DU Chancellor Robert Coombe rips Greek Life groups' Cowboys and Indians party

Update below: University of Denver chancellor Dr. Robert Coombe didn't attend a public event prompted by Greek Life groups' Cowboys and Indians party -- an event that offended members of the DU Native Student Alliance. However, Coombe is scheduled to meet with the Alliance next month -- and today, he sent an e-mail to students, faculty and staff decrying the incident and acknowledging that DU has work to do in order to meet its own standards regarding inclusivity. Read it below.

As we've reported, the February 25 party 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."

Alliance members found out about the bash a few days later after coming upon photos posted to a Facebook page. Here's an example:

After the Alliance excoriated the event in a letter to the executive director of campus activities, who oversees Greek Life on the DU campus, a series of meetings took place, and the frat and sorority in question penned apologies they agreed to read Wednesday near a tepee erected on the campus' Driscoll Green.

That event attracted approximately 100 people, including many Lambda Chi and Tri-Delta members -- and Simon Moya-Smith, a DU graduate student, Ogalala Lakota member and Alliance adviser, saw it as a positive step toward starting a campus dialogue on such issues. After noting that the Cowboys and Indians party was actually the fourth incident the Alliance found objectionable in the current academic year alone (another was a proposed "How the West Was Won" homecoming theme), Moya-Smith said, "It shows how disconnected the university is from its American Indian students."

Coombe doesn't acknowledge this shortfall in his e-mail, but he appears to take ownership of the problem, twice italicizing the word "must" when writing about corrective actions. Here's the text:

Dear Members of the DU Community,

Not long ago, we became aware of an unfortunate incident involving some of our students.

Just over a month ago, a University of Denver fraternity and sorority jointly held a party with the theme "Cowboys and Indians." Costumes worn at this event reflected negative stereotypes of Native American peoples.

Whether or not anyone meant to be disrespectful or hurtful, their actions did inflict painful wounds. We must all come to understand how our actions affect others, and how cartoonish depictions not only push us apart, but also reflect our limited understanding of one another.

Members of the Native Student Alliance, the Campus Activities office, the Center for Multicultural Excellence, and the involved fraternity and sorority have already embarked on a learning and healing process, meeting several times since the incident to talk, and more importantly, to listen. The three student organizations cooperated on an information table on Driscoll Green, and the fraternity and sorority read an apology publicly there on Wednesday.

As members of the University Community, particularly students preparing to be leaders in an increasingly diverse and global society, we must respect and value our differences. We must fight at every turn the perpetuation of stereotypical and derogatory misrepresentations. It is the responsibility of every member of the DU community to ensure that we continue to create an inclusive and equitable campus environment. We will all hold ourselves to this.

We hope that this incident, though negative, can stimulate a broader conversation on campus. As our community becomes more diverse, we still have work to do with regard to mutual understanding and inclusion.

I thank you all for joining this effort, and for your commitment to these values.

Robert D. Coombe Chancellor

Update, 2:37 p.m. March 30: When asked for his reaction to Coombe's message, Simon Moya-Smith offered up the following via e-mail:

I appreciate Chancellor Coombe for sending this letter and for not sugarcoating what occurred last month with the Lambda Chis and Tridelts. It sounds to me like Coombe has got some fight in him. I hope it's not fleeting and ephemeral. Rest assured, we in the American Indian community will hold the University of Denver accountable to its commitments. Indians are told many great, forward-thinking things by leaders of numerous, influential capacities; we're handed papers brimming with promises, but nine times out of 10, nothing happens. But I have faith in Coombe. He seems to be a man who can think seven generations ahead of him. DU and its community did something this week so unusual and exceptional that I hope school administrators across the nation have paid attention and follow suit, especially schools like Lamar High School here in Colorado, whose administrators still refuse to relinquish their mascot, the "Savage."

For the first time in years, maybe the first time ever in DU history, the American Indian students on this campus can finally breathe a sigh of relief and look positively toward the future of DU.

We, the students of NSA, are tentatively scheduled to meet Chancellor Coombe for an hour-long meeting the second week of April.

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More from our Education archive: "DU Native Student Alliance on Greek groups' party apology, school response."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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