A typical day at Camp Nikoti—a day camp offered by the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma—looks a lot like most summer camps in the United States. Kids race around playing tag and splashing each other in Lake Wewoka. Hands get sticky during arts and crafts projects. Campers tend and harvest a garden. The differences at Camp Nikoti are subtle, as staff weave Native traditions and values into the camp day, quietly strengthening campers’ ties to their heritage and to each other.
It isn’t so much an intentional act, but who we are as Native people,” said the Absentee Shawnee Tribe’s Director of Education, Tresha Spoon, who has coordinated Camp Nikoti since 2007. While most campers are Shawnee, youth from other Tribes also attend, exposing campers to a diversity of Native traditions. “Our goal is to give them opportunities to connect with their Tribe and develop a positive identity as a Native youth. I don’t want our youth to ever feel alone or that they don’t belong, because at the very least they are members of our Tribe or their Tribe—and they are valued.”
In the Shawnee language, “nikoti” refers to the number one. When the Absentee Shawnee Tribe opened Camp Nikoti in 2002, organizers wanted campers and staff to feel like one unit—a family—by summer’s end. The current staff has the same goal. Former campers often mention feeling “safe” at Camp Nikoti.
“I am forever grateful for Camp Nikoti,” said Brandon Goodman, who began attending camp in 2004. It was the first place he could talk openly about struggles he faced at home, he said. “I believe Camp Nikoti changed the trajectory for my life in a way I could never repay.” He later became a camp counselor and worked with the Tribe’s afterschool program. Mr. Goodman recently completed his doctorate in physical therapy.
“We are about showing the kids every day—every second—how much we love and care about them. Camp is about teaching the youth about life, love, spirituality, culture, and respect.”
—Blake Goodman, Tribal Youth Program Coordinator for the Absentee Shawnee Tribe
Camp Nikoti operates 3 days a week for 5 weeks, serving approximately 35 youth ages 10 to 14. Friday “hangout nights” with dinner and evening activities take place a few times each summer. Camp staff comprise both counselors and teenage volunteers—former campers who are not yet old enough to be counselors. Serving as a volunteer during the summer is a warmup for those who want to apply for a job when they turn 16. Former campers make up approximately 90 percent of the Camp Nikoti staff. There is a strong mentoring aspect to the role.
“I returned to be a counselor in hopes I could provide the same safe and trusting environment I was provided when I was a camper,” Brandon Goodman said. “I wanted to be someone the campers could talk to and look up to, but also wanted them to see that I was still growing as a person and was learning just as much from them as they were learning from me.” At age 15, former camper Canaan Spoon returned as a volunteer last summer because he “wanted to improve some skills with kids and leadership,” he said. “I also wanted a good first work experience.”
Before coming to camp, youth and parents sign contracts agreeing to follow Camp Nikoti rules—such as “Absolutely no fighting!” and “Litter belongs in the trash, not on the ground.” Campers receive points for following the rules—and lose points for breaking them. At the end of each week, campers with enough points participate in “reward day.” The contracts and point system form the framework for interactions at Camp Nikoti.
“Our point system is the youth’s first ‘job,’” explained Tribal Youth Program Coordinator Blake Goodman, a former camper and counselor. “We hold them accountable in order to help them grow as young people.”
First-time campers often arrive looking jittery, and some take a few days to acclimate to Camp Nikoti’s point system. But by summer’s end, most are asking when they can come back, Ms. Spoon said. Blake Goodman agreed.
“It’s crazy to think that in a 5-week period—or a total of 16 days and 2 to 3 evenings—how much love and care you can get these kids to embrace and feel, to the point that they are in tears when camp ends because they don’t want it to,” he said.