Friday, November 18, 2011

A Hand To Hold Onto

Or: "What I Remember From Indian Princesses."

When I was little, I was in something called Indian Princesses. It was a program put on through the YMCA to help build father/daughter relationships, and the glue that tied it together was a Native American theme.

I decided to write this post because I can't seem to find anything online about Indian Princesses, except a few remedial articles arguing the racial issues behind it. So I've written what I remember. Partly for posterity and partly so that people can tell me what the hell was going on. I was six, afterall.


The program was something like this: fathers and daughters got together once a month in a small group. They were assigned a specific tribe name--ours was the Winnebago. There were also the Sioux, Cree, get the picture. Each tribe had their own costume. They were totally which I mean they were not at all authentic. Our costume had jeans with bright red fringe running up the sides, a white turtleneck, and a rectangular red poncho. With more fringe.

The tribes gathered to discuss their lives, made simple crafts, that kind of thing. Then a few times a year, all the tribes would get together for a weekend retreat and do father/daughter activities together, all to varying degrees of Native American themes (which I'll get into later.)

A little history: Indian Princess actually started with Indian Guides, a father/son program formed in 1926. For your point of reference, the Indian Guides were featured in the 1995 JTT classic film, "Man of The House".

So to make sure we're all on the same page:
Father/son: Indian Guides.
Father/daughter: Indian Princesses.
Mother/daughter: Indian Maidens (which I learned about while researching.)

We won't get into the gender implications of these names, but suffice it to say...this was not a PC program. And I apologize for my liberal use of "Indian" over "Native American", but that was its name. Apparently the program is still running, but in a new form called "Adventure Guides" and "Adventure Princesses" and without the Native American themes. But this was how things were, as late as the 1990s when I was involved. In fact, according to the interwebs, the "Indian" theme didn't end until 2003. Was it racist? Absolutely. Did I know that? Absolutely not. Should our fathers have known better? Probably. But these were also men raised on Cowboys-and-Indians movies. Personally, I give them credit for going from shooting Native Americans to trying to honor them. I'm glad it's been changed, but I think of Indian Princesses like a Michael Scott lecture: good intentions...but somehow Tom Hanks ends up on the wall twice and everyone feels awkward.

So those are the straight facts about Indian Princesses, but it doesn't get at what this program was all about. So I'm here to give you Indian Princesses as I remember a 6-year-old.


• Once a month, our tribe of about 8 pairs of fathers and daughters got together to...I don't remember. Talk? Draw? Eat cookies? What I'm saying is: I don't really remember what we did. I was just glad to have time with my dad and Katie. It made me feel grown up.

• We all had Native American names. I didn't like the pressure of coming up with one on my own, so I think Katie and my parents came up with it for me. My dad's name had to do with Horse, so Katie's and mine were Pony-related. Running Pony maybe? Something like that. I remember feeling like it wasn't quite the right fit for me, but was too shy to ask to change it.

• I do remember singing in a circle at the end of the meeting. We sang Taps--like the actual lyrics of Taps. We lifted our arms into the air and then back down when we sang it. It ended with the words "God is night" so I assumed it was a bedtime song. (Later, I learned the words were actually "God is nigh" and my mind was totally blown.)

• There were also sew-on badges. I think you earned them for going on retreats, unlike Boy and Girl Scouts, where you have to do stuff to earn them. So clearly this was way more awesome.


As I explained, once (or twice?) a year, all the tribes traveled to a retreat center for added bonding and fun and friendly competition (which I even hated back then). I wish I could explain these retreats better as an adult, but all I have are my memories as seen through a small child. So here is what I've got:

• Like I said, our tribe was the Winnebago. Whenever all the tribes got together during the retreats, the other girls would make fun of the name. But they didn't mock "Winnebago" because of its associations to motor homes. No, they made fun of it because it sounded like "win a bagel." I was annoyed by their mocking. Not that I was embarrassed of the name, but I didn't think it really warranted the mockery. Sure, if our tribe name was Poop or Butt or Stupid, then you can make fun of us. But bagels are delicious. What's so wrong with sounding like one? Anyway, we got them back by saying that "Cree" sounded like "pee", set, match.

• There was one big night with clearly I don't remember what that was about. Was there a bouncy castle, or am I dreaming up memories now? Someone help me out with this.

• There was a bonfire one night where we'd do faux-Native American chants and songs. At one point, the designated "chief" for the weekend would wear a big chief headdress and call up to the spirits. He'd ask the spirits to send us a sign Then he'd secretly throw something into the fire to make sparks fly. I was in total awe of this, though a little confused about what it meant for my Sunday School lessons. I am now mildly horrified by the whole thing, especially after having gone to a college whose mascot, "Chief Illiniwek", was ousted my senior year. He was criticized for his inauthenticities, such as using chicken instead of eagle feathers in his headdress. I'm pretty sure the Indian Princess chief's feathers were made of polyester and dyed fluorescent blue.

• There was a Native American-looking doll called Puddin' Face...or Puddin' Cup...Puddin' Head? I think it was Puddin' Head. I assume it was also racist. But the doll was part of a game, where you sneak into other tribe's cabins and whoever ended up with her at the end of the retreat lost. The suspense of the Puddin' Doll gave me stomach ulcers. I was terrified of her.

• One retreat had an outdoor climbing wall. The guy in charge of the wall was TOTALLY old and mature. He was in college AND he had long hair. He was studying to be an engineer. I thought that sounded fun, but I wasn't sure why all the dads thought he had to be really good at science and math just to drive a train. True facts.

• Each tribe slept in one cabin, which meant all the dads got the bottom bunks and all the girls slept in the top bunks. This. Was. Awesome. Top bunks rule and they're really exciting. The poor dads never got the top bunks. I'm sure they were very disappointed by this.

• One retreat had a rickety old toboggan that was at least 3 stories high. It was terrifying.

• During dinner, when all the tribes were in one place, the daughters would BEG their fathers to bellow out into the cafeteria, "WHO'S THE BEST TRIBE IN THE NATIOOOOONNNN?!?!?!" And then all the daughters would yell--nay--SCREAM their own tribe name. This was another very historically accurate aspect of the retreat.

• One retreat had archery. I was terrible at archery. It hurt my fingers and the string was too hard to pull. This was NOT a father/daughter bonding experience. This was a father/daughter getting increasingly frustrated experience.

• On the very last day, there was some kind of prize giveaway. There was a table with all kinds of prizes at the front that the dads would buy or make, and the girls were called up to choose a prize. I have no idea how they decided the order. One of our dads made handmade puzzles once. And one time I think we spray-painted buckets and told everyone they were chairs. One year, I took too long deciding what I wanted, panicked, and picked a bedazzled mirror. I cried the whole ride home.

And that's all I've got. I'm worried none of this made sense to anyone, or was just really boring to people who were not in the program. But hopefully there are some ladies out there whose memories are jogged. Really what I want to get across was that, despite the stereotypes of Native Americans I had to unlearn later, I'm glad it was part of my childhood. I had fun. In a family of 6, it was a time that I got to spend with just my sister and my dad. And those are the kinds of memories you learn to cherish later, even if they come with horror-inducing dolls appearing in your cabin as if from nowhere.

So?! Comment please! Tell me there were other people in Princesses or Guides who have a better memory than I do and can fill in the gaps. Specifically: Puddin' Head, The Game Night, and the Prize Table. These are my great mysteries right now.


Liketohike said...

Puddin Head. I am pretty sure. You were probably scared of it because when you found it, you had to sneak it into someone else's cabin, and if it was in your cabin at the end, you lost... something.

The prizes were based on some sort of point system, so if you had a lot of points, you were chosen first. Being unathletic, we were often low women on the totem pole, pun intended.

Also, Big Ram and Little Lamb. I'm not sure what you were--Bleating Sheep? J/K, let me know if that makes you think of it.

mom said...

It was Swift Pony. Your dad could write an entire blog-length entry about this!

Hannah said...

SOME of us never got to attend Indian Princesses. However, my one year of Brownies left me with two memories:

1) Elizabeth Pollastrini made this really sweet dried noodle picture frame

2) Mom didn't sew on all my patches (Understandably. I assume because she'd already done it with two other girls) so she got some magic glue that let her iron them on. When I got to Brownies, I started running around and they all just fell off. Elizabeth Pollastrini (AGAIN) sneered and said "Look! Hannah doesn't have ANY badges." BROWNIE HUMILIATION.