Andrew wrote about this experience in the Camping Magazine article “We Are Learning Together: Taking Steps Away from Native Cultural Appropriation.”
ACA: Tell me about your camp background.
I started off as a camper at YMCA Camp Burgess & Hayward in Massachusetts, part of the South Shore YMCA, and loved it. I had a very interesting first three days where I was just observing and quiet to the point where my counselors were wondering if I needed to be sent home because I didn’t say a word. On day four of a two-week program, “Camp Andy” came out and I was able to just be myself and I think they were regretting that I wasn’t so reserved anymore.
So I became a counselor-in-training, counselor, took a hiatus, and then came back as the waterfront director and the assistant director and realized that camp can be a profession and started going down and looking at that avenue.
ACA: For our young professional readers out there, you talk about camp being a profession. Can you give a little bit of advice to someone looking out there to make a career out of camp?
I think everyone when they grow up in camp, they see it as being a special, magical place — and it is, but there are also other amazing, magical places outside of where your camp bubble might be. It might be a little bit of privilege, but if you’re able to, look at other places across the country or world that might also be in that camping realm, that’s my best advice. Look at other camps.
ACA: Let’s talk a little about how you transitioned into your role in South Dakota. Is that something you embraced when you decided to make that change? What influenced you to decide to move across the country?
I was looking for a summer away or a couple of summers while waiting for my former camp director to move on so I could go back to my original camp. I applied anywhere outside of the Northeast to try to get a geography change and see some new areas, and just by chance I happened to get an interview with then-Sioux YMCA — we have since changed our name to YMCA of the Seven Council Fires.
ACA: So you took the leap of faith to get out of the Northeast thinking you might go back at some point, but here you are today. What kind of feelings did you have? Was there a feeling of being uncomfortable moving? What kind of thoughts were going through your head when you made that move?
I definitely feel that I put up a barrier and kept telling myself that it was a temporary solution. That I had signed a three-month contract and was just going to be there three months and then head back home. It seemed like a stepping stone.
ACA: What made you stay, nine years later?
We have a major conference that happens every four years within the YMCA movement and I was invited to go to that in Colorado. It takes place all over the world — every four years, a different country. Since it was so close we drove the nine hours down. I loaded up a bunch of my seasonal staff from the area. Seeing how unique our camp was even within the YMCA space really opened my eyes. The CEO at the time offered that if I went to this conference I could stay on three more months to offset that. That put September 1 as my last day. That day came and went, and I think being at that conference and seeing how interested everyone was in the work we were doing and wanting to expose their staff team, boards, teens to what we do . . . a lightbulb went off that we could be doing this as a model to continue education and expansion.
ACA: You mentioned the name change at camp in 2022 — It seems like when you started, the change was in motion. What were the previous leaders doing to make change, and with you coming in, what continued to motivate you?
There were definitely pieces still in place of that exposure and cultural immersion program. It was still based a little more around service learning. There’s definitely been a shift in the past decade from when I first got here and people seeking out service learning trips and then trying to educate them on how that isn’t going to be the experience here. Now it’s people coming out wanting to have that cultural experience that we kind of had to reframe people’s mindsets. This organization is 143 years old, so it’s been successful with just being present, being where your feet are, and I think the success of having he staff and board members truly representing this community and being here fully involved in the community.
ACA: I want to hear more about what you saw about the beautiful culture that was around you when you first arrived or even as you evolved in your role at camp. What were some things that made you stay committed to the work, whether it was the surroundings or people you met along the way, what was this beautiful culture that you experienced?
That’s a huge topic and there’s just so much of it. I do want to say that as a white person, I don’t want this to come off as white saviorism in poverty culture. In the article I referenced that we’re learning together and we’ve changed everything in our strategic plan and day to day vocabulary. We’re not doing this for the community — we’re working alongside the community. I think that’s important to start off.
The beauty that I saw in this area while working alongside the community members was just the collective good. It’s smalltown living so there are family feuds that string on from generations, but whenever anyone is in need, or there’s hardship, or whenever something negative might be happening, seeing everyone bond together and trying to move forward is just a beauty that is inexplainable.
ACA: Thank you for making sure we understand the approach here is not that you got off the plane from Massachusetts one day and just thought “look at all these beautiful mountains.” This is a way to describe the work that you did alongside the community and the Elders, and the immense level of respect you had for that community and showed through commitment to the community in your role helped you to have and continue to have this respect which leads to this concept of it being a beautiful culture.
To go more in depth about those relationships that you built with the Lakota tribe, I love in the article how you referenced about having buy-in at the top level of leadership. You as the CEO were working alongside the community to make change. And you talk in your article about how making the commitment at that level shows respect and honor, and that you’re not just sending anyone from camp. Can you speak about that importance or those feelings as you worked alongside the Lakota tribe to continue to make change at camp?
There’s been times we’ve gotten pushback or people don’t want to have a conversation with me because I’m not from here, and I totally understand that and respect that. Then I just have to find another avenue or really focus on doing the work and trying to change that perspective. But you don’t always need to be changing other people’s perspectives. I think it just shows that if you have someone in the community living there, breathing there, that itself shows the dedication.
I often say I have the easiest job — I just have to show up to work and I know I’m making a difference. I think it was probably my second winter here when a community member stopped me at the grocery store and said “What are you doing here? I thought you only came here in the summertime.” I was like, “No, I live two blocks that way.” I think in the camping world we don’t do enough of that. Camp can be the destination people travel to from all over the place, and there might not be all that groundwork to be working in the local community to the camp.
ACA: No matter what you are and what type of work around DEI that you’re trying to do, the importance of having community buy-in, as simple as seeing a camp director at a grocery store, can really make a huge impact. That’s a great story and example that this isn’t just about your experience — we’re inspiring others who do have the opportunity to connect with their community in a way that’s realistic and connective and simplistic in a way, too — you’re just going about your daily life and showing respect to the community that’s around you.
I think you’re exactly right.
ACA: What do you say when a camp professional asks you “how can camps do better?” You talk about this in your article, and you talk about the checklist for uncomfortable work. Can you tell us more about that advice that it’s not just a checklist for doing better?
I revere camp professionals and camp people in general for always wanting to do the right thing and move mountains to get to a solution. Camp people have always been really good at making things work, so I appreciate when people call or come out here or I go consult with them. They’re looking for a checklist or curriculum or path, and I say “I know you want that, but it’s a journey.” We frame it as a roadmap because it’s going to be windy, and sometimes you might be on a gravel road instead of a nice, paved highway. There isn’t just a checklist. When we are consulting, we do have digital material, but I don’t want to push it out to the world because then people are going to say “I got the Andy Corley stamp of approval, we’re OK, according to his cultural audit we’re not doing cultural appropriation” and that can just get taken way out of context. We need to do the work, and it’s a heavy lift, and it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to be hard. But it’s the right thing to do.
ACA: If there’s anything I’ve learned from getting to know you and reading your article, it’s that there’s not a one-size-fits-all for this work, and it’s going to change depending on where you are, the people you’re working with, and the organization that you’re under. I want to reiterate that this checklist idea speaks to me kind of looking at that DEI bubble again, as a white woman trying to learn and educate the camp community, we don’t just check a box that we have people of color in our organization or we’re changing our name so we did that work. It’s way beyond that. And it’s a personal journey too. It’s a commitment to yourself to personally change to do this incredibly challenging work in whatever capacity you’ve committed to do it in.
Yes, and an important piece to all this is explaining where you came from as well. I’ve heard and seen a few different camps just overhaul all their cabin signs from Native names to numbered cabins. And this is where the process comes into play. There’s one camp I worked with that had names of very historic, ancient tribes. They did ask after they changed all the names, and a local tribe was like “that was great you had those because no one knows or hears those names ever.” So the local tribe was upset that part of the history was lost and now isn’t being educated.
ACA: It's not just about changing the name — it’s the process. It’s earning the respect of the people in the community that can help you navigate the right process, whether it be changing your name, changing your cabins, or keeping the name and showing honor and respect in this specific Native conversation.
Yeah. And again, if you had a totem pole at your camp and took it down because it wasn’t made by a tribe that would have made a totem pole, you can explain that there used to be a totem pole here and we took it down because it was not right.
ACA: Because you need to honor that humility that comes with the past of the camp, right?
ACA: It took nine years of you being in your role and before the name change happened. That was a process, and things changed along the way, but can you put it in simple terms for us where you started the process, and then the actual change happened? There are so many camps that get caught in the in-between. What actually happened that allowed the change to happen in May 2022?
It was an 18-month journey to do the name change, and we put together a task force that was focused on this with individuals across the country who are talented in this work and people locally who have the expertise and knowledge here. It was a great group of individuals and I think to your point, it can be really difficult when you’re in it and not seeing change. But it’s a slow process. It’s like molasses rolling. It takes time, and it’s going to keep morphing. Be patient. We had monthly phone calls to keep things on track. There’s not a roadmap, per se, but there are steps to guide.
ACA: And that process is going to be different for every camp.
You’re going to try something that might’ve worked for one camp, but maybe someone from the local tribal community doesn’t want to have anything to do with you, so you have to figure out a different avenue. That winding avenue of the road map — sometimes you’re going to turn around.
ACA: Do you have a memory or story to share that is most meaningful to you throughout the entire process of this work?
We had a full-time staff person who was a camper, grew up in the area, and her mom worked for the Y, she and her siblings all worked for us. She came into my office one day and said she had difficult information to tell me — that she was moving and enlisted in the military. I had to ask: “Why now? You’ve talked about it for years, and I’m really proud of you, but why now?”
She sat very silently and she looked up and said, “because you’re here.” She felt she needed to be here to make sure the community was still being taken care ofand connected and that camp was still hitting the impact it could. To hear this amazing individual finally feel like she could depart because she knew the organization was intact and moving in a direction that is unstoppable, she felt like she could make that leap.
Interview conducted by Alicia Danenberg, ACA director of educational content. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Andrew Corley is the CEO of the YMCA of the Seven Council Fires (formerly Sioux YMCA) located on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation. He believes in empowering communities through mutual partnerships, cultural competence, and equity for all. Through Andrew’s leadership, the Sioux Y continues to strengthen their impact through their strong and trusted roots with the community for over 140 years. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise Science from Bridgewater State University.