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A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of Indigenous Peoples Day planning, I heard that the brothers of Sigma Chi at Harvard had decided to throw a “Conquistabros and Navajos” party in honor of “Columbus” Day. There was very little mention of it throughout the Harvard community (besides a quick quote in the Crimson from one of the Native undergrads, which I’ll link below). Needless to say, I was outraged, and upset that there was little response from the university administration. This is so much more than a “cowboys and Indians” party.
So, when I was forwarded the invite this week, I figured it was not too late to call them out.
If you can see in the invitation above (which was forwarded widely throughout the undergrad community), it depicts a tall ship, bearing Sigma Chi sails, with the words:
”In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and in 2010, Harvard Sigma Chi is rolling back the clock again…On October 8th, at 11pm, come ready to set sail at a new kind of party. Come dressed to explore the New World…or defend it.”
Then, accompanying the flyer was an email from the fraternity, which stated:
The brothers of Sigma Chi invite you to our Columbus Day party this Friday: Conquistabros and Navajos. Start off the long weekend right with one of our best parties of the year. The theme is lighthearted and flexible; dress as anything related to exploration in America, e.g. Columbus, pilgrims, conquistadors, Native Americans and cowboys/girls. This party will be list only, so reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to request getting a couple friends/blockmates added to the list. We hope to see you there.
-The Members of Sigma Chi
I bolded my favorite line of the email–”The theme is lighthearted and flexible; dress as anything related to exploration in America, e.g. Columbus, pilgrims, conquistadors, Native Americans and cowboys/girls“.
First of all, lighthearted?! You’re calling the genocide of millions of Native peoples lighthearted? What if we re-wrote their invitation…to a new party called “Jew-bros and Nazi-hos”?
The brothers of Sigma Chi invite you to our party this Friday: Jew-bros and Nazi-hos. Start off the long weekend right with one of our best parties of the year. The theme is lighthearted and flexible; dress as anything related to WWII/The Holocaust, e.g. Hitler, Nazis, The Gestapo, Jews and soldiers. This party will be list only, so reply to email@example.com if you want to request getting a couple friends/blockmates added to the list. We hope to see you there.***
-The Members of Sigma Chi
I don’t think that would fly at all, do you?
Beyond the horrifying minimization of the genocide of Native peoples and continuing legacy of colonialism in the Americas, let’s talk about the logic here. So. First of all, Conquistadors and Navajos. I get the cutesy “omg we’re so clever look at us make the theme of “bros and hos” into something related to Columbus Day!”–which has major issues as it is (remember our discussion of the sexualization of Native women?) but really? Conquistadors=South America, Navajos=American Southwest. Columbus=West Indies. Pilgrims=American Northeast. and how are cowboys even related at all?
And I refuse to accept the “it’s just a party, get over it” mentality. Some of the main reasons this is incredibly harmful to Native peoples (including and especially the Native students at Harvard)…apologies to regular readers, who must get sick of my constant repetition of these ideas:
1. Glorifying and making light of the atrocities committed by the “explorers” of the Americas is just as bad as glorifying the Nazis and the Holocaust, and not something to be taken lightly.
2. The theme is using a generic stereotype of an Indigenous person (in this case “Navajo”) to represent thousands of tribes and communities throughout the Americas, each with their own unique culture and history. The Indigenous groups who encountered the conquistadors are not remotely the same as Navajos in the southwest, and by lumping them together, the party contributes to continued stereotyping of Native peoples as one monolithic group–consisting of hollywood stereotypes of war paint, feathers, and buckskin.
3. Encouraging party goers to “dress up” as American Indians and Indigenous Peoples puts Native people in the category of a fantasy character–something that no longer exists, or never did. Columbus, Conquistadors, and Pilgrims are all situated in the past, but Native peoples are still here, are still alive, and still Native (and yes, cowboys are still alive, but they are not systematically oppressed and facing continued colonialism). It is also condoning dressing up in racial drag, and I would bet Sigma Chi might get in a little trouble if they hosted a blackface party.
I could go on, but I think that might be enough for now.
The Crimson (the student newspaper) did write an article about the Indigenous Peoples Day vigil the undergrads hosted, and mentioned the party:
This candlelight vigil comes after a themed party held by Sigma Chi on Friday night drew criticism from many members of Native Americans at Harvard College. A member of the Sigma Chi leadership told The Crimson that the event was called “Brave New World,” but the theme has been characterized by other students as “Conquistabros and Navajos.”
“It’s always very disappointing to see native cultures lumped into one group that you can dress up,” said Tia M. Ray ’12, vice president of Native Americans at Harvard College and a member of the Navajo tribe, explaining how she felt that the event made a “mockery” out of her tribe.
A member of Sigma Chi said that the event was not intended to offend anyone, and the controversy has prompted discussion within the organization on planning future events.
“Brave New World” my butt. The invitation is above, you all can see exactly how they advertised the theme. and of course the “event was not intended to offend anyone”–does anyone set out to hold and event that is inherently offensive? It’s just a cheap way of covering themselves.
There you have it, the glories of the bastion of cultural sensitivity that is Harvard College. Thanks, Sigma Chi. Looking forward to your future events.
…and oops, I might have left the email address of the social chair on there, if you’d like to let him know your thoughts.
UPDATE: Sigma Chi issued an apology.
***I made this up. This is a fake invitation. Just clarifying. But the first one is completely real.