pals forever

Though the boys have gone their separate ways, their childhood tribe still bonds them.

My first recollection of YMCA Indian Guides is flickering sparks floating up into the night from the fire pit on our back porch. It was near bedtime for my 6-year-old son, but instead of tucking Sam in, I took myself upstairs. Oddly, I felt like I was intruding on something sacred. From inside the sliding glass door I could hear, and feel, the solemnity of this event—“Long Bow, Soaring Eagle, Captain Buffalo.” I was witnessing the naming ceremony, where 10 boys and their fathers christened one another with the Indian Guide names they would use for the next three years. Proudly adorned in homemade brown and red fleece vests with a southwestern motif, they huddled around that fire. Wonder glowed in the boys’ faces and the mighty Ute Tribe was born.

As the three years in Indian Guides passed, the boys and dads (some of whom didn’t even meet until the naming ceremony) found they had great chemistry, striking a healthy balance between work and fun. Still, I would not have imagined that 15 years later, the tribe would come together for a different kind of ceremony, a rite of passage that, like Indian Guides, is steeped in tradition. The boys were turning 21. In an era dominated by the immediate gratification of Instagram, tweeting and texting, members of The Ute Tribe stepped back in time and decided to celebrate face to face.

It all started when the still “child-at-heart” dads discovered that Caleb Reynolds (Jumping Fox) of Roycroft Avenue, would come of age while he was home on spring break. They decided to gather and toast Caleb’s “first beer” with him, and a new Ute ritual was born.

The first right of passage “ceremony,” when all the dads took Sam Blehar out for a 21st birthday beer earlier this year.

As the banner year passed, they got together to celebrate the other young men’s birthdays and honor tradition. Now college seniors, not many of them live in Pittsburgh year-round, but they gladly returned to raise a glass together, validating the feeling I had back in 2002 that they had formed a sacred bond. Kudos to these old friends for choosing to be with their dads and their tribal dads as they turned 21, to shake hands, share a beer, reminisce, and catch up.

YMCA says that its Indian Guides program, which began in St. Louis in 1926, aims to foster the understanding and companionship of father and son. Indian Guides also offers a unique opportunity to develop and enjoy volunteer leadership skills.  Ute tribe members, young and old, say they joined Indian Guides because they liked nature and “the great outdoors,” looked forward to meeting new friends, and wanted to enhance the father/son bond. For Caleb’s dad, Doug (Running Wolf), Indian Guides was a family tradition. He fondly recalls Indian Guide days with his own father in his hometown in upstate New York: “There were lots of opportunities to make your own fun, a little bit of structure but not too much, time set aside together with other fathers and sons…these were all features of the program when I was a kid, and they are still hallmarks of the program.”

The framework of Indian Guides makes team building easy. Activities like camp-outs at Camp Kon-o-Kwee Spencer or Deer Valley, wreath sales, telethon fundraisers, chule-car (pine car) races and longhouse meetings combined the spirit of volunteerism and charity with adventure and fun! At one camp-out, the Utes hiked deep into the woods, where the chief taught the boys how to make a wilderness shelter. They recall setting a downed tree into a V-shaped notch in another tree to create the main support beam. Then, the boys and dads collected sticks of various sizes to lean against the main support, creating an A-frame structure. They covered the sticks with leaves and mud, crawled in and immediately felt the warmth created by blocking the wind and retaining their own body heat. They had learned a survival skill, experienced teamwork and had fun!

When I asked my son Sam (Flaming Arrow) to share a highlight of his Indian Guides days, his reply came quickly. “The time Dad and I had, with Mike and David Graf (Four Feathers and Soaring Arrow, Vermont Avenue) was one of my first real memories of Camp Kon-o-Kwee. It was a rainy morning, and we decided to attempt the Trail of Courage despite the wooden obstacles being more slippery than normal. David and I made it the whole way, but another kid who tried it ended up falling and had to call it quits. In some strange tribal way, that challenge made us feel like we accomplished something big.”

Phil Mashek of Oak Park Place, known as Soaring Hawk to complement his father Dave’s Night Hawk, also recalls their tribe as trailblazers. Phil’s favorite memory is when, as an honor, their tribe name was retired for five years.  At the end of the formal program, the Utes earned the Indian Guides’ coveted Sy Lerner Memorial Award, presented at The Silver Arrow Banquet to the outstanding three-year tribe for consistent and dedicated service. These guys had worked hard and played hard.

The Ute tribe, when boys and dads were very young.

It’s really not a surprise that the Utes have remained friends. After the official Y program ended, the tribe continued its adventures without pause through high school. They carved out time each year for a ski weekend and an overnight canoe trip, creating new traditions on those outings—renting the same condo at Hidden Valley, “secret” late-night sled rides after the slopes had closed, the dads bringing their signature dishes—chili, venison sticks and dilled shrimp. They even slept under the stars each year on the same tiny island in the middle of the Allegheny River.

Tribe dad Steve Saxton (Running Creek), Kewanna Avenue, suggests why the Utes’ bond has lasted beyond the conventional Indian Guide program. “Three reasons…leadership, do-ers and chemistry. Chief Mike Blehar (Roycroft Avenue) brought the experience of previously leading a Y Indian Princess tribe; a core group of dads was always willing to step up and organize events and activities, and our values overlapped.”

Senior year of high school, the Ute tribe took one last ski trip—this time to Park City, Utah. I thought it was excessive at the time, but now I understand that traveling far afield made sense. They already had branched out in high school and knew they’d soon be scattered even farther as they headed to college. They wanted to celebrate and honor their past with an outdoor adventure. It was tradition.

I reached out to former YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer Director “Uncle Harry” Kramer, retired now after 40 years with the Y, to tell him how this group of now “all men” had carved out time to celebrate the boys’ coming of age. “The Mighty Ute Tribe always set a marvelous example for other area Tribes,” he replied. “The program slogan, Pals Forever, has truly been embraced by these fathers and sons. Knowing these young men and their fathers, I just know for certain that they will remain Pals Forever.”

And Uncle Harry, 76, added, “Let me know the next time they get together for a beer, I’d like to join them!”

The Y has a similar program for girls. While the programs honor the culture on which they are built, in an effort to maintain an inclusive community, the parent-child programs are now formally called Y Guides and Y Princesses. For information about joining either program, call 724-934-9622 or visit