Why I Loved Being a YMCA Indian Guide (Even Though It Was Pretty Racist)

Basically, unlike the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, the YMCA Indian Guides thought that boys and girls should play together -- and that if there were gender-specific themes in their crafts and games, that it would be up to the child to decide if he or she wanted to conform to it or not.
Publish date:
June 6, 2012
sexism, racism, girl scouts, indian guides

Hi! This is me holding a flashlight (I have three in my room) and a silver dagger (I have two in my room).

I hated being a Girl Scout.

I realize that when most people say they hated doing some activity as a child, they’re probably being overdramatic. They’re probably forgetting the valuable friendships they forged and life lessons they learned. I’ll admit that when I say “I hated field hockey,” what I mean is I hated sweating during the cardiovascular workouts and feeling sore the next day when I had to do it all again. I liked being on a team and I liked my teammates.

When I say that I hated being a Girl Scout, I mean that every single memory of my one year of being a Brownie fills me with rage.

When you’re seven years old, you shouldn’t be able to point out to your mother the ways in which an organization is sexist, but I could. I remember when we went to the scout section of Woolworths to pick up my Brownie swag. I passed mess kits and swiss army knives and books about surviving in the wild.

My mom pushed me past those, explaining, “Oh, those for the Boy Scouts.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well…I don’t know. They go camping in the woods.”

“But we’re supposed to go camping in the woods, too,” I retorted.

As it turns out camping in the woods when you’re a Brownie meant staying in a fancy lodge overnight. We were taught to avoid poison ivy and how to make lanyards, which are useful in the wild, but not as helpful as how to read a compass or make fire.

It wasn’t just the camping, though. For my mathematics badge, I had to guess the amount of jelly beans in a jar. That’s all. That was my mathematics and accounting badge.

Oh, and because I started Brownies in the third grade (because we were supposed to move when I was in first grade, but then my father suddenly passed away, so we didn’t do anything at all new while I was in second grade), the girls … well … there’s no other way to say it except to say the girls were very mean to me for no better reason than they knew they could be. It wasn’t my first experience with catty girl behavior, but it was my first time experiencing it in an environment that was touted as being “supportive” to young women.

I’m not saying all Girl Scout troops were like this, but the one I was involved with was. The reason why I’m talking so long about how much I personally hated this particular band of Girl Scouts is so I can explain the reasons why I loved being a YMCA Indian Guide*.

So, yeah…about the YMCA Indian Guides.

There’s no other way to put this than to fully admit up top that as a youth organization founded in the early 20th century by white people, it’s…um…racist.

Of course, it’s not racist in the nefarious “Let’s deny Native American their lands, lives and civil liberties” sort of way. It’s racist in that “Let’s encourage suburban white kids to wear feather headdresses and beat drums and call themselves ‘Indians’” sort of way.

I would love to say that as a fourth grader, I was completely innocent to the abhorrent racial stereotyping that the Indian Guides encouraged. Except I wasn’t.

Just as I was preternaturally sensitive to the Boy Scout/Girl Scout inequities in Woolworths, I remember feeling incredible unease as my mother handed me my feather headband, my felt “corn calendar” and gushed that soon we’d have to give ourselves “Native American” names.

“Um, are we allowed to do that? We’re not Indian. We’re Irish,” I asked her, sitting cross legged on her bedroom floor.

“Of course! It’s part of being an Indian Guide!”

Even though I was already questioning authority, I was still at the age when I willfully accepted authority’s simple answers. So, I gleefully dressed up like a Native American, named myself “Dancing Moon” and showed up to my first powwow. I say I did this all “gleefully,” because it was really a lot of fun.

I got to spend time with a group of boys and one other awesome, spunky girl where I was allowed to explore whatever I wanted. We went on nature hikes and looked at arrowheads, watched films and made homemade popcorn and did a variety of crafts that boys and girls could enjoy.

My most vivid memory of being an Indian Guide was the very first powwow my mother and I attended. One parent and child has to organize the night for everyone else. That night the father organizing the crafts knew ahead of time that two girls would be in attendance. He had planned on just teaching the boys how to stamp leather so he got a bunch of plain leather bracelets and stamps. He also added few coin purses with ornate floral stamps for me and the other girl.

The thing I’ll never forget was that he gave us girls the choice of doing what the boys were doing, doing the fancy feminine version of the project, or both. I did both and came home with a sweet leather bracelet that I’d stamped and a flowery coin purse. I can’t honestly remember if any of the boys protested or wanted to make a purse as well (I think one of them might have), but I don’t think it would have been a problem.

Basically, unlike the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, the YMCA Indian Guides thought that boys and girls should play together -- and that if there were gender-specific themes in their crafts and games, that it would be up to the child to decide if he or she wanted to conform to it or not.

The bottom line of all this is that it would be great if there was some kind of organization out there that could teach boys and girls to work together while learning useful technical skills and participating in outdoor activities -- that didn’t also involve offensive cultural kitsch.

If I ever have sons or daughters, I want them to be lucky enough to be exposed to everything I was. I want them to know about battlefields and beauty products, stitching samplers and shooting guns, how to take the subway in France and how to milk a cow. And I want them to decide for themselves what interests them the most without feeling as though their passions have anything to do with gender.

*Technically, I wasn’t an Indian Guide. Technically, I was an Indian Maiden. The Indian Guides started off as a father-son bonding group, but by the end of the 20th century was open to all parent-child combinations. Indian Guides are what boys who are there with their fathers are called. A girl with her father is called an Indian Princess. Because my mom was there, I was an Indian Maiden. I’d complain about this, but it never came up within the actual group. Unlike the Girl Scouts where I was penalized for starting late and there were loads of badges and internal honors, no one in the Indian Guides really gave two flying eagle fucks about your backstory. Which is why I loved it.