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Last November during Native American Heritage Month, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago invited Chicagoland and Wisconsin residents to learn more about – and take part in –YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa’s longstanding kinship with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. The Y welcomed volunteers as well as campers to YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa in northern Wisconsin, one of only two YMCAs across the United States that facilitate youth and family programming on a Native American Reservation.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago enjoys a very deep relationship with the Lac du Flambeau Tribe cultivated over many years of working directly and intimately with its people to preserve the culture, heritage, and teachings of this Indigenous community. “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,” said Kirby Petersen, a YMCA employee for 27 years – 24 of those as the executive director of the YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa.

One of the ways YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa collaborates with the local Native American community is by hosting 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.) not-for-profit organization.

The event promotes a healthy lifestyle away from harmful distractions by encouraging quality family time 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)
  • Spear Throwing (Anit-paginaatig)

Snow shoe racing at Winter Family Fun Day.

Following a brief hiatus due to the pandemic, the 2022 Family Fun Day will take place on February 12, 2022, from 12-3 p.m. Over the past decade and still, the event – which attracts up to 300 participants a year – is offered at no cost to community members. Families are invited to respectfully engage with Native American traditions and culture by getting involved as an event volunteer or by reserving a family get-away at Camp Nawakwa for time to reconnect with family members.

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 its Ojibwe language and culture teacher, Wayne Valliere. The event is typically held a few weeks after the Family Fun Day and offers the school’s 3rd to 8th graders the opportunity to learn and compete in the traditional sports of the Indigenous People that are steeped in rich culture.

The activities showcased during Family Fun Day are all part of the festivities held on Big Crooked Lake at YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa and are a way to do the urgent work of preserving and passing on precious ancestral pastimes to the next generation.

Chicago resident, Laura Lopez, has been volunteering at Family Camp Nawakwa for 25 years taking on tasks from sewing curtains for the camp’s 34 cabins and preparing the site for the summer peak season, to organizing the annual Women’s Weekends and serving on Camp Nawakwa’s board since the late 1990s. Her affection for the camp began much earlier – more than 65 years ago – when her parents first signed up the family for a two-week summer camping getaway. Since then, the family has returned every summer, each year with more and more extended family members.

YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa

Laura Lopez and extended family at camp.

“Through my involvement with Camp Nawakwa over the years, I have gained a better understanding of the struggles of Native Americans and am grateful for the chance to contribute,” said Lopez in a statement. “Camp Nawakwa is such a part of who I am that it feels like something I have to do. It is very gratifying to have a positive impact on preserving the cultural heritage and history of Native Americans. And as a longtime volunteer, it has been very heartwarming to observe the trust that has started to develop between staff, returning campers and the local Native American community. Volunteering is good for your soul. It connects us to each other and we learn that there is so much that we share. We are all humans. My hope is for Camp Nawakwa to be here for many generations to come.”

Photos courtesy of YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa. 

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Brittany Howard

Brittany is the editor of Community Rec Magazine. Reach her at brittany@peakemedia.com.

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