Ojibwe Mother Fights to Improve the La Grange YMCA

Andrea Barnwell fighting local YMCA

Andrea Barnwell fighting local YMCA

Published October 17, 2015

“We need to believe that evil people know they’re evil, or else that would open the door to the fact that we might be evil without knowing it.” – David Wong

LA GRANGE, ILLINOIS — Earlier this year, Andrea Barnwell (White Earth Ojibwe) and her children moved from Chicago to the suburb of La Grange, Illinois, hoping for better opportunities. Shortly thereafter, she was confronted with a previously unknown situation that challenges a system of thinking so many American Indians have seen time and again, to either stay silent and ignore the consequences or confront a program that is a staple in this community.

Her local YMCA offers a program designed to strengthen the bond between fathers and daughters entitled Indian Guides and Princesses. All this is from the intentions of people to promote good values and spend quality-bonding time through American Indian values and practices. Hypothetically, this all sounds wholesome and tolerant, teaching children to respect and understand various American Indian cultures and their communities as contemporary peoples.

And then, this happens… Comanche Cheer set to “Who Let the Dogs Out”

“I have looked up the information on the Indian Princesses and I find it to be extremely racist and offensive,” Barnwell wrote in an email to YMCA officials. “The participants dress in Native American [costumes], call themselves names based on real tribes, and drum and (chant) in a style they deem to be Native American.”

PTF_Patch_Trans (1)The problem is that this group truly believes they’re doing a great service for these kids, the community, and—let’s face it—history. Unfortunately, many non-American Indians developed the mentality that it is up to them to perpetuate the “mystique” and antiquity of America’s indigenous peoples. The Indian Guides and Princesses program comes from another parent-child program developed in the 1920s by Joe Friday (First Nations Ojibway) and later adopted by the Prairie Trail Federation, which consists of over 3,000 members and ninety-two “tribes.” Originally designed to develop father/son wilderness survival skills, the program shifted to incorporate father/daughter camping activities and ceremonies by concentrating on American Indian themes.

Barnwell went on to say, “I think this sets a bad precedent for what kids learn about Native American culture, and it makes me sad to think that dads are teaching their children it’s OK to patronize and (caricature) other cultures.”

Perhaps what makes American Indians seem more appealing or mystical is because few people take the time to get to know anyone from the 568 federally recognized tribes; otherwise, this built up image of the Indian collapses once it’s realized they are just people.

A similar group known as the National Longhouse, Ltd., a nonprofit with Christian-based ideology, attempt to justify this sort of cultural adoption by drawing spiritual parallels. According to the National Longhouse, Ltd. Program Manual:

The “First Nation” theme adds mystique and helps to keep the programs visually interesting to the short attention span of young children. Besides serving as a common level of interest between parent and child, the theme is useful as an educational tool for the casual introduction to the cultures of our continent’s indigenous people (p. 3).

As much as this group claims or encourages its participants to consult tribal members and do their own research, it’s unclear how much they enforce these volunteers to adhere to such guidelines. The manual alone focuses primarily on a set period of time such as pre-European contact by showcasing hand-drawn stereotypical imagery of indigenous items, dwellings, very few of which are labeled as belonging to a specific tribe, which feeds into the ideology of the “pan-Indian.”

In the early 2000s, the National YMCA put a stop to the Indian Guides and Princesses programs due to the condemnation by various tribes and the consequential diminishing funding sources. Instead, they offered an alternative entitled Adventure Guides and Princesses. Similarly with this program, fathers and mothers (guides) participate in outdoor and self-esteem enriching activities with their sons or daughters (explorers) and aim to build a sense of community without the Indian element. The Prairie Trail Federation, however, refuse to adopt this alternative feeling that they are in the right and this somehow discredits the original program theme.

Dressing as another culture is an issue that continues to baffle American Indians everywhere and seemingly no matter how many complaints or protests occur, someone is not getting the message. The best way to honor American Indians is to actually listen to them, go beyond just hearing the words and show common courtesy. A simple rule to follow, it’s not a good idea to put on a “costume” that represents a group of people’s genetics. Appreciate the many different American Indian cultures by going to their public events, their activities and workshops, their art shows and their concerts; don’t leave it up to the imitators.

To learn more information, send your questions or comments to the Prairie Trail Federation at fed.chief@yigp.org and to the La Grange YMCA at 708-352-7600 or email kbosco@ymcachicago.org by November 1, 2015.

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