I had a song running through my head this past week, and realized it was from Camp Fire Girls’ camp, 1957. (I was actually singing it to my old peculiar tortoise shell cat, Leila, who loves being sung to.) I always thought that these were the words: “Ocky tocky oomba, ocky tocky oomba, hey diddle, hi diddle ho diddle ay,” for the verse, and the bridge: “Epsicola misha waa-hi” repeated 3 times, and then the verse again. (Before you jump in to correct the words, please read on.) We were told this was an Eskimo fishing song, and the gestures we did with it were of a fisherman in his kayak looking across a bay for seal to bring home to his family (or maybe they even told us, “to his squaw,” which now makes me cringe).
So I Googled this song today. After a couple of misses, I learned that a group called the Wiggles recorded this, and the words are actually “Okki Tokki Unga” and “hey missa, day missa, doh missa day” and “Hexa cola misha woni.” Our camp counselors never spelled this out for us so perhaps they actually sang it correctly, but, I think not. (Sorry, Miss Karen, Miss Cecil, Miss Corky and all the rest of you young and old women I adoringly looked up to.) And, apparently a lot of people have researched this song, and no expert on First Nations people has ever seen any of these words in any form in any Inuit language. Girl Scouts sang it as well, and it was sung in grammar schools. It may still be.
Ok, so there’s that. I mean, we completely believed we were singing an Eskimo song. And we weren’t. Someone made all that up. Another source says it is likely a Scandinavian folk song. (At least that is also far north and fisherman’s country.)
The Camp Fire Girls organization was appropriating Native American culture right and left, and claiming to be respectful and praising that culture, which I think the organizers truly believed.
I chose from a list of “Indian words” a name, Elu Ta Can Te, which according to the listing provided, meant “Happy Heart.” My close girlfriend chose one that meant “To cook and to sew.” I could not find any of the words of my taken name in any Native American vocabulary list, except for “Elu” which meant “beautiful” or “fair” in Zuni. So, maybe fair could be translated as happy, also, and maybe I didn’t search far enough. I also made a beaded headband with a red symbol in the middle which was to indicate “heart,” on a yellow background meant to symbolize “happy.”
We sewed beads we earned from learning things or doing good deeds onto our dark blue felt vests. And the older girls had a graduated group which had wonderful long brown cotton “Indian” maiden dresses with fringe, which they made themselves, and decorated with the beads they took from their old Camp Fire Girls vests. To see a hundred of them doing a beautiful dance around a fire at the annual summer meeting left me awestruck.
Camp Fire Girls’ history on Wikipedia (often a dubious source) indicates that Native American culture and symbolism served as inspiration for ceremonial activities and attire, and that their intention was to appreciate differences and cultural inclusiveness, and that this encouraged self-reflection and personal growth.
Most of the girls in our Bluebird (when we were younger) and Camp Fire group were Anglo, but we did have one shy Chinese girl who loved participating but did not want us to visit her home, I assume for the cultural differences she did not want us to witness.
It was fun to sing that pseudo-Eskimo song, and I was truly fascinated by Native Americans, sharing their apparent love of the natural world and the spiritual sustenance it provided me. I pretended, pre-Bluebirds, that Little Beaver and thirteen of his friends lived above my bedroom. He was Red Ryder’s little boy “Indian” sidekick, a scout who gave the TV cowboy intel regarding various goings-on. I so wanted him to be my friend. Somewhere in a box in my garage there is an “Indian” maiden storybook doll, with beautiful copper colored skin, black braids and a white leather beaded and fringed outfit. My mother gifted me this doll, in a rare moment of noticing what my interests were.
Many decades later, I prayed with American Sufi’s with acknowledgement of Native Americans’ respect and concentration on the spiritual aspect of the natural world, and said the word “Ho” as an amen.
Today I wonder how Native Americans felt or would feel about our picking and choosing parts of their culture to emulate, regardless of how respectful and admiring we may have felt we were being. I think we should have asked first.
(The Native American symbol at top, meaning “happy,” is used with respect and gratitude.)
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