Hoya Hoya, Cultural Appropriation! Or Why Suburban White Folks Shouldn’t Play Indian

In cultural appropriation, Indian Guides, YMCA by Adrienne K.13 Comments

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.

  • Yeah, when you’ve supported as a child who doesn’t know any better and when you become an adult you have to call out your entire community and that is REALLY hard. It’s simple when it’s across a computer screen or someone you don’t know, but how do you begin to combat it in your own community? That’s a tough one and while I’m not much help with ANYTHING, if you need help I’ll gladly supply it (I make delicious cookies).

  • Here’s a REALLY great video to watch. It’s about Sexual Violence and how it takes the form of Appropriation, etc. BUT, there is some really great insight at about 1 hour and 5 minutes in. I say watch the whole thing but if you’re looking for some cool advice, go to 1 hr and 5 minutes in.


  • What I find hard to deal with is how most people can’t see the racism that is right in front of them (and being played out by them through these activities as well as sports mascots). The public seem to recognize the inherent racism of donning blackface and mocking African American culture – what is the difference in putting on “war paint” or feather headdresses? Racism against Native North Americans is so ingrained and blatant that people either don’t question or even defend their right to spread hatred. It boggles my mind!

  • I just don’t understand, with the proliferation of information available these days, why it’s so hard for people to do some research and teach children actual history instead of the make believe history and images we grew up with?

  • Growing up we attending Pow-wows in Anadarko, OK, and I enjoyed everything seeing tribe memebers participate. It would seem a much better educational tool to actually involve a native american in the camp than just “acting”. I love that my brother brings in a Cherokee storyteller every year to his Oklahoma History class to talk about actual history instead of teaching the make believe history that the above comment hit on.

  • I think a lot of the problem is that many white people, my parents included, don’t “get” that this is racist. They are proud of their NA heritage (Cherokee and yes we have documentation, not just an “Indian Princess grandmother”) so the idea that it’s not a “compliment” to suborn another culture is, at the very least, really rude, eludes them.I have also run into people who insist the Indian sports mascot doesn’t offend THEM and they are 1/207th Blackfeet so why is it a problem. It is really frustrating for me, and I am just a very Irish-looking liberal. I cannot imagine what it’s like for you. Does it help that the people participating probably had NO CLUE they were basically doing black-face? Or does that just make it worse?

  • I love wearing all types of things in my hair, like braids, felt dreads and feathers, and found your blog a little while ago. I was intrigued – I never saw this side of things. I started feeling kind of bad about the feathers… My intention was never to disrespect.. Also I’m from Finland but I guess that doesn’t give me an excuse to not be aware about what’s going on with Native peoples in America, the racism, struggle, etc. I just never saw it for what it is. Now I live in the US and still don’t see Native culture though. Sadly. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that your blog is great and it does a good job educating people.

    Before I would have come across this pic and considered it dreamy and nice. Now I see much more in it — romanticization, ignorance, cultural hypocrisy even. ( The picture is the first one on this post: http://fashiongonerogue.com/portrait-brynja-jonbjarnardottir-toby-knott/ )

    I follow a spiritual path that originated in India and now that I think of it, if I saw a so called fashion photo of a half naked girl wearing a sacred ’tilaka’ marking on her forehead indicating her humble relationship with God, I would be disgusted.

  • It astounds me that people can be involved in these sorts of things or look at them and not see how grotesquely offensive they are. It doesn’t seem to matter how gentle or polite you are when you try to point it out, either. The automatic response is for them to get offended and trot out their 1/32nd Native ancestry, courtesy of some nameless “Cherokee princess”, or to say that since it’s okay for them to take yoga it should be okay for them to appropriate everything else every culture has ever made.

    There is nothing okay about this. It’s a “redface” minstrel show.

  • Power to you Adrienne, I think a letter would be great and hopefully they take it with the humility and honour in which its given, unlike others you have encountered and reveal in your writings here.
    Do you have a plan for the next time you are in that particular YMCA in terms of whether they have taken your advice or not?

    I think your moves from talk to taking action are a true testament to the truth, validity and power of your arguments in a deeply racist environment and I can’t commend you enough for them. I do however, worry about what effect these constant and often hurtful battles, fought everyday, year after year, have on you and your spiritual well-being. I wonder how you stay fulfilled and hope that you have elders, colleagues and friends around you who ‘get it’ and are effective supports. Racism is a daily fact for indigenous communities world-wide and often for people like yourself who directly challenge and take on the micro-aggressions it is not without cost, personally and spiritually.

    Know that others (who have never meet you) share your frustrations and outrage and appreciate the actions you take on their behalf. I look forward to reading your letter.

  • Mrs. K, I read that Facebook history of the program and was prepared to think you were being too sensitive. On paper, that program sounds great no matter what people want to call it.

    Then I watched the video. I’m reeling from it.

    In 1992, the people of my hometown tore down a statue of Hiawatha to put one of Christopher Columbus in his place. I defaced that statue and protested against it hundreds of times. . . in my head.

    I wish I’d had your courage, to try and shed light within my own community.

    Rock on.

  • This is sickening to say the least. 30 years ago NA’s would have protested at these functions and people should today. There are a large number of whites who want these stereotypes perpetuated. In some odd way I think it may be slightly related to many whites frustration at having to show some level of respect to Blacks. Civil Rights applies to all ethnic minorities, not just blacks. I am surprised you have disassociated yourself from the Y… This problem with them begs for national pressure to be applied.

  • The video depicts the horrible dysfunction of the average American perception of Native tribal symbols and spirituality. Not to mention the complete disregard for how Native American feel about this issue. I cannot imagine if Native Americans began portraying priests in robes and crucifixes, MCing a “boy’s club” function, chanting “Hail Mary! Mother of God! Happy Birthday to little St. Sticky Buns!” while a whole group of participating NAs heckled in response. Some of these people say that NAs are too sensitive, should get over it and worry about more important issues. This was a very common reply in posts related to the recent use of “Geronimo” for the bin Laden mission. Native Americans have been negatively stereotyped since the onset of European arrival and land acquisition. This may have been in effort to justify the idea of Christian “Manifest Destiny” where the “superior” race takes the resources of the “inferior” race for proper management and utilization. Whatever the case, it is time for the U.S. population as a whole to take responsibility for upholding the Equal and Civil Rights for all ethnic groups and desist from the insulting perpetuation of these stereotypes. My grandfather is Jim Thorpe, and I have been interviewed regarding the issue of racial sports stereotyping. I don’t think it is done maliciously – I think many times, as in the case of the Washington Redskins, the name is given to indicate athleticism and prowess. But at the end of the day, this behavior is offensive to NAs and should be discontinued as people become more informed. Thank you for your efforts to educate, which will surely help alleviate this unfortunate situation.

    Teresa Thorpe/Sac & Fox – Oklahoma

  • im

    Wow. I just don’t know what to say.
    As a child, my best friend was in Indian Princesses, and I thought it was fairly normal. Although I have no real knowledge of how they ran it, It never struck me as odd, but then again I was 7. I had forgotten about the whole thing until I read this. I was floored. I had never realized how pervasive playing Indian was outside the hipster/headdress set. It made me question the annual elementary school First Thanksgiving play, with paper bag vest and paper feather hats.