Honoring Indigenous people and culture at YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa
During Native American Heritage Month, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago is proud to highlight the longstanding kinship shared between YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa, our Association’s cherished family camp located in northern Wisconsin, and the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.
One of only two YMCAs across the United States that facilitates youth and family programming on a Native American reservation, YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa works directly and intimately with the Lac du Flambeau Tribe to preserve the culture, heritage, and teachings of this Indigenous community.
“Our camp has inhabited this land for nearly 100 years, and we’re only just beginning to understand the trust we need to rebuild with the local Indigenous community,” explained Kirby Petersen, YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa Executive Director. “How do we give back? How do we say, ‘thank you’? It’s important that our work remains rooted in these questions.”
Petersen also emphasizes the importance of time, listening, and cross-cultural understanding in developing a healthy relationship between the camp and tribe over his 24-year tenure.
“We’ve always made a point of listening to the needs of the Lac du Flambeau Tribe and letting them drive the partnership with the Y,” he said. “It’s imperative that we operate with respect for Native American people and traditions, serving our community’s families in ways that fit their cultural context.”
Every year, YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa does exactly that, collaborating with the Lac du Flambeau Tribe to host its annual Winter Family Fun Day in alliance with the Minobimaadiziiwin (Living in a Good Way) Coalition and the Honoring our People’s Endurance (H.O.P.E.) nonprofit organization.
The camp’s Winter Family Fun Day promotes a healthy lifestyle and encourages quality family time away from harmful distractions through Native American cultural and recreational activities such as Snow Snake Throwing (Goonikaa ginebig ataadiiwin), Hoop and Spear (Dakobijigan-ninawas Zhiimaagan), Snow Shoe Racing (Agimag gagwejikanidiwin), Trapping (Wanii igewin), Hunting (Giiwasewin) and Spear Throwing (Anit-paginaatig).
Laura Lopez, a Board Member and longtime volunteer at YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa, witnessed how, through years of investment and relationship-building, the camp built trust with the Lac du Flambeau Tribe.
“I’ve been at every Winter Family Fun Day from the beginning,” Lopez recalled. “At first, people really kept separate. I think that was a reflection of the beginning of a relationship. But over time, a softening began to take place. Every year, more and more people returned—staff, volunteers, Indigenous community members—and real, substantial friendships began to develop. It’s been a joy to see.”
Another way YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa honors the Ojibwe Tribe is by hosting the world’s only Ojibwe Native Winter Games in partnership with the Lac du Flambeau Public School.
Led by the school’s Ojibwe language and culture teacher, Wayne Valliere, this event offers the school’s 3rd-8th grade students the opportunity to compete in traditional Ojibwe sports while fostering a sense of pride in their rich cultural heritage. Through these activities, YMCA staff and Ojibwe cultural leaders do the urgent work of preserving and passing on ancestral pastimes to the next generation.
For Lopez, YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa’s intentional approach to cross-cultural exchange is a huge part of what makes the camp such a special place.
“We have four generations of campers in my family,” Lopez proclaimed. “My hope is that YMCA Camp Nawakwa remains here for decades to come, connecting people of vastly different backgrounds to one another.”
To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Family Camp Nawakwa or to reserve a stay, visit ymcachicago.org/nawakwa or call 715.588.7422.
The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s centers, camps, and program sites reside on the traditional homelands of the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Peoria, Potawatomi, Myaamia (Miami), Ojibwe, Odawa, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk nations, and as such, it is crucial that we celebrate Native Americans’ myriad contributions as a living, breathing people.