in focus: Indian Princesses

Way back when, I was an Indian Princess. For three years, my dad and I donned our feathered headbands and beaded necklaces for campouts, horseback riding, canoeing, square dancing and marshmallow roasting. The activities were a blast, but the best thing was spending time alone with my dad. Today, the South Hills Indian Princesses and Guides program is still the perfect way for dads to bond with their little girls and boys.

Harold S. Keltner, the director of the St. Louis YMCA, created Indian Guides, a father and son program, in 1926 as a way to combine his love of the outdoors with Native Indian traditions and YMCA youth-oriented goals. In 1954, the father-daughter Indian Princesses was added. Today, about 900 YMCAs across the county—including the South Hills Y that serves Mt. Lebanon—sponsor more than 30,000 “tribes” involving an estimated half million children in grades K through 3 and their fathers.

There were no Indian Guides in Germany where Jens Matheus grew up, so when his son, Ben, brought home a flier about the program, the Marshall Drive resident was intrigued. After attending a recruitment session, he signed them up; a year later his daughter Anna became a Princess. Now the Nation Chief, Matheus raves about the program. “I work a lot of hours, and this is a great way to have one-on-one activities with my children,” he says. “I think it’s priceless.” Matheus’s youngest daughter, Stephanie, will start Princesses this fall.

Matthew Clark, Lebanon Avenue, was in Indian Guides while growing up in Alabama. “Some of my fondest memories were earning feathers for my headdress with my dad and going camping,” he says. “When I learned that there was a strong program in the Mt. Lebanon area, I wanted to get involved [with daughter, Abigail]. It was meaningful for me as a youth, and I hope that it will be meaningful for my children as well.”

Every fall, new enrollees are grouped into tribes—Anna is Cayuga, Ben a Lokono and Abigail a Cherokee—that are organized by elementary school or neighborhood. Tribes hold monthly “pow-wows” for crafts, games and projects. At the first pow-wow, Indian names are chosen—Matheus is Black Bear and his children are Brave Wolf and Princess Butterfly while Clark selected Swimming Turtle—an homage to his father who was Flopping Turtle—and Abigail is Mermaid Princess.Patch

Tribes from the entire South Hills area come together for Longhouse events that include campouts at Kon-O-Kwee (Zelienople) and Deer Valley (Meyersdale), pool parties, ice cream socials and other events—from sailboat races to dances for the girls and model car races, baseball game outings and laser tag for the boys. In addition to the fun gatherings, the Princesses sell wreaths at the holidays to raise money for Camp Aim, a program for children with developmental issues. “We’re not just having fun,” Matheus says. “We are giving back to the community.”

Both Matheus and Clark say that one of the perks is that it’s up to you how many events and meetings you want to attend. But don’t be surprised if you have so much fun you get completely sucked in—Matheus’s tribe has become so close that they now get their entire families together for other activities such as camping at Presque Isle. “It’s a great way for adults to meet people,” he says.

But when all is said and done, the program is about the kids. One of Matheus’s favorite memories is watching his kids overcome their fear of a climbing wall. “They were afraid, but I guided them through and they made it to the top. It was a real growing experience.”  He also loves that his kids get to see him being goofy—a belly flop competition during a swim party was particularly well received by the kids.

For Abigail Clark, the best thing is “camping and spending time with Daddy.” Her younger brother, Henry—seeing the fun his sister is having—can’t wait to join the Guides. For her father, it’s about the quality one-on-one time “I think my favorite part of the entire program is at the end of the campfires when I look my daughter in the eyes while our longhouse chief reminds the girls—paraphrasing here—‘that their dad could be anywhere else, but has chosen to spend his time with you.’ It’s a priceless moment that reminds my daughter how much I love her.”

As Matheus says with a laugh: “When kids get older, they don’t they want to spend as much time with you. So this is a good time to do things with them… it’s creating lasting memories.”

A family picnic for those interested in joining is 3 to 7 p.m., Saturday, September 28, at Circleview, Maryland and Vista Groves in South Park. The free event includes games, raffles and inflatables. Hamburgers, hot dogs and beverages will be provided, but families should bring a side dish or dessert.  Or get membership information at and 412-833-5600.