Diné Girl Scouts: Completing the circle

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Feb. 16,2012

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Terri Adams' and Betty Kay Henderson's Brownie troop may be a little fuzzy on the history of their organization, but they know the interesting stuff.

"What can you tell Miss Cindy about our founder?" prompts Henderson.


At Diné Bi Olta, Girl Scouting is a hit

"Julia?" asks one girl.

"Juliette," corrects Henderson. "Not High but ..."

"Low!" a bespectacled child correctly guesses.

"She got a grain of rice in her ear and went deaf!" volunteers a third Brownie.

It's true, and not an incidental episode in the Girl Scout founder's life. Confronting both her disability and separation from her English husband, Georgia-born Juliette Gordon Low was casting about for something "useful" to do with her life when she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, in 1911.

Baden-Powell had partially based the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, then an English movement, on Ernest Thompson Seton's "Woodcraft Indians," an American club of young Anglos that in turn was loosely based on woodland survival skills and the tribal organization of America's northeastern Natives.

Low, who had been athletic in her youth and believed in the concept of getting kids out into the woods, took the female version of the movement back to America as she left her failed marriage in England.

Girl Scouts of America was founded in 1912 - 100 years ago this coming March.

Diné girls have been involved in Girl Scouts since the first stirrings of the movement in Arizona, said Sam Sanchez-Perez, public relations and communications coordinator for the Girl Scouts' Cactus-Pine Council, which serves the northern and central parts of the state.

"The first Navajo troop was organized in 1935, and the Cactus-Pine Council didn't become a charter until 1936, so you could say Scouting on the Navajo Nation actually predates the formal organization of Scouting in this area," Sanchez-Perez said.

Today, there are 346 Girl Scouts on the Navajo Nation, many enrolled in one of the 44 troops, but a few who are going it on their own.

"For girls who are too far from a troop, but want to be involved, we have what we call independent individual membership," Sanchez-Perez explained.

Independent Scouts order curriculum and work toward goals on their own.

While the "Indian lore" component of Scouting has faded over the years, each Girl Scout is encouraged to learn about her own cultural heritage and incorporate it into her Scouting experience, Sanchez-Perez explained.

For instance, Navajo Girl Scouts, drawing from the Diné ideal of living in harmony with nature, are heavy participants in the Council's "It's in the Bag" program of collecting and recycling plastic bags.

Serving community

Started in the mid-1980s, Chinle's troop is one of the longer-running Diné troops, thanks to Adams, an elementary school teacher, and Henderson, a school counselor.

Why have they stayed at it so long?

"Because we're crazy," deadpans Henderson.

Adams lets out a short guffaw but then gets serious.

"When we first came here," she said, "there was nothing for the kids to do after school. My parents were big on giving back to the community, so I decided to organize a Scout troop. You needed two people, so I asked Betty Kay for help."

And now?

"There's lots of stuff for the kids to do," said Adams, "but I still think they should have the option of Scouting."

"The thing I think is great about Scouting," adds Henderson, "is that it teaches the kids to do something for the community. You get outside yourself."

"And the exercise," volunteers Brownie Naomi Hess, who has been eavesdropping on the conversation, waiting for Adams to drive her home after their meeting.

"And you get to draw animals," adds her younger sister Tia.

That was today's lesson for the first- through third-graders: Draw your pet and write down five things you do to take care of it. It's part of the "Animal Try-It" the girls are working on this year.

Try-its are the modern equivalent of merit badges. The idea, Henderson explained, is to encourage girls to explore their world rather than just complete a series of set activities to earn a badge. (Henderson personally misses the discipline of the old merit badge days, but she acknowledges you have to expect some changes when you're with an organization for 30 years.)

There are still patches for each activity that go on a girl's vest (the modern equivalent of the sash), and "they're iron-on these days, thankfully," notes Henderson.

For the Animal Try-It, the girls today do the writing assignment, then a fun activity where they take turns making animal sounds for the other girls to guess at, and then move like a particular animal when its name is called.

In coming weeks, they will visit a wildlife sanctuary near Farmington.

It's a fun unit for Henderson, who has rescued a number of animals on the reservation, including her own pit bull-heeler mix, L.C. But she didn't push them into it.

"The girls decide in the first meetings of the year which six try-its they want to focus on that year," she explained.

They have plenty of choices: the try-it list you can download at scoutingweb.com is seven pages long.

The cookies are coming

One thing that has not changed much over the years, the leaders say, is cookie sales. According to Henderson, it's such an ingenious marketing ploy that no one has ever been able to improve on it.

"You can't get them in any store, and you can only get them for a month out of the year," she summed up. "They're expensive, but by the time cookie time rolls around again, people will pay anything for them. Plus you're supporting the Girl Scouts."

In a quiet homage to their centennial and their founder, Girl Scouts introduced a new flavor this year: lemony Savannah Smiles (after Low's hometown).

As of last week, the leaders' friend Mary Jo Martinez has been pressed into service, storing 500 cases of cookies in her teacherage. Adams and Henderson drill the girls over and over on when they should come by and pick them up so Martinez can get her living room back.

Chinle's cookie star (again) this year is Leila Begay, who sold 503 boxes. As in decades past, she'll win a prize, but these days, the girls can instead opt for "cookie dough," scholarships to Girl Scout camp, which a lot of girls do.

"They love camp," Henderson says. That hasn't changed either.

The women have slowed down a bit over the years - these days, Adams refuses to help the girls load their cookies into their parents' cars, and they've gone from leading two troops to one (luckily, another leader has emerged to run the junior troop, so the girls can still "fly up" after Brownies).

They've seen a few organizational changes, and its hard to imagine how Juliette Low would have addressed the backlash the Girl Scouts are getting this year for allowing transgendered girls into their fold - although Low herself raised eyebrows in her day by encouraging girls with disabilities to join.

"But girls are still the same," Adams says. "You've got your good ones, your naughty ones, your loud ones, your quiet ones."

Adams and Henderson are on their second generation of Brownies now, and count many of Chinle's familiar faces among their alumnae.

How long will they keep it up?

"As long as I have the energy," says Adams.

"As long as she does it," says Henderson.

From the looks of it, that will be a while.

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