Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project

For All Girls: Native American Girl Scouts


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

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project
Henrietta Bates Brooke

Readers may recognize the name Henrietta Bates Brooke (Girl Scout national president, 1937–1939) for her key role in acquiring Rockwood national camp.

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.

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project
Girl Scouts at Thomas Indian School in New York 1934

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

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project

“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.”

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project
Wood (1938-1963); renamed Indian Lore (1963-1980); Native Peoples of the USA (1980-1994); and American Indian Lore (1987-1997)

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.

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project
Collection of Native American themed Council’s Own badges

Cultural Appropriation?

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.

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project
BSA Indian Lore Badge

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.

Native American Girl Scouts, Girl Scout History Project
Native American Heritage Patch

Girl Scouts of the USA has a Native American heritage patch program for November, as do several councils.

Future Research

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

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Ann Robertson

Ann Robertson is a writer, editor and Girl Scout historian.

5 thoughts on “For All Girls: Native American Girl Scouts”

  1. In 1970, I was one of five Girls Scouts representing North Carolina who got to go to a Wider Opportunity in Ames, Iowa, at Camp Sacajawea. The entire program was on different Native American tribes. We were sent instructions and patterns for making our own tribal outfits to bring with us to camp. We heard wonderful lectures from local Native Americans and took part in pow wows, learned beading, built hogans and tipis, etc. It was a wonderful experience. I recently sent my scrapbook and tribal outfit to the archivist at the GS National Headquarters. I can send you some photos if you are interested.

  2. Ann, Thank you for your informative post. This was a topic I didn’t know much about. I am fairly familiar with the Indian Residential School Program but not GSUSA and Native American Girl Scouts.

  3. Another very informative article as usual; however, it should be noted that the “Native People of the U.S.A” badge shown above was in use from 1990 to 1994 only, not 1980-94. It was one of the new badges introduced in 1990 as part of the overhaul of the Worlds to Explore program at the Junior level. After only 4 years in use it was discontinued and replaced with “Now and Then: Stories from Around the World.” The Collector’s Guide, 2nd ed., notes that the change was made because the latter badge was considered more inclusive and would “enable girls to enjoy activities that would help them to gain greater insights into a variety of cultures including Native American.” I was a volunteer manager of a regional badge depot for GS of San Francisco Bay Area at the time and remember being surprised at the decision to discontinue that badge after only 4 years, given the work that goes into developing new recognitions. GSUSA must have received feedback that made them reconsider but the details were never made public to my knowledge.

  4. Councils and GS properties should Acknowledge when they are conducting programs on Historic. Indigenous Land and what Peoples Lands.

    I live in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s
    Usual and Accustomed Territory in
    SW Washington State.

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