An unusual event will take place today on the University of Denver campus -- one prompted by another unusual event. At 4 p.m., students and administrators will gather near a tepee on Driscoll Green as representatives of two Greek Life organizations publicly apologize for a Cowboys and Indians theme party DU's Native Student Alliance dubs "piercingly offensive."
The bash, which took place on February 25, was sponsored by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority. Attendees were encouraged to outfit themselves as either cowboys or Indians. Those who made the latter choice donned what an Alliance release describes as "phony headdresses, face paint, loincloths and all manner of stereotypical viciousness."
Party photos were subsequently posted to Facebook, and while neither the Lambda Chi Alpha nor Tri-Delta pages feature any of them at this writing, members of the Alliance who spotted them on February 28 saved a couple. Here's one example:
Simon Moya-Smith, the DU graduate student, adviser to the Alliance and Ogalala Lakota member who wrote the aforementioned release, says the party was offensive "because it dehumanizes and objectifies American Indians. People think our regalia are costumes to play around in, but they are not costumes. They are very spiritual and, if you want to use the western term, holy garb that would be reserved for elders of title.
"It would be as if Catholics went to a sorority or frat party and saw people dressed as the Pope or nuns and priests and they were swilling booze," he adds. Moreover, the dress-up games "perpetuate the idea that Indians are people of the past. But we are very much alive. We survived westward expansion, we survived the Founding Fathers, we survived government campaigns to get rid of our homelands. We're still here, and although we are 1 percent of the population, that doesn't give people the right to offend us and expect us not to say something."
The Alliance members certainly spoke out in this case. By March 1, they had drafted a letter to the executive director of campus activities, who oversees Greek Life on the DU campus. That led to a meeting on March 6, as well as a second gathering on March 14 at which written apologies from the frat and sorority in question were presented.
That wasn't nearly good enough for Moya-Smith. "I gave the department of student activities my phone number and said I'd love to hear from the Greek organizations. But we haven't heard from them. They've been mute."
The silence will be broken this afternoon, promises Johanna Leyba, who boasts the title Assistant Provost for Inclusive Excellence at the DU Center for Multicultural Excellence; she's the university official who's been most directly working with various stakeholders to coordinate today's event. She says members of Lambda Chi Alpha and Delta Delta Delta will read the statements to members of the Alliance and then participate in a wide-ranging discussion about the issues prompted by the party.
Leyba considers the Cowboys and Indians gathering "a setback, because it reinforces some of the negative ideas that Native people may have about DU as not being a welcoming place." But she also sees opportunity. Even though she acknowledges that "incidents like this happen every year in one form or another, we haven't had a group of students who've called for a public event to address it. And I think this provides us with a chance to disrupt these kinds of behaviors and, as a campus, really lay a foundation for what kind of behavior and respect and activities we think are appropriate."
She's also pleased that "Simon is looking to build a relationship with the Greek organizations. There tends to be a them-and-us relationship. So we're looking at seeing how they can create a relationship of us in the DU community, to help everyone learn across the differences."
Moya-Smith confirms that he's hoping the event will start a continuing dialogue between the Alliance and Greek groups, as opposed to stopping at the apology. And he wants the university to "put into motion ways to educate the student body -- their non-Indian, non-ethnic student body -- in reference to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and to understand that they're not the only ones on this campus. Ignorance is not an excuse, and I'm not going to accept it. We live at a time when social media is out there and you can educate yourself in five minutes. So ignorance can't be given as a reason for the party" either by the participants or the Greek Life advisers who granted permission for the theme in advance.
In Moya-Smith's mind, the attendance today of DU chancellor Dr. Robert Coombe and provost Gregg Kvistad will signal that the university takes the situation seriously -- and if they don't turn up, their absence will indicate the opposite. Leyba says invites went out to both so late that she doesn't know if they'll be able to work the event into their schedules. But she points out that she and Dr. Frank Tuitt, Associate Provost for Inclusive Excellence, will be there as part of a continuing effort to remake DU's image in the eyes of what she describes as "historically underrepresented communities in the Denver metro area."
For example, she says, "there are a high number of Latinos in Denver, and they represent about 7 or 8 percent of our campus. But historically, Latinos may have negative impressions or may not know what DU is all about. We want to work to build relationships, to get them to consider applying, and to know that when they come to campus, it will be a welcoming place."
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According to Moya-Smith, DU isn't at that stage yet. Administrators "are going to host the first presidential debate here, and they need to understand that there are some grotesque and vicious offenses against the ethnic people on this campus -- not just American Indians. And if they really want this school to be what they tout it as when it comes to 'inclusive excellence,' they need to make sure these types of offenses are hindered and abolished."
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