A few weeks ago I was home visiting my family in southern California, and went to my local YMCA with my sister to work out. They’ve done a lot of remodeling since the last time I was there, including adding oversize (like 4 feet tall) photos on the walls of staff, kids, members, and events. Most of them are nice, but as I was leaving, I stopped in my tracks at the photo above.
I don’t know if all readers are familiar with the YMCA “Indian Guides” program (check out this facebook note for a history), but the basic premise is that it is/was a Father/Son bonding activity. Kinda like boy scouts, but with way more cultural appropriation. There is/was also “Indian Princesses” (father/daughter), “Indian Maidens” (mother/daughter), and “Indian Braves” (mother/son). But don’t worry, it was started with the help of “Joe Friday,” an Ojibwe, so that makes it all ok, right?
Typing this out, I can’t believe how outwardly offensive it seems from the get-go, but this was SO normalized in my hometown growing up, that I didn’t even begin to question it until I moved away.
I say is/was because technically, in the early 2000’s, the “Indian” part was dropped and the organization released guidelines for the “respectful use of the Indian theme.” My research online is showing that this really meant nothing, and the picture shows that even YMCA’s are still supporting the “Indian theme”.You’ll see in a minute exactly what this entails.
In my community, our annual “Holiday Parade” is a big deal. We used to joke that we couldn’t believe there was anyone left to watch the parade, since every single kid in town was marching in it. Girl and Boy Scout troops, dance classes (I marched when I was about 4 with my “Robin’s Rhythm and Moves” class), local dog rescues, 4H, you name it. And a huge portion of the parade growing up was dedicated to Indian Guides.
The whole scene would make adult Adrienne K. cry, but at the time I just remember feeling a little confused and annoyed by how into it all the “tribes” got. We’re talking banners proclaiming their “tribe”–“Arapaho,” “Mohawk,” “Blackfeet,” dads (and moms) in full, floor length headdresses, everyone in war paint, fringed vests covered in “Indian designs” and dangling plastic pony beads. The leaders were called “chiefs” and I remember everyone always shouting “Hoya hoya!”–their “Indian Greeting.”
Of course, every tribe, regardless of region, was represented by the horrific buckskin and feathers routine.
Don’t believe me? Watch this video. Take a deep breath, I almost started screaming in my office. This was taken in 2007, at an Indian Guides encampment put on by my YMCA.
The video starts with a “roll call” of all of the “tribes” in attendance–by an MC in a full “buckskin” and a headdress. The “tribes” include real tribal names, like “Sioux,” “Yurok,” or even “Bella Coola,” mixed with stereotypical Indian names like “soaring eagle” and “wolf.” They each have a “cheer”–wait until you get to the “Bella Coola” (a small First Nations community): “Bella Coola, makes us hula!!” Then they pass the mic to the “Chief” who calls up a boy from the “Soaring Eagle” tribe, asking him “what’s your Indian name?”. As the boy hesitates, the crowd jokes that his name is “Sticky Bun!!”, but he answers with “Little Surfing Fox.” It’s his birthday, so the whole crowd sings Happy Birthday, accented with “Hoya Hoya!”, of course.
This video is one of those things that is so blatantly racist, the stereotypes are so deep and egregious, that I don’t even know what to say. The part that gets me is that this was in 2007. This was not in the 70’s. This is after Indian Guides supposedly “reformed” their ways. The scary part is these are my neighbors, my mom’s students, the folks I see at the grocery store and at the beach. I am a member of a community that supports this.
So when I’m walking around wearing my powwow shirts, or driving my car with a big feather sticker on the back, my neighbors are conjuring images of these “tribes.” That scares me.
People often argue that there is nothing wrong with playing Indian–that dressing up or donning headdresses does no harm. I find it hard to imagine that someone could watch that video and think that a young Native child encountering that scene would walk away unscathed.
I should add that I have been very involved with the YMCA through the years, I was a summer camp counselor at this very YMCA the summer after my freshman year of college, and I have been a camper, counselor, and director over the past 10 years at one of their camps on Catalina Island (not the one in the video above). That’s why this hurts me even more to know that all along I’ve been supporting an organization that condones racism against Native peoples.
I’m going to write them a heartfelt letter with the point by point breakdown, I’ll definitely post it here when I’m done.