Alison Numkena and Jandi Hernandez want to set the record straight.
The girls, both Laurels in the Pinetop-Lakeside Arizona Stake, speak perfect English (in fact, it’s really the only language they speak). They watch television, go to regular high school, and when they attend stake dances, they don’t ride horseback to get there.
“It’s funny what people think about us sometimes,” says Jandi. “Since we’re Native Americans and we live on the reservation, people sometimes get funny ideas about what we’re like. But I think we’re pretty much like everybody else.”
And just like many young women in the Church, Alison, Jandi, and the rest of the girls on the Fort Apache Reservation look forward to girls’ camp in the summer.
However, for a long time, these girls had to wait two years between camp experiences. The stake hosts girls’ camp every other summer, and in the alternating summers, girls attend camp with their own wards and branches. But with just a small handful of active LDS girls, the reservation branches never had enough people for individual camps. Until this year, that is. By combining the girls from all three branches on the reservation, there was a large enough group for a small camp. So the girls and their leaders made it happen.
At the age of 18, Olivia Nez has been around the longest of any of the girls in the Young Women program on the reservation. She has played a large part in helping to plan this first girls’ camp, working closely with the leaders to make sure that all the girls had the equipment and skills necessary to have a great time. Even though her senior year was chock-full of activities, including being the student body president, Olivia made time to act as the youth camp director.
“Since I just graduated [from high school], this is my first and last camp with our branches,” she says. “The girls in my branch and the other branches face a lot of challenges, and this is a good opportunity to learn more about the gospel and recommit ourselves.”
Jandi and Alison, who are also Laurels, wanted to make a meaningful contribution to camp too. Jandi’s mom, Glenda, is the camp director, so she had plenty of things they could do to help out, including setting up camp and helping organize and execute a fund-raiser. They also put together binders for each girl containing information about each day’s activities, words to campfire songs, and camp certification information. Even with a relatively small group coming to camp, it was a big job.
“We worked right up to the last minute,” says Jandi. “The day camp started, we were still putting some of them together. We finished just in time!”
Many of the most important aspects of camp are the same for the girls on the Fort Apache Reservation as for young women anywhere else. Like any girls’ camp, there is a mixture of learning camping and hiking skills and learning about the gospel. There were afternoon workshops—many taught by the girls themselves—on the common challenges of keeping the Word of Wisdom, chastity, and church activity. Many of the other activities and campfire speakers also focused on these topics.
“Sometimes you get intimidated by an older person telling you what you need to do,” says Jandi. “Learning it from a friend is different; it’s easier to hear.”
There are differences, too, things that make this camp unlike any other. These girls are proud of their Native American heritage and have found ways to incorporate it into their camp experience. Most evenings there is something to eat that is unique to this camp—fry bread and Navajo tacos, for example, or a special cornbread that requires all the girls to help mash several ears of fresh corn and then take turns cooking the pancake-like bread over the fire.
But it’s not just the food that’s unique. One night’s campfire features several of the older leaders telling stories of their younger days on the reservation and of their conversion to the gospel. There is an emphasis on feeling good about being LDS and being a Native American and finding ways to make the two work together.
“Prayer is an important part of our culture, both as members of the Church and as members of the Apache tribe,” says Jandi. “It’s in our blood to pray morning, noon, and night. Heavenly Father and Jesus are important in our culture. Our tribal chairman and our tribal council often ask us to pray. You hear it in the Church and out.”
When camp ends, there are the usual comments about being eager to get home and have a hot shower, eat twig-free food, and sleep with something other than a rock for a pillow. As the girls take down tents and roll up sleeping bags, they talk about what was great about camp (seeing a baby elk from a distance of just a few feet) and what could be improved next time (more blankets for the near-freezing nighttime temperatures). But mostly they talk about how grateful they are that they were able to come to camp at all.
“We’ve gotten closer at this camp than we’ve ever been,” says Taren Webster, a Beehive. “Camp gives us time together away from home. I think that’s really important.”
Next year the girls from the reservation will join the other girls in their stake for camp. And the year after that? This group is still small, but they pulled it off once, so the next time should be a little easier. They’ll build on traditions they started this year, and maybe even come up with a few new ones. Just like this year, they’ll have a great time getting to know each other, becoming better campers, and learning about the gospel.
And that makes them pretty much like young women everywhere.
Are you heading off to girls’ camp soon? If so, you probably already know what to bring, and the activities are probably planned. Here are a few last-minute tips from the girls in Fort Apache for making a good camp great:
Be ready to share your talents, your ideas, and your testimony. Most camp activities require lots of group participation. Remember you’re among friends, so don’t be shy.
Maintain a cheerful attitude. Some parts of camp probably won’t be as much fun as others (being on dish-washing duty, for example), but putting a smile on your face and being a good sport make the time go quickly.
Look for opportunities to be kind. Does your tent mate need help with a certification skill? Is there a first-year camper who is homesick and could use a shoulder to cry on? Find people who need help and help them.
Remember what you’ve learned. At camp you often draw closer to the Lord, as well as to the other members of your Young Women group. Instead of letting those good feelings fade, build on them throughout the year.