A History of Friendship between YWCA and Native Americans

A- A A+

A History of Friendship between YWCA and Native Americans

Author: Roxanne Vigil

Chilocco, Oklahoma, a remote location in the Northern Territory of the state known for housing the late Chilocco Indian Agricultural School from 1884 to 1980, is unknown to most. For YWCA’s relationship with Native Americans, however, the town is as foundational as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is to the United States of America. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, read on to learn about the history of the YWCA friendship with the Native American community and how it continues to the present day.

Chilocco is home of the first American Indian Woman Association, created in 1892. As part of their early efforts to develop relationships with Native communities, YWCA focused on local reservations. An early contributor of the historical archives, Edith M. Debb led the charge as she described YWCA’s willingness to have young Native girls be a part of the fellowship.

Her work with YWCA, scattered with the views and language of the time, highlights the foundation of YWCA’s relationship-building with Native communities. At the time, information was being gathered state by state; New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota were among the earliest states targeted to build friendships with Native communities. YWCA maintained its service toward Native communities through the development of associations within each state, maintaining contact with local Native territories and continuing to “work for programs designed to improve the economic, health, educational, social, and political status of American Indians.”

Some of these programs, later profiled in the YWCA Bulletin and Magazine, included the creation of the Y-Teen clubs at federal Native American institutions. A program which enabled correspondence and building friendships among Native Americans through YWCA youth groups which encouraged arrangements “to include Indian teenagers in their summer activities” and “planning vacations west…include[ing] a tour of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and possibly meeting with Ho’zonie Y-Teens.” In 1961, friendships with the Navajo girls took center stage as these girls attended public school in Gallup, New Mexico, where “the Y-Teens [made] and [sold] Navajo fried bread and [held] dances at the dormitory.” The Y-Teens from the YWCA association in Albuquerque organized a field trip to Gallup to meet up with the Ho’zonie teens who had prepared “a welcome, a devotional song, a skit, some authentic Indian dances performed in costumes the girls had made, and a discussion period.” The relationship between the YWCA teens and the girls in Gallup, New Mexico remained a high priority as frequent opportunities to connect — such as participation in church services, student council, dances, and other service projects — were organized. These Y-Teens played a pivotal role in building friendships within the communities in the southwestern part of the United States. For example, the Phoenix Indian School Y-Teen Club held 15 tribal groups, including: the Pima, Papago, Apache, San Carlos, Colorado River, Navajo, Hopi, Paiute-Ute, Yavapai, Hualapai, Shivwits, and Zuni.

In addition to the spotlight on the Southwestern region, YWCA also worked to build relationships with the Lummi and Nooksack Nation of Northwestern Washington State, which Carol Batdorf chronicled in the Cultural Series, a YWCA project paying indigenous instructors to hold discussions in Whatcom County. She described, “two Lummi elders, wise and venerable men, headed the discussion, which dealt with the old days and how it was before white men came.” The instructors also taught Native American arts focusing on basketry, spinning and knitting, leather work, beading, and woodcarving, among discussions about their way of life. With 300 participants, his project was a success that furthered a relationship with the Nooksack tribal leaders by securing job training and employment for young Native Americans and “instituting a special reading program for Indian children through the school”. The cultural series was meant to be “the opening of doors between Indian and white cultures through which two-way traffic would aid in eliminating much of the mutual distrust, dislike and misunderstanding that had developed through the years in combating racism.”

Historically and currently, YWCA has advocated for Native peoples to have support and a voice. Native Americans did not gain citizenship in the United States until 1924, nor the right to vote until 1970, and YWCA was an early supporter of both through its service of Native communities — especially in New Mexico and Arizona, where YWCA supported voting by Native people and particularly Navajo nation. YWCA was an early facilitator of the relationship between the Navajo and federal governments and kept in close contact with the Yakama Indian Reservation, noting the needs of young Native American women. Currently, YWCA is continuing to uplift Native voices through such initiatives as our YWomenVote report, where we highlight the needs and legislative priorities of Native women.

Through YWCA local association initiatives to end gender-based violence and support survivors to our work at the national level to elevate Native voices, a long-lasting friendship with Native communities is maintained through our work at the local and national level as YWCA continues its relationship-building with Native communities with the common goal to eliminate racism and empower women.