradition. The first-time members of the community wore (proudly) their red Tribal shirts, only to discover before the end of the night whether they would forever be a Unami Turtle (Green) or a Minsi Wolf (White). Seeing the face paint applied by our leaders to each new community member and then watching them reveal their color to the Green and White teams is always special. It was very much so again last night.

Your kids here are enjoying so many moments that can change them. They can become whomever they choose, safe here in Beach Lake and encouraged to stretch themselves. Tribal is a chance to do just that. It’s not about colors. Not about mascots. It’s a test of how willing they are to embrace camp and put themselves into whatever comes their way. It’s a camp thing. It’s Tribal.

Tribal Times - The Official Blog of Chestnut Lake Camp

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