Members of the sorority Delta Delta Delta posed for a photo during the Cowboys and Indians theme party.

Students to Apologize for Cowboys and Indians Party

Simon Moya-Smith

Some things in this life are entirely unacceptable. Yet offending the American Indian community does not appear to be among them.

Case in point: Last month, two University of Denver Greek Life chapters, Lambda Chi Alpha and Delta Delta Delta, hosted a cowboys and Indians theme party where students donned loincloth-like miniskirts, painted faces, phony-feathered headdresses, and faux buskin bedizens.

Photographs of the foul festivity surfaced on Facebook the following morning. It wasn’t long before the acrimonious images made their way to the inbox of Viki Eagle, co-chair of the Native Student Alliance at DU.

“This proves to me that our society and our fellow students still view us as nonexistent,” said Eagle, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. “[Our peers] depicted us as mascots or a Halloween costume.”

Eagle said she immediately contacted Carl Johnson, director of campus activities at DU. Johnson stated that he was unaware of the event and referred to the party as “offensive” and “unacceptable.”

“We’ll have a swift and severe response to those groups,” he said.

Although Johnson did not release the details concerning how his office will respond to the offense, he did agree to Eagle’s request that both Greek organizations publicly apologize to the members of the Native Student Alliance.

The public apology is scheduled for 4 p.m. today at the University of Denver near Sturm College of Law.

The Native Student Alliance has erected a tipi on the campus green in preparation for the apology.

Dr. Tink Tinker, professor at the Iliff School of Theology and a citizen of the Wazhazhe Osage Nation, is slated to speak about respect and solidarity prior to the apology.

“The chapters appear to be willing to participate in these events and are taking it seriously,” wrote Megan Pendly Pickett, assistant director of campus activities, in an email last week to the Native Student Alliance.

Yet some American Indian students feel that the theme party is just another blistering offense to add to DU’s lengthy pattern of racial insensitivity toward its American Indian community.

Amanda Williams, 18, a member of the Navajo and San Carlos Apache tribes, said that last year DU had planned to title their homecoming parade “How the West Was Won” until the Native Student Alliance petitioned and protested against the name.

And according to Williams, on the night of the Cowboys and Indians party, a classmate and dorm neighbor had knocked at her door and asked her if she had “anything Indian” he could wear to the party.

Williams said she felt angry and minimized by her classmate’s ignorance and that she’s losing faith in the university as being an “inclusive” campus.

“(This) has changed my perspective on the DU community,” she said. “It’s not one I want to be a part of anymore.”

According to Pickett, the leadership of both Greek communities are baffled as to why an apology is warranted at all. They don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong, which begs the question: Will the apology be sincere? If not, why even ask for an apology?

Well, folks, it’s the principle of the matter.

It’s imperative that non-Indian people, especially the young generation, learn that such parties are dehumanizing and objectifying and that American Indian regalia is spiritual garb and not a costume.

Eo ipso, swilling booze while donning a chief’s headdress is the equivalent of quaffing Vodka while wearing a Pope’s miter. It’s disrespectful.

And maybe the apology won’t be sincere. But at least it’ll make the issue salient and, if anything else, it’ll start a dialogue between two communities of differing ideologies. There’s nothing wrong with at least talking.

Representatives of both Lambda Chi Alpha and Delta Delta Delta failed to respond for comment.

Simon Moya-Smith, 28, Oglala Lakota, is a journalist and blogger from Denver and an adviser to the Native Student Alliance at the University of Denver. He helped organize the apology and will speak at the event.

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bertkaulaity's picture
Submitted by bertkaulaity on
This confirms it for me that racism is learned at a very young age, the fuel is our sad history, racism is breed into our DNA our skin, be it red, yellow, black, or white, it's good for our young to deal with this now in a peaceful manner, we can't go back and undo what has been done. We need to keep our blood and spirit strong so our future depends on it, and please stay in school young ones!!!!;0)

elizabethjaenicke's picture
Submitted by elizabethjaenicke on
Thank you, Simon. Your words here in the article and yesterday on campus were eloquent, intentional, and in need of being heard. In support and respect, Elizabeth- Social Action Chair Person, Iliff School of Theology

ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
I certainly hope that the sororities, Lambda Chi Alpha and Delta Delta Delta make a serious and sincere apology and listen with respect to Simon Moya-Smith during this event at DU. It's sad that people really don't realize the disrespect towards Native American's that these types of parties have. I honestly don't think they intend to be disrepectful and don't realize they are doing so until it's pointed out to them. They just "come-up" with a theme and go with it, not realizing the implications. Children play Cowboys and Indians and don't realize what they are doing. Perhaps having a requirement, as part of every college and university in North America, should be a required course on Native American history, culture and how not to offend Native American's. I think it's a lack of knowledge that should be taught. It could go a long ways towards how non-Native American's view Native Americans. Education of all the graphic details of what happened and has continued to happen to Native American's in all of North America could be a way of gaining respect for Native American's who actually survived from the 1500's when white men began to try to exterminate Native American's up to today's attitudes, which are still poor in many areas. It's a sad state of affairs.

beaver's picture
Submitted by beaver on
Oh come on! For one, we're Indians and not "Native Americans" (e.g. this is not Native American Country Today but Indian Country Today). And two, when did we become so super-sensitive? They are kids having a party. Turn them into our allies. Don't force them to apologize and then resent us. Certainly kick the rear ends of those who intentionally mean to be racist but these are frat boys and sorority chicks. They have fun. They usually aren't very smart. I am sure they didn't intend any offense or disrespect. The college-educated neikomichanwas (Indians who look White) come down to our reservations once a year and tell us we should be offended by this and that, the right word for us is Native American and mascots are offensive and other stupid things). Don't let the neikomichanwas change our real culture, which is full of humor and jest and acceptance and fun. So let's extend our culture to those Greeks and let them have their silly ideas of fun too.

MrLaw's picture
Submitted by MrLaw on
Wow, I did not expect that to be so badly blown out of proportion. Would the French complain if people went dressed in a striped top and wore a beret? No. What about an English party with Bowler hats and tweed? No. Get over yourselves.

DU Alum's picture
DU Alum
Submitted by DU Alum on
I'm not saying that the party was a good idea, but we need to be careful throwing around words like "racism"...this is a very strong word, and means that people have shown hatred or intolerance of another race. Was the party in bad taste? Probably. But I don't see how this as showing hatred or intolerance....I do not think the party was meant to belittle a culture, and calling this party "racist" is an affront to people who have REALLY felt the sting of racism. People dress up as priests or popes for Halloween ALL THE TIME...and yet I've never heard the church or even anyone of the Catholic faith complain, because they understand the context (people are just dressing up for general fun, not to poke fun) and they realize that there are much bigger problems in the world that need their attention. Instead of pushing back (e.g. asking for apologies, pushing to get rid of Denver Boone, etc.), which create an even bigger divide...why can't we do CONSTRUCTIVE things that help educate people so that they understand your culture better? This is why we have things like Black History Month...because it works much better to educate people and create understanding that to yell "stop being racist!" at people. Look, the history of our country (and our world) is littered with nasty events. Stop holding those of European descent accountable for what our forefathers did...believe me, we are not judging you based on what some Native Americans did 100+ years ago (as there was plenty done by BOTH SIDES that I'm sure we all regret). That was then, this is now. I am not saying that you shouldn't fight for better policies, conditions, and even understanding of your people and culture, but making people at DU feel ashamed for a party they threw or a mascot they love isn't the best way to further your cause. The path forward is not created by pushing back on the other side, it is created by pulling everyone forward together. Imagine if instead of creating this outcry against the party, you simply responded by saying "There seems to be some misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Native American culture at DU, so the Native Student Alliance would like to invite all students to an event where you can have fun and learn about our culture"...imagine how much better that would go over and how much more that would do for your cause? Most importantly, I sincerely hope that you have never been excluded from something at DU because of your race...if this HAS happened, then there truly is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, I always found DU to be an very open community in my time there. However, while there is no excuse for bad taste, there is also no reason to call people "racist" when they were simply not as knowledgeable or sensitive to your culture as you would like. Don't reprimand them.