Dec 30, 2015

What`s in a Name?

Ever wonder where the name Tamakwa came from? You are not alone! You would think that the origin of the name would a documented piece of Tamakwa history, however this is not the case. In a quest to find the answer in 2006 South Tea Echo editor Robert Sarner went on a mission…

Sometimes such is the strong, timeless appeal of a name that no one even questions how it came to be. It just is. Sometimes a name is so intrinsically associated with a place that it becomes inseparable from it. Sometimes a name seems just preordained, as if it were created for the place it denotes, as if it existed forever or that some divine power was behind its designation. Tamakwa is such a name. Just looking at the word, let alone pronouncing it, immediately conjures up a slew of positive images and associations. For years, I’ve been coming to Tamakwa, writing about its past and present for the camp website and the South Tea Echo , sending my children there and then last summer it dawned on me: I had never once heard how and why Lou Handler chose the word Tamakwa to name his camp in 1936. I was puzzled. I had heard so much about Lou and his inspiring ways but never a word about such a basic aspect about his most lasting creation. Sure, like most Tamakwans, I’d long been told the name Tamakwa supposedly meant “beaver cutting wood” in some half-forgotten native Indian language. But that didn’t really answer my question. I figured that finding the answer would be a pretty straightforward exercise. Seeing how the camp has so admirably preserved Lou’s legacy and many of his customs, I figured all I had to do was to consult any one of the many veteran Tamakwans who know so much about the camp’s history. I thought my question would be a no-brainer, easily answered. I started with the usual suspects but the answer was surprisingly elusive. Little did I realize at first that it would be a long, lonely pursuit. The more I asked, the more I wanted to know. The more people who could not answer the question, the more determined I was to find out. It also prompted my curiosity about what Tamakwa really meant, and whether “beaver cutting wood” was the true translation.

I decided to contact various native Indian sources. A real eye opener awaited me. It proved more of an odyssey than I expected at the outset. In the end, one of the last Tamakwans I spoke to seemed to have an explanation about how the name was chosen for camp. But even he admitted he did not hear it directly from Lou although his source was pretty unimpeachable. Here is what I found

DAVID STRINGER – Son of Omer Stringer, David spent his first summer at Tamakwa in 1950 when he was 2 years old. Since then, he’s spent every summer there except one. He is the Associate Director of Tamakwa and in the off season lives in Toronto. “No one living knows the origin of the name Tamakwa. When Lou came up with it, it might have been just a fun thing or serious thing. It might have come out of a book. A lot of the books about summer camp lore at that time were written by people who didn’t know anything about native culture. It might have come out one of those books. I’m pretty sure ‘Tamakwa’ doesn’t mean ‘beaver cutting wood’. There’s an off chance it might mean ‘beaver’ in some native Indian dialect. I really don’t know.”

HOWARD PERLMUTTER – Father of current Camp Director Craig, Howard spent his first summer at Tamakwa in 1955 as a tripper. Since 1980, he has played a key role in Tamakwa’s administration. “I don’t have the slightest idea how Lou came up with the name. I never asked nor have I heard of the origin but I think the word Tamakwa has a good lilt to it. Certainly, if it means ‘beaver cutting wood’, there are lots beavers and beaver dams on South Tea Lake so perhaps the local folklore had something to do with it. I would love to find out if that’s what it means and why Lou chose it. When I negotiated the purchase of camp in 1980 with Vic and Dave, we consulted our lawyers both in Toronto and Detroit to determine if the name Tamakwa was registered in both Canada and the United States. We were surprised to learn that it had never been registered. As soon as we bought the camp, we registered the name, both in Canada and the US.” Since 1980, he’s played a role in its administration.

MAX BARDENSTEIN – First came to Tamakwa in 1947 when he worked as Land Sports Director. Returned in 1949 as a section head and in 1950 and 1951, he was Co- Head Counselor. Now a retired orthopedic surgeon, he and his wife Rena live in Detroit. “There was some story about how Lou chose the name and the fact is I once knew the answer. One of Lou’s friends in Detroit in the 1930s – Irwin Shaw – who worked at the local Fresh Air Camp once told me the story but it was so long ago that I no longer have any recollection.”

RONNIE WEISS – Spent 26 summers at Tamakwa, starting as a camper in 1952 and finishing his career as Program Director in 1977. He and his family live in Detroit. “I think that Tamakwa is an Algonquin Indian word that in English means ‘beaver eating wood.’ This is just a guess because no one seems to know for sure. Like nobody seems to know if Sam McGee was real or not. My guess is that when Lou and Omer [Stringer] paddled along the shores of South Tea Lake looking for a site for the camp, they must have seen a beaver eating wood. For them, that was probably just the epitome of all nature and what it was all about up in Algonquin Park. Somehow Lou probably tracked down an Indian translation for that, found it and named the camp Tamakwa. It’s probably the most meaningful name in my life given how important the camp is to me and what I am.”

LOU ROSEN – First came to camp in 1941 as a counselor. He returned as a section head in 1946 – 1947 and 1952 – 1960. His wife Lil also worked at camp during the 1950s. In 1965, Lou was the CIT and Program Director. Today, they live in Florida. “It’s something of a dilemma. I wish I knew but apart from knowing what the word is supposed to mean, I don’t even recall ever knowing how Lou chose Tamakwa as the name.”

EDIE STRINGER – 90 years old, lives in Toronto Edie was married to Omer Stringer for 40 years until he passed away in 1988. Today, she lives in Toronto. Her son David and grandson Alex are very much part of the contemporary Tamakwa scene. “All I seem to remember is that Lou was tossing around various names before choosing Tamakwa. Lou wanted an Indian name. It’s possible that Tony Bernard, a native Indian who was there at the beginning helping Lou and Omer set up the South Tea site for the camp, may have had some influence on Lou.”

MARILYN MENDELSON – Recently retired after being a central pillar at Tamakwa for the past 35 years. She first came to Tamakwa in 1969 as a secretary before becoming CIT Director and then Assistant Camp Director. In the early 1980s, she received years off for good behaviour and returned in 1986. Today, she lives in Detroit. “I have no idea at all how Lou chose the name. My guess is that he probably picked up a book, came across the word and said, ‘That’ll work’. And that somehow after that the name took hold.”

KAL BANDALENE – Kal followed his wife Ada, Unca Lou’s assistant and incredible camp personality, to camp in 1957. Kal and Ada then spent another 20 years together at Tamakwa as directors. “I don’t know the definitive answer. But based on what I remember, Omer Stringer was probably the source of the name. Having grown up in Algonquin Park, Omer knew the Algonquin dialect and at some point early on in his relationship with Lou, he related the word to him in some reference that the Algonquin natives used for beavers working or cutting wood. Lou never really spelled out exactly the moment and the way he decided to use the word Tamakwa as the camp’s name but putting two and two together and based on knowing Lou so well, this is my educated guess.”

DAVID BALE – A camper and counselor at Tamakwa in the 1960s and 70s, David was Co-owner and Co- Director from 1980 until 2004. Formerly from Detroit, David now lives in Toronto with his family. “Lou was many things but above all he was a naturalist intimately knowledgeable about Algonquin Park. I have to believe that when he named Tamakwa, he had in mind that beavers and beaver ecology are a predominant element in Algonquin Park and Tea Lake in particular. About half way down the western shore there’s always been a large, rather active beaver lodge. It’s been there as long as I’ve been at camp. Lou used to teach us the “Indian J stroke” (a silent variation of the J-stroke) just so we could paddle close enough and not scare off the beavers. And then of course there is the nearby Beaver Dam, which used to be a constant destination for cookouts and day excursions. If you follow the babbling brook that empties into that cove along the western shore and walk up along the creek, it leads to an enormous beaver dam. Knowing Lou, he surely had in mind the camp’s immediate environment and researched the actual word Tamakwa, which is probably from either the Ojibway or Algonquin languages (both indigenous to the Ottawa Valley area). I do know that ‘Ahmek’ in the same language means ‘beaver’. I imagine Tamakwa is a derivative of that. Of course, Ahmek is also the name of Taylor Statten’s boys camp on Canoe Lake which predated Tamakwa and from which Lou drew a lot of inspiration and rituals that became Tamakwa-isms later on.”

JOHN FANNING – Began his Tamakwa career in 1959 as a canoe tripper. While there, he met Elaine Bowman, the camp secretary. They later married and remained active Tamakwans in various roles until 1978. They are now both retired and live in Toronto. “It was late September 1936. Lou and Omer had been scouring Algonquin for nearly a month now for a suitable site for Lou’s camp project. It was frustrating. They had examined so many sites and each had its own drawbacks. Just at sunset that memorable day they paddled around the point on South Tea and spotted the bay where Tamakwa now stands. “That looks promising,” said Lou, ever the optimist. “It does,” agreed Omer. “But we’re going to get caught by darkness. Let’s camp some place and check it in the morning.” Then they noticed on the right-hand shore, (at a spot that later became 49er Point), a thin trail of smoke rising from a campfire into the gathering gloom. “Let’s see who’s there,” said Omer. “Maybe we can share that spot.” As they slid their canoe gently onto the shore, an old Indian rose from the fire and came down to greet them. He knew what they wanted and beckoned them ashore. An hour later, with dinner over, the tent up and their sleeping bags spread out over Omer’s bough beds, all three men lit their pipes and settled in by the fire in the growing darkness. It was a chilly Algonquin evening, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire and the occasional haunting call of a loon. Then, there was an unexpected, at first unfamiliar sound that came from the direction of the bay that Lou and Omer intended to examine in the morning. It was a sort of rhythmic grinding sound broken at intervals by a few seconds of silence. It echoed across the bay. “What’s that, Omer?” asked Lou. Omer listened carefully for a moment. “I think it’s a beaver at work,” he replied. The old Indian nodded. “Tamakwa!” he exclaimed. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

JIM WIENNER – Was one of the original group of campers who attended Tamakwa in 1937 and continued for several more summers until early 1940s. Today he lives in Florida. “I don’t have the foggiest idea of how Lou chose Tamakwa as the name but he certainly came up with a winner. It’s a great name, and despite the passage of so much time, it has not aged.”

RON TRUNSKY – Between 1942 and 1952, Ron spent five summers as a camper and four as a counselor. From 1961 – 1963, he was the camp doctor. Today, he is a psychiatrist in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that this is the definitive explanation as I didn’t hear it directly from Lou but I do think this is the most likely answer. I heard it from Omer (Stringer) in 1947 during a canoe trip we took out that summer from camp. I remember that we were sitting around the campfire one evening and I was asking Omer about the history of Tamakwa. Omer explained how in 1936 he and Lou had become good friends while they both worked at Camp Arowhon and how Lou had asked him for help in looking for a suitable site in Algonquin Park for his camp project. Omer took Lou to various locations and eventually they paddled past the sand cliffs on South Tea Lake where the Slope is today and Lou was taken by the site. During that time, Omer told Lou that the animal that most impressed him in the Park was not the moose, nor the deer or the wolf but rather the beaver. He took Lou to the beaver dams at Otter Slides to show him how industrious the beaver was. Omer told Lou about how hard working the beaver was and said he admired the animal for its tenacity and resourcefulness. And from that, I understood that Lou was inspired to call his camp “working beaver” or “Tamakwa.” He actually had the symbol before the name. Maybe they asked a local Indian to translate ‘working beaver’ into an Indian language and came up with Tamakwa. I’m not sure what Indian language the word comes from.”

* * * * *

The last answer is the closest I could come to solving the riddle. Or so I thought. And even then, some shadow of doubt remains. But then the plot thickened and even Ron’s explanation looked less likely after I turned to various aboriginal sources to see if Tamakwa meant ‘Beaver’ or ‘Beaver cutting wood’.

“It’s indisputable that ‘makwa’ is the word for ‘bear’ in any indigenous language connected to the Algonquin language territory,” says Monica Bodirsky, the History Program Coordinator at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. In her opinion, “the word ‘makwa’ coupled with the prefix ‘ta’ almost certainly means ‘where the bear resides’ or ‘bear den’. The odds are a billion to one that ‘makwa’ could mean another animal apart from a bear in any of the other indigenous languages of North America.”

She suggested it was possible that Lou took some creative and well-meaning license when coming up with the camp’s name and perceived meaning.

“In the 20th century, it was quite common for people to pay homage to indigenous people by creating an indigenous- sounding name without necessarily staying true to the original meaning and spelling of the original word or expression.” Harold Perry, Honourary Chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nations Tribe, also said ‘makwa’ means ‘bear’. “There’s no way you can get ‘beaver’ out of ‘makwa.’,” says Mr. Perry. “There are many examples of ‘makwa’ meaning ‘bear’. Just look at the Makwa Community Centre at the Golden Lake Reserve near Algonquin Park and you’ll see the bear is the symbol. In our language, the word for beaver is ‘ahmek’.”

Tony Carufel, a teacher at the Ojibway language teacher in Wisconsin and Madeline Wemigwans, Research Assistant at the Wikemikong Heritage Organization in Mantoulin Island in Ontario, both also confirmed separately that ‘makwa’ means ‘bear’ and that ‘ta’ ‘makwa’ means ‘where the bear resides’.

My quest was taking me in new, unexpected places. I was discovering there was a lot more than meets the eye when I looked at the camp’s logo. And it would seem that the mystery might persist forever. Unless of course there are any veteran Tamakans out there who know how Lou chose the name and can come forward with the answer.

While they’re at it, maybe they could also explain why Tamakwa was for all these years believed to mean ‘beaver cutting wood’.

Then again, maybe no one knows and Lou took the answers with him to his grave. I asked Wakonda but his lips are sealed.


The South Tea Echo is our annual Newspaper featuring articles from Campers, Staff and Alumni! Click here to see the full list of publications. This particular article is from the 2006 edition.