YMCA 'Indian' Program Drawing Fire

Critics of a 75-year-old YMCA program that uses American Indian themes to foster bonds between parents and children say the program demeans Indian cultures.

As many as 250,000 parents and children nationwide take part in the Y-Indian Guide Program, organizing themselves in neighborhood tribes to make crafts, tell stories and participate in annual camp-outs. Some participants sport feather headdresses and face paint and greet each other with a burlesque "How-How" at meetings.

"They are breeding grounds for racism," said American Indian Movement spokesman Vernon Bellecourt of the YMCA groups. "It dehumanizes the whole culture of living, breathing human beings."

The Florida chapter of AIM said it is considering a lawsuit against the YMCA in that state to halt the use of Indian themes. No legal action has been taken yet.

YMCA organizers acknowledge parts of the program are outdated, but argue that scrapping it altogether would mean losing an opportunity for families to learn more about themselves and American Indians.

"What we need to strive for is more education," said Chet Ossowski, a family program coordinator with the Newport Beach YMCA.

The Chicago-based YMCA said it will re-evaluate the program, begun in 1926.

Program officials responded to protests in 1992 by issuing recommendations stressing a more accurate portrayal of American Indian history and customs.

Not all local programs have taken the message to heart. Joe Peele, program director at the Raleigh, N.C., YMCA, said a proposal to get rid of the "How-How" greeting met with strong resistance.

Even a revamped program could remain offensive to some, however.

"Sometimes, culture can be reduced so all that is left is the image and no content," said Paul Apodaca, a professor of American Indian history at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. "That is what the Native Americans are complaining about. They are saying, 'We are still here.'"