The summer camp was called, “Indian Acres.” It was a day-camp located near the University of Illinois campus. The main activity was swimming, which, even at the young age of five, was right up my alley. I loved the freedom of the way the cool water hit my warm body whenever I jumped in for the 1st time. As a girl born with a very blatant physical difference, the water represented a type of “safe-house” to me. From the moment I was submerged, I could easily swim around feeling completely comfortable in my own skin. Not only was my body mainly covered, but whenever all of us campers were in the pool, somehow the other kids became so consumed in their own underwater adventure, they rarely focused on my physical deformity……until it was time to change.
Once out of the pool, all the pre-school and Kindergarten aged kids lined up and were led into a large, almost circular room. The facility had lockers and benches that draped the exterior, which meant that when we changed back into our t-shirts and shorts, we had to face one another. As much as I loved spending time in the water, I loathed the period both before and after, when I would have to reveal my severely misshapen feet. One thing was certain, none of these kids had ever seen a child with one toe on each foot. Every day when we changed, they would stare. Some would whisper to a friend nearby. The first day, many of them gathered round to ask me what had happened to my feet. My stomach tightens even decades later at the memory.
“Mom, when I get to the birthday party, I want to wear my swim shoes.” My heart simultaneously sank and related fully to our seven year old, Charlie. He was born with a similar version of my condition (two fingers on each hand, two toes on each foot), and, between our two boys, Charlie is the more sensitive of the two….in other words, he reminds me of me as a child. Last summer I was thrilled to find rubber pool shoes that they could both wear in and out of the water. As the summer wore on, I noticed that Charlie began to wear his pool shoes at all times around our town pool, even when not swimming. Without asking him or discussing it with John, I made a mental note that he was probably also wearing them while at summer day-camp as well.
I turned to him. “Char—how come?” “You know why, Mom. If I don’t, all the kids will stare at my feet. I am okay with people noticing my hands, but it is different with my feet. I will feel like a freak–like the day I took my boots off in Kindergarten and the entire class gathered round to look at my feet.” I swallowed, having never heard about that particular experience from him. I often say to people that I wear my limitation out in the open, literally on my sleeve. But I see that Charlie is clearly following in his mother’s footsteps when it comes to concealing his feet. You might wonder, “What’s the difference between displaying different-looking hands versus feet?” All I can say is, with the hands, there’s no choice. They’re just on display. But feet are generally hidden, so no one is necessarily expecting them to be different, too. It’s like, you feel the people around you have finally gotten used to your hands, when all of sudden the feet are now going to become a topic of interest and all those feelings of being the object of stares come rushing right back. Who needs that!? It’s just easier to keep the shoes on after all. I always equate it to someone with an invisible difference that finally gains the strength to “come out.” That, to me, is so much harder.
Later that night, I began to think about my days at Indian Acres, and the fact that Charlie used the word, “freak” to describe himself; how he felt when so many of the kids at school were staring at him. It reminded me that as great as “flaunting” is, the ability to do it often comes with age. It is also nearly impossible for persons on the outside to truly relate. I then felt compelled to run an Internet search on Indian Acres, and was quite surprised to find the camp still exists, and was even more shocked that it has retained its original name.
For those who are unaware, up until 2007, a costumed mascot character called Chief Illiniwek made his half-time performances at every University of Illinois football and basketball game. A University student would don authentic garb (Sioux regalia) and perform a tribal dance. Growing up, my dad had often taken Peter, me and Ted to the games where we saw the Chief (er, U of I student) perform the tribal dance around the field or court. We graduated high school in the late ‘80’s and left Illinois, but over the next two decades, Chief Illiniwek was the subject of controversy. Several native groups advocated removing the Chief from his post; that the mascot was not only a misappropriation of indigenous cultural figures and rituals, but also perpetuated stereotypes about native Americans.
Finally, about five years ago, the primary governing board for intercollegiate athletics instituted a ban on schools that use what they call “hostile and abusive American Indian nicknames” from hosting postseason games. What caught my attention this week was that those in favor of retiring the Chief contended that it “perpetuated harmful stereotypes.” All of a sudden—it hit me. While those in support of the Chief claimed that he was a revered symbol representing a proud people, that opinion came from people who were not Native Americans themselves. In fact, when you get right down to it, I believe those that grieved the loss of the Chief as their mascot most likely missed their halftime entertainment and cared little for the Native American culture and history the mascot purported to represent.
Forgive me in advance for yet again writing about the forthcoming AMC show, “Freakshow,” but I have been thinking even more about its likely impact. On the one hand, in response to my blog post “Learning from Lincoln,” last week, one follower offered the following: “It seems to me that people who would want to display themselves in the “Freakshow” environment are merely flaunting their differences proudly. Similar to people who get full body tattoos or body modifications and enjoy drawing attention to themselves in that way. I don’t think it’s necessarily an indication that they feel poorly about themselves.”
I thought about this response for a few days, since at first glance, I agree with her, and hope that the persons who agreed to do the show are simply demonstrating their (public) ability to flaunt. In fact, that may be spot on. But, even if she is right, I am now thinking it is more complicated than all of that. To me, when people put others on display for purposes of entertainment, even if innocently ignorant of the impact to the other’s community, they are cooperating to perpetuate stereotypes. As a person with, and parenting children with, a blatant difference, I don’t chose to allow the term “freak” to become an acceptable adjective. As someone who has been pushed down in a crowded subway while being called a “freak,” and whose own children have had to endure hearing themselves as the subject of the term, with its razor-sharp edge, I reject the notion that the word can be sanitized for general consumption. The freak term is as offensive as the “R” word, or the “N” word. No matter much I have learned to flaunt my difference, I refuse to allow “freak” to become an acceptable word to define myself or another, even if they are willing and able to flaunt.
While researching on the Chief the other day, I learned that the word Illiniwek means “those who speak in the ordinary way.” Maybe that can serve as a reminder that none of us needs to come up with extraordinary labels for one another; that having differences can be the subject of ordinary conversation, without the need to turn personal lives into carnival shows. That most importantly, it is possible to enjoy one another’s company without having to be entertained.