When Molly Meyerson was in kindergarten and joined the YMCA’s Indian Guides, her uncle gave her the Indian Princess patch he had received 20 years earlier when he and his daughter participated in the program.
The tender moment demonstrated to Barry Meyerson, Molly’s father, how the Indian Guides tradition had been passed from generation to generation. Many dads now in Indian Guides were involved as kids with their own fathers, sharing campfires, carving Pinewood Derby cars and learning about American Indian culture.
But earlier this year, the YMCA’s national organization decided to change the program’s name to “Adventure Guides” and remove all references to Indians from guidebooks and activities. There would be no more meeting invitations in the shape of little tepees, no more petty cash called “wampum,” and no more greeting others with “How How.”
While YMCA officials say the name change was not a reaction to Native Americans offended by the Indian theme, an executive board member for the American Indian Movement said hundreds of tribes, American Indian organizations and non-Indian organizations have taken a position that programs and sports teams should stop using American Indian themes and mascots.
“The YMCA is to be congratulated on their very thoughtful decision. They obviously got the message,” said Vernon Bellecourt, American Indian Movement executive board member and president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media.
Indian Guides, he said, is one of several nationwide children’s programs that are “literally incubators. They take the minds of children and engrain superficial images of the Indian people, like we don’t exist anymore. It victimizes all children.”
Four years ago, the Florida chapter of the American Indian Movement threatened to sue YMCA programs in that state for using American Indian themes, but no lawsuit was filed, said Bellecourt, a member of the Anishinabe-Ojibwe Nation.
Barbara Taylor, senior consultant for program development for the YMCA of the USA, said the new name came about because “America is changing and we need to reflect that.”
The policy change was also an effort to update the program and boost membership, which has declined steadily since the late-1980s, she said. “This was an opportunity to revive the program, make it more creative and add new stuff.”
Meyerson, now in his fifth year in Indian Guides with Molly, now 9, and his son, Warner, 6, said he’s not against the change, but he doesn’t understand its necessity. He said his tribe, in Ventura County’s Oak Park community, respects the Indian culture.
“I just see [the program] as promoting the Indian culture,” said Meyerson, a computer exporter. The change “is much ado about nothing.”
The changes, which will take place nationwide, mean that small parent-child “tribes” would become “circles,” the “chief” would be called the “navigator,” and the “sachem” would become the “compass bearer.”
The director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission said he was pleased with the changes. If the meaning of American Indian customs is not understood, or distinctions are not made between the different tribes’ customs, feelings can get hurt, said Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Indian Tribe.
“We have a specific reason for feathers.... Men can’t sing certain songs until they are taught the procedure.... Not all of us have tomahawks,” Andrade said.
“I support fathers and sons being together,” he said, “but there is a chance that certain children in the Indian community will become hurt by this.”
The Indian Guides program grew out of Canadian hunting and fishing trips taken in the 1920s by then-St. Louis YMCA Director Harold S. Keltner and his guide, Joe Friday, an Ojibwe Indian. Chatting around a campfire one night, Friday contrasted Anglo and American Indian parenting styles.
“The Indian father raises his son. He teaches his son to hunt, to track, to fish, to walk softly and silently in the forest, to know the meaning and purpose of life and all he must know, while the white man allows the mother to raise his son,” Friday said, according to the 1997 Y-Indian participant’s manual.
Keltner asked Friday to speak to St. Louis fathers and sons who, they discovered, had an interest in American Indian traditions.
The Indian Guides concept was born, based on the “strong qualities of American Indian culture and life -- dignity, patience, endurance, spirituality, harmony with nature and concern for the family,” according to the manual.
The first father-son tribe was organized in 1926 in Richmond Heights, Mo. Other programs were later established, including Y-Indian Maidens for mothers and daughters, Y-Indian Princesses for fathers and daughters, Y-Indian Braves for mothers and sons and Y-Papoose for mothers or fathers and their preschool-age child. Most programs are for children in kindergarten through third grade, although this varies among local YMCAs.
Indian Guides programs grew steadily, with membership peaking in the 1970s, with more than 250,000 children and parents participating.
But by the late-1980s, interest began to wane. Participation dropped nationwide from 630 programs in 1994 to 471 last year, with about 160,000 kids and parents.
“This speaks to how Ys were feeling about the relevance of the program,” said Arnold Collins, a spokesman for YMCA of the USA.
Indicating a desire to change the program’s theme, the national YMCA directors voted in September 2001 to drop the word Indian from the name, calling it simply Y-Guides. But several local YMCAs and participants, whether by choice or habit, continued to use the “Indian Guides” name.
In January, the national office announced the program would officially be renamed “Adventure Guides” and that a new manual -- minus the Indian theme -- would be issued in late summer.
Already, 940 Adventure Guides information kits have been sent to local YMCAs. Nationally, more than half of the local branches adopted Adventure Guides this fall, with the rest expected to make the transition next year.
Some have accepted the change enthusiastically. The Simi Valley Family YMCA’s float in the annual Simi Valley Days Parade this fall had an “Adventure Guides” banner, for example.
Others have been more reluctant. The Agoura Hills-based Triunfo YMCA plans to make the change next year.
“I get a good sense that, while some people are not elated that the transition is being made, they will go along with it. They are fair-minded people who understand that the [social] climate precipitates change,” Executive Director Paul Parzik said.
While the Indian theme will be missing, YMCA officials say the program’s original purpose remains.
“The program is about cultivating family relationships and developing positive character values,” Parzik said. “We’re getting in a different vehicle but going to the same place.”
Steve Mott, executive director of the Simi Valley Family YMCA, agreed: “It’s still about the significance of time spent with parents and youngsters.”