This post is a follow-up to “Calling out Myself,” where I introduce the Indian Princesses and other prevalent stereotypes of American Indians. This post goes into more of the history and controversy that led to the YMCA changing the name of the program. The first post can be read here.

Like many “progressive” movements of the early 20th century, from 1926 to 2002, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sponsored a program of fake American Indian ceremony to promote Americanism and channel the boundless energy of young boys into respect for nature and authority. Y-Indian Princesses and Guides quickly grew away from Native spirituality, replacing it with stereotypes such as war whoops and beaded fringe.

Pocahontas doesn't understand what appropriating her culture has to do with family bonding.

Pocahontas doesn’t understand what appropriating her culture has to do with family bonding.

In the late 20th century, an outcry from American Indians forced the YMCA to revamp its program to make it more culturally sensitive, but owing to the self-run nature of Y groups few changes could be enforced. Finally, the YMCA gave up and dropped the Indian theme all together, though not without backlash from people who felt that the importance of their childhood traditions outweighed the harm of playacting as members of an institutionally oppressed ethnic minority.

Indian Princesses did inspire me to learn about “my” tribe so that I escaped some of the more obvious “Indians live in teepees” stereotypes.  My region was already making efforts to eliminate offensive slang such as “how” and “squaw.” Even though, as 10-year-olds, we didn’t really know what it meant, we knew that it was much less desirable than being called a “princess.”

I think that the “princess” moniker was just as important to my spoiled upper-class tribe mates as the Indian theme. Although there is no such hierarchy as “chiefs” and “princesses” in real American Indian nations, references to princesses are extremely common in media aimed at young girls. We focused substantially less on skill building than, for instance, the Girl Scouts, and more on skits and family togetherness.

Origins of the Indian Theme in Reform Movements

According to the official YMCA press release, “chance remarks made in the early 1920’s by Ojibwa hunting guide Joe Friday to Harold Keltner, a St. Louis YMCA director, struck a responsive chord,” inspiring the two to start an Indian-themed father-son program. However, groups such as the Woodcraft Indians had been using Indian ceremony since the turn of the 20th century without even the veneer of “permission” the YMCA claimed. The first father-daughter groups appeared in 1954 and have grown to be the most popular. From the start, boys were called Guides and girls were called Princesses.

In the early 1900’s, the YMCA found itself caretaker to large numbers of newly-arrived immigrants. Along with teaching them English, connecting them with relatives and places to stay, and encouraging them to convert to Christianity, the Y placed a heavy emphasis on Americanism and integration. This was to appease the nationalist sentiment of the time and “inculcate those values and habits most rewarded in a corporate-industrial society.” (McBride) Perhaps the Indian programs existed to encourage immigrants to leave behind their old culture and take on a new American identity.

For the most part, the YMCA programs used the image of the Noble Savage, with elements of buffoonery thrown in. For example, one of my tribe’s traditions was for the chief’s daughter to throw a pie in his face at the end of his year-long term. This is not as disrespectful as it seems because the “chief” designation is a white imposition that had little to do with an Indian’s real power in the nation. According to Joseph Riverwind, “Europeans projected chiefdom onto Native Americans because they could not easily conceive of people living in a civil society without permanent formal rank”. They also focused their economic persuasion on the proclaimed chief, since getting one person’s permission to buy land was a lot easier than getting the whole tribe’s.

Backlash and Changes

As early as the 1970’s, American Indian activists were calling the YMCA’s programs offensive. The national Y responded by forming a task force to examine the theme. According to Arnie Collins, spokesman for YMCA national headquarters in Chicago, “It wasn’t meant as a gimmick. Its intention was always to honor Native Americans in their traditions” (Kamb). Some YMCAs changed their regulations to eliminate inappropriate use of sacred feathers and headbands, as well as derogatory slang (Kamb). But the mimicry at the heart of the program remained.

Appropriately for an organization with a weak central hierarchy, the YMCA floundered around for a while figuring out how to answer the charges. At first, they dropped “Indian” from the program name but kept the theme. Then they dropped the Native theme altogether, but didn’t inform the groups or give them an alternative, so the change had little effect. Finally, the YMCA changed the guidelines to reflect the wishes of American Indians and at the same time developing the “Adventurers” program for groups who felt it would be too difficult to implement a program that satisfied both American Indians and Guide/Princess participants.

Some American Indians thought that the Y-Guides had a positive side for Indians, but all of them also stated that immediate and sweeping changes would have to be made in order for that benefit to be realized.  Other American Indians believe that no imitation, no matter how accurate or respectful, should be allowed.  Opponents of the programs ask why American Indian stereotypes are still accepted, when, “if we had a program called ‘Y-African American- or Jew-Guides,’ we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.” (Kamb)

One of the reasons families were originally so adamant about keeping the Indian theme is that it has created ties between generations. According to Kamb, “Y-Guides have bridged generations as sons and daughters who once donned feathers and beads return to the program with their own kids. Some former Indian Princesses have even been known to wear their program vests over wedding gowns.” To me, the cabin atmosphere at camps actually furthered childish backstabbing, not family togetherness, becoming in Macleod’s words “a way to ritualize hazing”.

I actually think that the new YMCA guidelines do a good job respecting American Indians’ spirituality, tribal sovereignty, and modern lives. The paper Respectful Use of the Native American Theme suggests setting up partnerships with local tribes in order to learn what they are really like, perhaps even extending to hosting fundraisers for the tribes. It also encourages extensive research on one’s specific tribe, field trips to museums or reservations, choosing appropriate games and crafts, avoiding items with religious context, and constantly monitoring the program to make sure it is not falling back on stereotypical images. The paper makes the point that “children have no frame of reference other than what we share with them.” I think that Indian Princesses raised the issue of the oppression of First Nations people for me, but the tension remains – is encouraging identification with an American Indian identity worth running the risk of perpetuating oppression?

So, what now?

I came into this project expecting to defend the Y-Indian Princesses program, since I have many fond memories of it. However, some of those memories are now rather embarrassing. My tribe made almost no effort to authenticate our behavior or contact our tribe. Everything I learned about my “tribe” came from my own reading. I have this memory of walking the wooden stage at camp, my hands outstretched into the symbol of a bird, enacting the Coast Salish legend of “Raven Swallowing the Sun” with only my dad because everyone else wanted to do skits involving slapstick comedy, broad stereotypes, and something they had seen on TV.

Current YMCA parent/child organizations run the gamut. Some have kept the Indian theme and incorporated more contact with, and research about, their tribes. A lot have switched to Adventure Guides and Princesses. It’s hard to tell what the official YMCA policy is, but Adventure Princesses seem to be more heavily represented in The Googles than gender-nonspecific Adventure Guides.

Think about the recent outcry against Disney’s redesign of the spunky princess Merida, from Brave, to fit their princess archetype: curvy, sparkly, and not armed.This great quote from Brenda Chapman, Brave’s writer and co-director, sums it up: “Because of marketing, little girls gravitate toward princess products, so my goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn’t be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess. Instead they’d be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’” (

This problem is not the problem that Merida has

This problem is not the problem that Merida has

We may see little girls saying “I want to be a princess” and take them at their word, but what’s really going on here? Is it, perhaps, that they haven’t been told they could want to be anything else? 


Kamb, L. (2003) Y Programs Shed Indian Trappings Now Deemed Racist. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Lewis, Orrin. (n.d.) Ten Cultural Respect Guidelines for Teachers/Parents of Young People.

Macleod, D. I. (1983). Building Character in the American Boy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

McBride, P. (1975). Culture Clash: Immigrants and Reformers. San Francisco: R & E Research Associates.

Riverwind, J. The Basic Indian Stereotypes. (2004).