Harvard’s "Conquistabros and Navajos" Frat Party

October 21, 2010 — 18 Comments
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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:

Hey everyone,

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 socialchair@harvardsigmachi.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 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”?

Hey everyone,

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 socialchair@harvardsigmachi.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.

Adrienne K.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12623215565673008494 B

    “event was not intended to offend anyone”–does anyone set out to hold and event that is inherently offensive?

    I think some groups do. The KKK and Westboro Baptist Church come immediately to mind.

    But anyhoo, I wish people would stop acting like just because you didn’t INTEND to be a douche doesn’t mean you weren’t. And as if not intending to be hurtful should make people not hurt. I mean, if you step on someone’s foot accidentally, you still say “Sorry,” not “I didn’t mean to.” (Or if you do say “I didn’t mean to,” it MUST be accompanied by “Sorry.”)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07697979490850156500 Annie

    totally agree with your holocaust comparison – even if it wasnt on the scale, its the fact it happened… there needs to be WAY more awareness about this – you wouldnt do this about rwanda,etc!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17212327298894591525 Meg Tarr

    This is a great blog post. Kudos to your strongly worded rebuff! I hope someone from that ridiculous org reads this and feels some kind of remorse for being an ignorant waste of society. And it’s disconcerting to me that the administration would not do anything to call them out on this. It’s offensive to other students and therefore well within the realm of them to do something about it. My friends and I came upon this due to a fb link in which we were infuriated over the crap that a few Harvard sociologists have hacked up. If you’re interested, read the article titled “Culture of Poverty” on the NY Times website. Apparently Black people and other minorities enjoy being poor so they continue to stay that way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16346692850655294992 salixmirabilis

    A member of the Sigma Chi leadership told The Crimson that the event was called “Brave New World,”

    Oh, because Brave New World offers *such* a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of Native peoples.

    (Sorry…pet peeve.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09245770257633067815 torgana

    I’m speechless. I’m already nervous about what costumes Halloween will bring, and apparently I didn’t worry soon enough. As a HGSE alum, I’m particularly incensed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03048576220830755440 soonerscotty

    I’m not surprised but, still in complete awe of the audacity and stupidity.

    What, if anything, is HUNAP doing??

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14328347379621837240 Anishinaabekwe

    It seems like this Harvard frat is just a bunch of male privileged idiots. Just because you go to an Ivy League school doesn’t mean you have a brain. It means a lot of unearned privilege to me. Especially since a lot of these folks come from extremely wealthy families and are often very racist.

  • http://openid.aol.com/Nentuaby Nentuaby

    Is it a surprise this is tolerated, when the fact that it’s a “clever” variant on “Bros and Hos” is taken for granted? Because of course that isn’t VAST, GALLOPING MISOGYNY even without a racist component.

    And, of course, we’re all really glad it wasn’t intended to hurt anyone. That helps a whole lot.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16067001413974796180 Newt

    I just wanted to say thank you for your repetition of the main points of this blog. My gut totally agrees with what you write about, but I try to be intellectual about my beliefs, too, and your posts help me figure out why I feel the way I do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16581414874391956648 Emma

    I really feel for you on this one, because this account of racism has faces to it; people that are a part of a community which unfortunately are mostly equally ignorant people, despite attending a prestigious university.
    I think it’s easier to deal with when commercialization drives racism (since we know capitalism doesn’t discriminate; anyone can be a victim), but when it’s on a small scale like this and it’s obvious that individual people just really aren’t conscious of how their actions and words hurt others…that’s really depressing.
    however, it’s just another example of white privilege; if society tells you that you are superior because of your race/background/etc (and the media ensures white people are portrayed as superior), then you are going to act as if you are superior and entitled to whatever you can get your hands on.

    sometimes I feel lucky that, being white, I come from a working class family and have had to struggle for everything, because I don’t have that feeling of entitlement. I’m glad I was bullied in school for being ‘weird’ and TOO white (I’m really pale…I’m english!), because I’ve been excluded from ‘normal’ white society, and that has allowed me to see how incredibly f**ked up that society is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17100319787566626697 BrittBritt

    I find it fairly interesting that this event hadn’t gotten the larger media attention that UCSD’s “Compton Cookout” had gotten.

    but then again, native peoples are seen as non-existent. =(

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05649691973524692624 Greg

    American melting pot theory abhors anything culturally derivitive from the whole. Perhaps there is a valid arguement for immigrants assimilating to a decidedly “American” culture, but that is an altogether different subject. However, it’s the persistent mentality of colonialism that seeks to destroy by exploitation and turn cultural differences against indigenous peoples and in it’s wake picks up the broken pieces to be tossed in that very crucible. It’s tragic that distinction isn’t clearly made in Americans minds. Incredible that most can fathom what an invasion of the Borg from Star Trek fame would amount to, but that is in essence what happened to natives on this continent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01356434544879240399 Raven

    The “clever” play on words is insidious and exceedingly harmful. It casually links nationhood with “hos”, which as we all know, is the short form for Whore or prostitute. Using Navajos in this context then asserts a connection between the nation as a whole and its women who, as implied in this context, are all whores or prostitutes. Indigenous and minority women are already dehumanized and sexualized the extent that our “disappearances” go unnoticed, while every blond white female that goes missing becomes a worldwide phenomenon. So was this party not intended to hurt anyone or to be offensive when the images so blatently asserted are the conquering “brothers” and the Indigenous whores? The jew/nazi analogy is brilliant at exposing the latent violence and hatred at the core of this party message.

  • http://openid.aol.com/arilouskiff Arilou

    Just a nitpick: Conquistadors did indeed reach up into the american southwest, Cabeza de Vaca is one example, Francisco Coronado another. I’m not sure if the Navajos inhabited the area at that point though (the Columbian Exchange pretty much redecorated the entire ethnic and cultural map of the Americas far beyond the actual reach of the conquerors)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09736884546529132527 Edgar

    Annie, what do you mean, even if it wasn’t at that scale. The Jewish Community still exists. Where are the Aztecs? Where is the native way of life. Jews still have a Country, Natives don’t. The natives of all the Americas got it really bad compared to anyone else.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06746164758130418467 iroquo1s

    @Annie – I sincerely hope when you commented “totally agree with your holocaust comparison – even if it wasnt on the scale” that you meant that the Holocaust of the 1930s – 1940s in Europe had a significantly smaller body count than the genocide that took place in the Americas. Considering that Columbus & his crew have a body count of roughly 8 million Tainos between 1492 – 1520, then yes, the European Holocaust which targeted & claimed the lives of Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, & anyone else the NAZIs deemed undesirable in addition to Jews is not on the same scale at all.

    Per their own accounts, documented by sailors, soldiers, Columbus himself, & religious missionaries brought from Spain to convert the savages they routinely: held mass hangings, roasted the Tainos on spits, burned them at the stake, used live infants & children to feed their dogs, practiced swordsmanship by holding contests to see who could decapitate or bisect a live Taino with one blow, enslaved, and kept up to 5 women each as concubines. The list of atrocities goes on & on. It would be pretty difficult to find anything else that is on that scale & that’s just the Columbus experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08568353418292688920 Mike

    I agree the Harvard people are awful.

    BUT Conquistadors traveled and established outposts as far North as San Francisco.Mexico/Spain “owned” all of the western Americas (theoretically up to and including what is now Canada). Historically, conquistadors in what is now Arizona did not initially encounter either Navajos or Apaches (same linguistic /cultural group – though they hate each other). Archaeologists have suggested this is because these groups were still traveling west from what is now Texas at the time of the earliest incursions. As this conflicts with both Native groups oral and cultural histories, and may possibly be used to strip them of even more legal rights, it is generally accepted that the conquistadors were not paying much attention.

    Either way, the various native and colonial groups did intersect throughout the pre-American Civil War period. The history of Spain in the Americas is often ignored in the USA, much to the detriment of Hispanic speaking peoples (only white people get colonialist heroes), a full understanding of atrocities against Natives (who Spain systematically destroyed and enslaved), and an understanding of the complicity of the Catholic Church at the time.

    So the Harvard people’s logic and historicity can’t be faulted.

    Their characters, decency, common sense, integrity, empathy, sympathy, and humanity however are seriously questionable. I hope this gets out and none of them are ever employed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12015852046857277742 Reema B.

    Wow, this is just horrific and disgusting. “Harvard” students huh? It’s only a name and in no way a mark of intelligence and sophistication as how this blog entry shows.