The Y-Indian Guide Program was developed in a deliberate way to support the father’s vital role as teacher, counselor and friend to his son. The program was initiated by Harold S. Keltner, Director of the YMCA in St. Louis. In 1926 he organized the first tribe in Richmond Heights, Missouri, with the help of his friend, Joe Friday, an Ojibway Indian, and William H. Hefelfinger, chief of the first Y-Indian Guide tribe. Inspired by his experiences with Joe Friday, who was his guide on fishing and hunting trips into Canada, Harold Keltner initiated a program of father/son experiences that came to involve fathers and sons throughout the United States.
While Keltner was on a hunting trip in Canada his friend, Joe Friday, said to him as they sat around the campfire one evening, “The Indian father raises his son. He teaches his son to hunt, to track, to fish, to walk softly and silently in the forest, to know the meaning and purpose of life and all he must know, while the white man allows the mother to raise his son.” These comments struck home, and Harold Keltner arranged for Joe Friday to work with him at the St. Louis YMCA.
The Ojibway Indian spoke before groups of YMCA boys and dads in St. Louis, and Mr. Keltner discovered that fathers as well as boys had a keen interest in the traditions and ways of Native Americans. At the same time, being greatly influenced by the work of Ernest Thompson Seton, great lover of the out-of-doors, Harold Keltner conceived the idea of a father-and-son program based on the strong qualities of American Indian culture and life, which involved dignity, patience, endurance, spirituality, feeling for the earth and concern for the family.
After World War II, the rise in YMCAs that served the whole family, the need for supporting young girls in their personal growth, and the demonstrated success of the father/son program nurtured the development of the father/daughter program. The first Y-Indian Princesses were formed in the Fresno, California YMCA in 1954. It enabled fathers and their daughters to participate together in a variety of activities that nurtured mutual understanding, love and respect. Today, as then, the Princess Program affords an unusual opportunity for the concerned and busy father to facilitate growth in a daughter’s development and an understanding of the world around her. The father’s role helps her in developing self-esteem, confidence in her peers, and appreciation for the differences in people and families. The inter-relationships of humor and discipline, love and anger, and successes and failures bode well for the continuing development of father and daughter or father and son.
For 75 years, the Y-Indian Guide program was the cornerstone for family programs in YMCAs across the country. Though Harold Keltner died in the summer of 1986, his presence is felt today, and he will continue to affect the lives of fathers and children for years to come.
But it is a different world today than it was in 1926. Native Americans and other citizens expressed concern over program participants adopting the Indian culture and teaching children about Native American life in ways they deemed inaccurate or stereotypical. The YMCA is committed to being a caring, honest, respectful, and responsible organization. Changing diverse family structures; and an evolving cultural sensitivity and better understanding of Native American history all prompted YMCAs across the country to re-evaluate their father/child programs.
In September 2001, the board of directors of the National Council of YMCAs (also known as the YMCA of the USA) accepted recommendations from a task force made up of national staff and CEOs of member associations (local Ys) to change the name and thoroughly review the Y-Indian Guides program. They further instructed YMCA of the USA to make the revisions necessary to keep this program relevant and focused on what matters most: the program’s purpose, which is to “foster the father/child relationship.” YMCA of the USA enlisted the help of YMCA staff and volunteers nationwide to craft an alternative program. YMCA Adventure Guides is the result of a two-year research and development process.