Native American culture has long been part of youth organizations in the United States. The Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and YMCA Indian Guides and Princesses placed a generic form of “Indian lore” at the center of their program. Uniforms and insignia were said to be derived from Indian traditions.
The Girl Scouts also embraced Native American culture, but the movement never incorporated Native motifs in its uniforms, structure, or vocabulary. Instead, emphasis was placed on developing the Native American girl. A Girl Scout troop was established at the Onondaga reservation, near Syracuse New York, as early as 1921—before the Girl Scout movement’s 10th anniversary.
Girl Scouts for Native Americans
But she was also deeply interested in the welfare of Native Americans. She chaired the Washington DC chapter of the Association on American Indian Affairs. She persuaded leaders of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to establish Girl Scout troops at the various residential Indian schools across the United States. In her autobiography, Mrs. Brooke argued that “the friendships and skills of scouting might prove a valuable help in their final adjustment.”
The first residential troop was established at the Indian Boarding School in Pawnee, Oklahoma, in 1930. Six years later, 1,200 Native American girls across 17 states were registered as Girl Scouts.
The controversial Indian Residential School Program used coercive, even violent, techniques to rid their students of their “savage ways” so they could become productive members of mainstream [that is, White] society.
What, exactly, was the “adjustment” sought by Mrs. Brooke? Many early accounts mention using Girl Scouts to help assimilation.
“The modern Indian girl is faced with the necessity of making the difficult transition from the old Indian way of living to a modified form of our own civilization.”Leader (May 1932)
But my preliminary research suggests that the Girl Scouts may have subtly pushed back against some aspects of the residential school concept.
While remote residential schools kept their students away from local children their own age, residential Girl Scout troops often interacted with local community troops.
“Their joint meetings with other troops of the city and invitations to participate in picnics brought a real feeling of sisterhood between them and the other Girl Scouts. They were proud of being Girl Scouts, of doing their part, and of being able to bring to other troops contributions from their own tribes.”Leader (June 1939)
Four residential girls and their troop leader attended a White summer camp near Roswell NM in 1930. While the visitors were shy at first, they soon were teaching beading techniques to other campers.
In 1938, a Cherokee Girl Scout, Mayme Thompson, was part of a five-girl delegation selected to visit Our Chalet, the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide center in Switzerland.
The Girl Scouts organized residential summer camps for troops based at the residential schools, beginning in Oklahoma in 1933. This was a new option. The residential schools did not allow students to return home during summers; instead, they were sent away to be farm hands and housekeepers, with their “wages” generating income for the schools.
Reports about these camps suggest that their methods differed from the regimented life at school. Instead of large dormitories, groups of five girls lived in screened cabins, and each day they could select from a range of camp programs. Swimming was particularly popular as few residential schools had swimming pools.
The campers were also allowed to speak their native language, with staff prepared to award Interpreter badges to the girls who helped them communicate with the camp’s Cherokee neighbors.
“Until only recently the speaking of Indian languages has been discouraged in the schools. As a result many of the girls cannot speak the dialect of their tribe. Those of the campers who could, undertook to teach salutations and other short expressions to their fellow tribesmen, to girls from other tribes, and to white staff members.”Leader (August/September 1934)
Teaching Girl Scouts about Native Americans
The Girl Scouts offered resources for all girls to learn about Native Americans. Two issues of Leader magazine (May 1932 and August/September 1934) devoted to “American Indian Girl Scouts” sold out completely. The magazine also offered lists of helpful books written and published by other organizations. While Leader suggested troops learn about Indian designs and plant “Indian gardens,” Indian-themed activities were largely confined to camps.
One suggested manual, Indian and Camp Handicraft, was noted for its
“simplified instructions for constructing 30 projects of special interest to boys and girls at camp. It includes such articles as an Indian wigwam, peace pipes, ceremonial bow and arrows, moccasins, snowshoes, treasure chests, hollow-log birdhouses, each historically authentic and reduced to the abilities and equipment limitations of the average camp.”
Girl Scouts of the USA has offered badges on Native American culture in the past. During the Council’s Own badge era, many councils offered badges focused on native populations in their area.
The Girl Scouts have not faced the backlash over cultural appropriation that the Boy Scouts, Campfire, and YMCA have. These organizations have taken steps to tone down their Native American references, with varying degrees of success.
The YMCA voted to retool their Indian Guide and Indian Princess programs into “Adventure Guides” in 2003. The Camp Fire Girls, now simply Campfire, also toned down its claimed cultural references.
Boy Scouts have modified portions of their especially offensive Order of the Arrow honors program, but Native American groups say they have not gone far enough. Boy Scouts still offer an Indian Lore badge.
Girl Scouts of the USA has a Native American heritage patch program for November, as do several councils.
This post is merely an introduction to a fascinating and under-studied topic: Girl Scouts and the Indian Residential Schools. I look forward to probing deeper and broader—what about Boy Scout troops at the schools? What about troops on reservations? Were summer camps always segregated? How did programming change after the residential school system was abolished? Did Girl Guides have a similar program in Canada?
So many questions!!
©2022 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian