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Y-Indian Princesses and Y-Guides: Ten Cultural Respect Guidelines

It's with mixed feelings that I hear the YMCA has chosen to end its Y-Indian Princess program. I do think it would have been better to fix what was racist about the program rather than throwing the whole thing out entirely. Youth groups are a good opportunity for constructive dialogue and teaching children about another culture, which is too often swept under the carpet in our country today. On the other hand, changing the program to be more culturally respectful might have entailed more work, expense, and argument with members than the YMCA wanted to deal with, and I certainly commend them for caring about our feelings enough to do something, even if it isn't necessarily the solution I would have chosen.

At any rate, I am going to leave my suggested guidelines for cultural respect up on this page now regardless, because other groups and schools do continue to use Indian-themed play for teaching. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it should be done with sensitivity to the fact that American Indians are real people with a living culture. It is too easy for parents and educators to ignore anything inconvenient about us, trying to use us only as a tool for education or entertainment. Many parent leaders from the YMCA who I tried to contact about making some changes to their program were interested and respectful, but many others were hostile, telling me to mind my own business, get a life, or, most telling, that they do not want to teach their children about Indians today because modern Indians live in dirty, poor, crime-ridden places (and these were members of a Christian organization!) The guidelines I suggested to the YMCA, and which at least some chapters wrote to tell me they were incorporating, may still be of use to teachers or parents trying to interest children in history in other contexts.

Wado, thank you for your time.

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Ten Cultural Respect Guidelines For Teachers/Parents Of Young People

1) Avoid talking about Indians only in the past tense. American Indian history is interesting, but Indians are still alive today, too.

2) Indians from different tribes and nations may have some things in common, like a reverence for family and nature, but they do not all speak the same language, have the same traditions, or wear the same clothes, any more than all European people do. Use the Internet or some good books about Native Americans to learn about the tribe you are studying. Not all Indians lived in tepees. Not all Indians wear the same traditional clothes or headdresses. As much as possible, learn about one complete culture, not a hodge-podge.

3) Be sensitive to the difference between learning about a culture and mocking it. Every culture has some aspects which are fun and acceptable to copy, and others which are rude and racist. If you had a Chinese club, for example, you might learn some Chinese words, listen to Chinese folktales, have a stir-fry, or wear some old-fashioned wooden Chinese shoes. But you would not tape your eyes to be slanted, talk in broken English like "Me likey flied lice!", and mimic Buddhist religious rituals. For American Indians, cultural activities which are fun and not offensive include: reading books about Indians, learning an Indian language, listening to Indian music, attending Indian dances and cultural festivals, making Indian food (such as frybread), making non-religious Indian crafts (such as beadwork), reading, listening to, or telling Indian stories and legends, playing traditional Indian games. Cultural activities which are hurtful and inappropriate include: painting faces, mimicking Indian traditional dances (most of which are religious in nature), making war whoops, war dances, or playing at war, using broken English for "Indian Talk" ("me likeum frybread"), or pretending to BE Indian. We know it is a fine distinction, but if you teach your child to say "I'm a Cherokee" when she is not, you will confuse her and devalue what it means to be Cherokee. You wouldn't tell your child in the French club that she was French. Instead, teach her to say "I'm a Y-Indian Princess from the Cherokee chapter. We learn all about Cherokees."

4) Plains Indian Sign Language is fun to learn, and many Indian people could understand this sign language. However, each tribe had a normal, spoken language as well. Learn a little about this language. (You can look at our site, Native Languages of the Americas, for a starting point for Indian languages.) It's easy and fun to learn to say "Hello," "Goodbye," and "Thank you" in any Indian language, and it's more authentic and less insulting than saying "How How." For older kids, the Lord's Prayer has been translated into most Indian languages. Some languages, like Cree and Cherokee, have their own interesting writing systems, which are fun for kids to learn. Audio and video tapes of many Indian languages are also available, such as the Arapaho-language version of Disney's Bambi.

5) Find the tribal office of the Indians whose name you are using and ask them for information or if they are interested in a cultural exchange program. Many tribes will provide you with information, free or for a small charge. If you are nearby, a reservation makes a very good outing. If you are not, you may be able to arrange a penpal for your children on the reservation of your tribal namesake. This is a fun way to learn about another culture!

6) If you are arranging an event with Indians from a tribe other than your namesake tribe, discuss differences between the two tribes with the children in advance. Before you meet any Indians, talk to your kids about modern Indian life so that they do not go into the meeting asking Indians if they know how to use toilets or something similarly offensive! (Laura's "tribe" was very rude to an older Lenni Lenape woman who came to talk to her group when she was a girl because the chapter parents didn't do this.)

7) When you choose special nicknames for fathers and daughters, avoid naming yourselves after historical Indians. In many Indian traditions, it is disrespectful or even sacrilegious to use a name that belongs to somebody else without permission. Invented names like "Princess Pretty Rainbow" or "Chief Falls-Off-His-Horse" may not be very authentically Indian, but neither are they cultural thievery, as "Sacagawea" or "Crazy Horse" would be.

8) Avoid making comments implying that Indians are less intelligent, more violent, or less civilized than white Americans. Comparing "wild Indians" with sophisticated modern Americans is not fair--white frontiersmen of the past were pretty wild, too, and modern-day Indians use computers and go to school just like your kids do. Avoid talking broken English to "imitate" Indians. Avoid the word "squaw," it was a frontier word for a prostitute and is not a good way to refer to any Indian woman *or* to your children's mothers!

9) If you have a website, encourage visitors to learn more about the real Indians by putting up a page with information on your namesake tribe's culture and history (a good project to involve your children in,) and/or links to your namesake's tribal homepage and other informative sites.

10) When you do charity events, consider an event that will raise money for the American Indian College Fund, or for a charity benefiting poor people in your namesake tribe--you can write to them and ask for suggestions. They are helping you--help them back!

Further reading:

Here are a few good books to help kids learn about Native Americans in appropriate and respectful ways:
(Our organization earns a commission from any book bought through these links)

Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes: Excellent reference book of past and present information about the
culture groups of native North America.
Of Earth and Elders: A wonderful collection of photographs and interviews from Native Americans.
The Birchbark House: Well-written kids' historical fiction about an Ojibway girl growing up in Laura Ingalls Wilder's time.
Jingle Dancer: A wonderful picture book for younger kids about a Creek girl preparing for a traditional dance.
Echoes of the Night: Audiotape recording of traditional Native American tales by an Abenaki Indian storyteller.

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