My sister and I were both in Indian Princesses as children. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar. It was a father-daughter bonding experience where the father-daughter units within your immediate park district would join together and call themselves a tribe. Your tribe picked a real tribe to mimic and then you all went on camping trips with other tribes in your Nation. We were the Navajo, from the Iroquois Nation, and our mascot, if you will, was a totem pole. There were activities common to camping- fires, ghost stories, a haunted cabin around halloween- and there were activities that were assumedly common to Native Americans- fires, ghost stories, dream catcher weaving… All of this is so deeply incorrect that delving into it would be exhausting. The internet was still developing, we had dial up. It took too much effort to discover something authentic. Through some investigative research (a ten second google) I’ve discovered that the program is run by the YMCA. Yes. Is run. How the program continues to be run today, unchanged, is inexplicable. Although now the cultural dismissal makes a little more sense. It’s somewhat alarming to discover this was and is currently a nation wide program instead of a midwesterner’s misguided attempts to force relationships between father and daughter through careless bigotry.
When I was home over the holidays, my sister and I brought up how strange the program was to my mother. She inevitably assumed we were suggesting something ugly or calling her racist. I don’t think we were. It’s just that we don’t know anyone else who participated in Indian Princesses, and explaining it to strangers is hard because there’s no easy way to do it without sounding like Christopher Columbus. The chief of our tribe wore a headdress, stuck out his belly, and danced around fires for us, making exactly the noise you’re imagining/cringing at in your head right now. And while I don’t remember many details about the program, it played a large part in my childhood. Indian Princesses quite literally marked me, and for almost a decade after a camping trip accident I had a small white scar on my forehead. I got my first summer job from a guy I knew through the program. Indian Princesses is the most time I spent with my father as a child, it’s where I learned how to fight with girls, how to choose friends who weren’t in my immediate grade, what going through a divorce looked like. Unlike Girl Scouts or little league, there wasn’t any grand lesson Indian Princesses was trying to depart. It was just a thing our mother signed us up for to get the house to herself one weekend a month. That’s what my sister and I were marveling at. The innate meaninglessness of a well intentioned and racist thing that we did for five years. We were looking for a how and a why that don’t exist.