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The American Outdoorsman has in many ways been manufactured by the societal and racial anxieties bred in modern industrial expansion. Faced with the need to re-establish cultural superiority, turn-of-the-century Americans borrowed an identity from whom they considered the ‘first Americans,’ Native Americans, in creating the All-American Boy. This adoption of indigenous rituals and material culture continued throughout the 20th Century as environmentalism evolved, ironically in an attempt to form a purely Anglo-American image.
Falling in between the Gilded Age, Prohibition, two world wars, and the disorder of the Vietnam War era, the tale of the American Outdoorsman begs the listener to uncover growing class divides, economic transformations, and the racial paradigms behind them in the 20th Century. However, this story need not end in misfortune; telling the history of the American Outdoorsman can highlight the fascinating way American identity has formed by acknowledging the vital role of indigenous Americans.
The origin of the American Outdoorsman
Revisiting the story of the American Outdoorsman challenges assumptions and rewrites historical narratives. American culture has always been a blending of ideas, beliefs, ethnicities, and traditions, but rarely is it told from this melting pot perspective. Interestingly, the concept of connection to nature and rugged masculinity is often associated with the Frontier. Yet this is an archaic way of understanding American culture’s modern association with the outdoors.
In actuality, Native American appropriation and stereotyping plays a large role in shaping what today seems ‘natural’ to American culture. The adoption of Native American traditions and practices within Anglo-American beliefs created an admiration for nature, yet the acknowledgement of this manipulation of indigenous culture is continually misrepresented and under researched by academics and citizens alike. This has resulted in the invisibility of Native American communities, revealing a tale of colonialism which to some, may seem unnecessary to retell. However, we must learn that overlooking the past only reinforces issues in American society today.
The Gilded Age & Threatened Masculinity, 1830s-1920s
Americans did not always appreciate the outdoors. To most, wilderness was frightening, an entity to be conquered. Settlers had to survive the elements every day of their lives. Nature-minded American culture evolved just over a century ago at a time of industrial expansion and urban chaos known as the Gilded or Golden Age. The invention of railroads moved materials and people across the country.
With the advancement of manufacturing technology and factory infrastructure, cities swelled rapidly in population as rural communities flocked to urban centres. Since wages were much higher in the U.S., the population also surged from immigrants arriving from Europe and then Asia in search of opportunity. The shift in population but also in economics, threatened the working man’s capability to provide for his family in a world where women and men toiled side by side and cities were no longer White and Black. Disease and germs were weakening young men, morality was vanishing in chaotic times, and the American man was becoming only a distant memory in the eyes of a changing nation.
The Adirondack Migration & Birth of a Leisure Society, 1850s-1910
Recreational camping, hunting, boating, skiing/snowshoeing, all seem ingrained in the American Outdoorsman of today. Yet, without the consequences of the Gilded Age, the main player in the making of American Outdoorsman may have never gained its starring role. A unique place to consider in the transformation of Americans and their landscapes, the Adirondack Mountain region of Upstate New York combined industry, wealth, leisure, and a respect for the outdoors.
Railroads, which brought mining and milling, as well as lumber tanneries, altered forever the once perceived foreboding and barren Adirondack forest and mountains. Settlers, immigrants, and urban elite each came to claim their stake in these wild lands. By the late 1800s, the Adirondack region’s close proximity to the brewing urban expanses of New York City and Albany attracted both middle and upper classes seeking refuge from the noisy and soot-covered Gilded Age metropolis.
Robber Barons including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Durants built grand estates on their private wilderness lands. The growing middle classes stayed in many of the pleasant hotels transforming once sparse mountain towns. This idea of the outdoors as a place of leisure began to emerge. However, there came a public realization that even industry in the Adirondack Mountains was destroying the environment. Specifically, blue-collared labourers were accused of causing deforestation and polluting waterways. A push for regulated use of the landscape created the New York Forest Preserve and the first wilderness park in the United States. Thus was born a culture of environmental pride in a select society discovering sanctuary in the ‘out of doors’.
American Youth & Racializing the Outdoors, 1911-1950s
This newly regulated wilderness encouraged youth recreation and education in the Adirondacks and across America. The fears of the modern world at the turn of the century were met with a simple solution: youth organizations and camps which reestablished White Anglo-Saxon dominance in the evolution of America, specifically in appropriating America’s ‘first people’, the Native Americans. Several societies already existed like the Grand Order of Iroquois, yet for America’s youth, the need for morals, cultural assimilation, and regenerating a weakening of masculine vigor had to include the outdoors; specifically, the inclusion of oversimplified Native American rituals and skill sets to build a unique American identity that could not be threatened by immigrants and Black Americans entering U.S cities.
The Boy Scouts of America placed young boys in the outdoors, adopting practices of Indians long gone, recounting the story of White America, simultaneously echoing an ever militarized nation in the 20th century. Increasingly popular summer camps adopted similar rituals, dress, and teachings. Female groups like the Camp Fire Girls and Girl Scouts of America would soon follow, establishing their own adoption of Native American concepts and reshaping them to the ideal American girl.
Mid-Century Counterculture & Revisiting Environmentalism, 1960s-1970s
By the mid 1900s, the connection to the outdoors was threatened more than ever before by chemicals, pollutants, nuclear war, and increased manufacturing due to post-WWII consumerism of the Baby-Boom generation. The manipulation of Native American cultural identities came into the story of America once more in a wave of counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Students, vagabonds, pacifists, liberals all came to the frontline in protest of a controversial war, racial segregation, and environmental destruction. Within these civil disobedients were the hippies.
Hippies in many ways represented an accumulation of the counterculture era, dressing, acting, eating, living in ways their parents and grandparents could have never imagined acceptable. Their goal was to make a statement and to escape a civilization they saw intrinsically flawed. In forming this new culture, they, like the Boy Scouts and American youth at the turn of the century, looked to Native Americans in separating from an America they no longer wanted to be connected to. Free-thinking hippies admired the closeness to the Earth embodied by many indigenous communities and in turn, oversimplified Native American cultures in formulating this ideal model for defying established Americana and protesting war, pollution, conservatism, and archaic moral standards.
The environmental movement of the 60s and 70s soon adopted Native American aspects in their campaigns for land and water protection. Oddly, the hippies brought attention to Native American protests, yet at the expense of oversimplifying their heritage and rights once more. The American Outdoorsman grew in his persona, mission, and unique vision while his vital source of inspiration was increasingly pushed out of the picture.
Today, it is seemingly impossible for the average outdoor enthusiast in the U.S. to recognize this cultural phenomenon, yet it lies right beneath the surface, begging of us to take a closer look.