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YMCA-Indian Guides

Among the many programs the YMCA sponsors is the Y-Indian Guides. These Indian Guide programs are semi-autonomous and go under different names, but they have certain common features. The Meckcha Federation of YMCA-Indian Guides is perhaps a typical Indian Guides program.

I took the following examples from this site in 2000. See how many stereotypes you can count.

About the YMCA-Indian Guides
Fathers and sons age 5 to 8 participate in the "Braves" Program. Fathers and daughters age 5 to 8 participate in the "Princess" Program.

Tribal meetings provide a forum for spending time together, telling stories, playing games, making crafts and other activities.

...[M]embers usually take indian names, many wear leather vests to display their indian names and activity patches, the children perform services and crafts to earn "feathers" and tribes use drums, chief's headdresses and other Indian-oriented items to create an atmosphere of excitement and enjoyment for everyone.

Organization Patches [in other words, "tribal" positions]
Tribal Chief
Longhouse Chief
Wampum Raiser

Achievement Feathers and Patches
First Year Feathers
Second Year Headdress Patch
Third Year Totem Pole Patch

Al's Song

You probably thought Al was just making this up as he went along, but here are the actual words for the song we sing at federation gatherings.

Tah lay lee mau mau (repeat)
Geo lay lee mau mau (repeat)
Austin healy (repeat)
Sop in solly ollie wollie (repeat)
Mol mollie mau mau (repeat)

Repeat entire verse softly

Repeat entire verse loudly

Bulletin Board
Smoke Signals

Quote from side frame

Comment:  I'd better list the more blatant stereotypes in case some naive child or YMCA official is viewing this page. Among them are the notions that Native tribes:

If you're a Native person, do you feel honored by this program? Do you think America's children are learning about your traditional culture from this? If you have any comments on any of this, I suggest you visit the "Smoke Signals" bulletin board and leave a message. They're waiting to hear from you.

More Indian Guide stereotypes
Indian Guides welcome the brave, and his dad (6/7/02)
Racism at the YMCA

Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes
For another example of an Indian Guides "tribe," consider the Powhatan Tribe of Southern California's website. Except for the talk of little "braves" and "maidens," this site was mostly benign. It even had useful information on the Woodland Indians of the American Northeast.

But you wouldn't have learned that "woodland" Indians were only one kind out of dozens. And consider such "desirable" values as:

These values may be uplifting and wholesome, but they're still stereotypical. Such positive homilies reinforce the idea of Native people as "noble savages," with a simple, unsophisticated outlook toward life. When you paint people as Pollyannas, you negate the possibility that they may have complex, conflicted emotions. And you hold them up to an impossible standard of behavior. If Indians choose not to be loving and pure of heart, does that mean they're less authentically Indian?

Note:  I was briefly a member of an Indian Guides program as a child. I believe we were "Chumash." I wasn't particularly into the Indian Guides, as I recall—perhaps because of the contrived social interaction or the emphasis on outdoors activities.

Or perhaps I vaguely sensed that something about "playing Indians" was wrong. I don't remember. Let's just say it was one of the influences that led me to create PEACE PARTY and build this site some three-plus decades later.

What an honor
Naturally, many Native people don't feel honored by the Indian Guides. From the LA Times, 4/30/01:

Native American Groups Decry YMCA Program's Use of Cultural Themes

Protest: The Indian Guides come under fire for practices that activists say demean and trivialize their culture.

By DANIEL YI, Times Staff Writer

When Dave Bohmfalk of Foothill Ranch was seeking a way to spend more time with his young daughter, he found the perfect venue in the Shoshones.

Named after a Native American tribe, the south Orange County group of fathers and daughters is part of Y-Indian Guide Program, a YMCA-sanctioned activity that uses Native American themes to foster bonds between parents and children.

Bohmfalk, 39, and 9-year-old Christina cemented their bond four year ago during a camping trip to Big Bear, where they wrote their "Indian" names on sticks and tossed them into a bonfire.

Now, "Watchful Wolf" and "Running With Horses," like tens of thousands of Y-Indian Guide Program participants across the nation, find themselves in the middle of a debate about the political correctness of decades-old practices that some Native American leaders say demean and trivialize their culture.

"They are breeding grounds for racism," Vernon Bellecourt, a spokesman for the American Indian Movement, said of the YMCA groups. The organization, based in Minneapolis, also has been battling sports teams' use of Indian mascots. "It dehumanizes the whole culture of living, breathing human beings," he said.

Critics say the Y program's Native American theme distills a complicated and diverse culture into superficial images that encourage stereotypes. They take issue with some program participants' use of vaunted Native American customs like wearing feather headdresses and using face paint. Some groups use the burlesque "How-How" as a form of greeting during meetings.

Program participants and organizers, including some Native Americans, acknowledge that some aspects of the program may be outmoded and say they are trying to eradicate offensive practices.

To scrap the theme completely, however, "would be a tremendous loss of an opportunity to work with the YMCA and the families to learn about Native American culture," said Chet Ossowski, a family program coordinator with Newport Beach's YMCA who is part Cheyenne and has two daughters in the program. "What we need to strive for is more education."

The debate has raged for decades but reached a crescendo in recent years, in part because of the Internet.

Native Americans surfing cyberspace have stumbled on Y-Indian Guide Program Web pages. Someone looking for information on Apache, Navajo or Cherokee tribes may instead find information about the Great Sun Nation, a Boca Raton, Fla., Y-Indian Guide Program whose "tribes," like groups elsewhere, are named after American Indian nations.

The content of some Web pages has prompted letters and e-mails to local and national YMCA offices and Native American organizations. Two years ago, the Florida chapter of the American Indian Movement threatened to sue YMCA programs in that state to stop their use of the Native American theme. No legal action has been taken, but AIM officials are exploring their options, Bellecourt said.

Chicago-based YMCA of the USA is reevaluating the 75-year-old program. A task force to review the Native American theme is expected to convene soon, officials said.

"You don't throw the baby out with the wash," said Norris Lineweaver, a member of the YMCA's Program Committee. He said officials hope to include Native American leaders in the process. "This is an enriching program, but let's do it in a manner that doesn't offend people."

Across the nation, the issue has stirred impassioned discussions, with both sides citing tradition.

"There have actually been instances where women who grew up in the program have wanted to wear their [Y-Indian Guide] vests over their wedding gowns," Lineweaver said, "fathers who want to wear their vests when they are laid to rest. This is not a trivial issue."

The matter is serious, too, for August Spivey, a Newport Beach Native American activist.

"To say that we've done this for 75 years, so tough—we also did slavery for over 300 years," Spivey said. "Our culture has been demolished for centuries. . . . What goes on in this program has nothing to do with Indians. It is offensive. Most of it is done totally wrong, and they are passing it along to their children. . . . They have no right to use native tribal names. Did the tribes give them permission to do that?"

The Y-Indian Guide Program features small groups of parents and children, mostly preteens. Up to a dozen pairs organize into neighborhood tribes that gather for such activities as crafts or storytelling. The tribes are organized into nations under the auspices of a local YMCA chapter and meet annually at camp-outs.

YMCA officials say about one-fourth of the 2,400 chapters nationwide have Y-Indian Guide programs. Membership estimates vary widely, though, because chapters operate autonomously, led by parent volunteers. YMCA officials and program participants put current enrollment nationwide between 180,000 and 250,000. The YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles says it has 3,000 participating families. No county-by-county breakdown is available for Southern California.

The program was founded in 1926 by Harold S. Keltner, a director of the YMCA's St. Louis chapter. YMCA literature states that Keltner was inspired by an Ojibway Indian guide named Joe Friday.

"The Indian father raises his son," Friday reportedly told Keltner. "He teaches his son to hunt, track, fish, walk softly and silently in the forest, know the meaning and purpose of life and all he must know, while the white man allows the mother to raise his son."

The program, originally for fathers and sons, expanded to include mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons. The issue of sensitivity toward Native American cultures has proved a great challenge.

In 1992, following complaints by some Native Americans, the YMCA issued "Responsible Use of the Native American Theme," recommendations that included a more accurate portrayal of American Indian history and customs.

But the message has not filtered down to all the local programs, said Barry Yamaji, a member of the National Advisory Committee, a panel of volunteer parents who work with the YMCA and offer technical support to participants.

"Part of it is just poor communication," said Yamaji, of Gurnee, Ill., who joined the program with his daughter 11 years ago and now has a son in it. "Some groups are doing a fine job; some just have no clue."

Organizers say the Native American theme adds a mystical element that draws many participants.

"It is the novelty," said Joe Peele, program director at the YMCA in Raleigh, N.C., which with 7,500 participants is one of the most popular Y-Indian Guide Programs in the country. "We are trying to be as sensitive as we can."

But the road to sensitivity has some bumps. A proposal to get rid of the "How-How" greeting has met with strong resistance, Peele said. "We have been doing this for 33 years," he said. "It will be an awfully tough transition."

Yamaji and other participants say gradual change is possible. They argue that if done right, the program can educate people about Native American culture and history.

"If they knew what most of us are trying to do, [Native Americans] would co-opt the program," said Dennis West, a member of the Boca Raton Y-Indian Guide Program. "We are plagiarizing American Indians, but isn't emulation a form a flattery?"

David Narcomey isn't flattered. A Seminole and north Florida regional director for the American Indian Movement, he says many of those who say they are trying to be more sensitive ignore criticism when it doesn't serve their agenda.

Following AIM's letters to some Florida YMCAs decrying the program two years ago, Narcomey said, he was invited by local YMCA directors to give a presentation about Native American history and culture. When Narcomey's group showed up wearing business suits, the directors seemed disappointed, he said. A few of them left during the presentation.

"I think they were expecting us to put on a show and dance," he said. "We haven't heard anything from them since."

For many Native Americans, the debate, like the one over sports mascots, is about power: Who controls how a culture is displayed and perceived?

"Sometimes, culture can be reduced so all that is left is the image and no content," said Paul Apodaca, a professor of American Indian history at Chapman University in Orange. "That is what the Native Americans are complaining about. They are saying, 'We are still here.' American Indians have the lowest per capita income. They have the lowest life expectancy. . . . It is not legitimate to entertain yourself with people who are socially disenfranchised and powerless."

That viewpoint gives pause to Bohmfalk, the Foothill Ranch father who joined the program four years ago. At a ranch in San Diego County during a recent camp-out, he marveled as Christina, once afraid of horses, practiced acrobatic moves on horseback.

"It's a tough issue," he said. "It's unfortunate that a program as positive as this has this issue shadowing over it."

Bohmfalk decided to pose a question to his daughter: If we found out that some of the things we do in the program actually kind of bothered the American Indians, do you think we should change the theme?

She replied, "Change it. But I would miss being a Shoshone."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Comment:  Out of the mouths of babes....

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Update on the Indian Guides
The YMCA is ending a popular Indian-themed program to avoid perpetuating stereotypes
YMCA's Indian programs likely to end

More on the Indian Guides and related programs
Scout society stereotypes Indians
Indian origin of the Camp Fire Girls

Related links
The harm of Native stereotyping:  facts and evidence
Quotes on Native stereotyping
Stereotype of the Month contest

Readers respond
"You are pretentious and self-righteous, and have no business 'defending' people from one of the greatest family-bonding organizations in America."
"[A]lthough you make some good points in your retort, you miss a few important ones."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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