Legend of Tannadoonnah

“There is a tribe of Indians who lived where camp is now…land of birches; you know, birch trees and a birch lake. They lead a simple, peaceful life…they farmed and gathered fish. They lived like this for many years and eventually the white settlers spread into Michigan. They felt their lives were interrupted because white men were taking things from them. Things were tense because they couldn’t communicate with each other and it looked like there was going to be a war. The chief’s daughter was the peacemaker between the Indian tribe and white man because she won affections of one of the white men. Instead of gaining trust from both, she made both sides suspicious of her. All the Indians were afraid she was betraying them. White men saw how close she was with her father and thought she was a fraud. But then, one day, fighting erupted between the Indians and white men, and the princess was scared and didn’t want her people to get hurt. She didn’t want her new friends to get hurt either, so she got in middle of it. She was killed. The main white man told them she wasn’t a spy…was trying to make peace all along, so the white men and Indian tribe gave Tannadoonah a nice burial site. They grew a tree on top of her grave. It grew and now it protects and watches over the land and is supposed to symbolize protection and friendship between nature (Indians) and white men (campers).

They say that campers are still haunted by Indians. Most of the time, Indians go back to their old ways and play tricks on white men. The council fire room at the camp site was the big council meeting room for Indians. You can go to this tree and her spirit is still there. You can see how she lives through the tree. The roots are twisted and you can see parts of her face and elbow in the tree. It’s her body being incorporated into tree.” –Caitlin Fitzgerald


One day when reminiscing about old summer camp memories, my roommate Caitlin shared this story with me. She went to Camp Tannadoonah, a camp affiliated with Campfire Girls. She learned about the story on a tour of the camp when she was five years old. Every summer when she went back to camp, her campfire leader would retell the story. Caitlin definitely believes in the story. The tree and council room have different connotations. While the tree represents princess Tannadoonah’s guardian spirit, the council room holds scary spirits (and continues to scare the campers).

Before telling me her version of the story (the version her camp leader told her when she was five), she gave me the original story as it was presented on both the camp’s website and others who remember the original version. She says:

“Princess Tannadoonah was promised to be married to a warrior. There was a drought, so the men were in charge of finding food. The princess didn’t want to leave home. She decided to stay because her husband promised to come back for her. In the end, she died before he could come back. He buried her body and planted a tree over her grave. The tree, that is now the tree of Tannadoonah, grew over many years. All of its branches represent the amount of love that Princess Tannadoonah and her warrior had for one another.”

For a camp that has been around since 1921, the legend inevitably experienced multiplicity and variation. Today, according to Caitlin, there are endless variations of the story.

After hearing her story, I recalled my days at Camp Cayuga, sitting around a campfire at 9:00 pm (which was late for me at the time since I was in 8th grade), watching camp counselors and campers enact certain camp songs and stories. This daily ritual essentially brings folklore to life and emulates the traditional act of storytelling that Native Americans started hundreds of years ago. All in all, I could not think of a better place to find folklore than at summer camp. Camp brings people together, creates a sense of belonging, and preserves legends and rituals. I almost think of summer camp as a culture that kids engage in. Since I’m from the east coast (and apparently summer camps are more prevalent there than they are on the west coast), I always bring up summer camp rituals, only to find that no one else knows what I’m talking about. Caitlin was similarly surprised that I had never heard of Tannadoonah’s story.