On Nov. 19, I was looking forward to attending a party that Pi Kappa Phi was hosting that night on Central Campus. That is, until my friend nonchalantly texted me that the event’s theme was “Pilgrims and Indians.”
The following is an excerpt from the fraternity’s email invitation: “In 1621 some crazy pilgrims had a pretty brutal harvest. Word on the street was they didn’t have enough food for half the bros in Plymouth. Then some hot natives came along with some extra food.… On Saturday, the brothers of Pi Kappa Phi will be honoring that party spirit. There will be a cornucopia of treats in our modern-day teepee. Tap into your inner pocahotness, wear a few feathers and party like you don’t care if you survive the winter.”
At first, I refused to attend an event that sounded so derogatory toward Native Americans. The fraternity took on a terrible history of colonialism and genocide and turned it into a sexy party theme. The language in their invitation (“hot natives” and “pocahotness”) sexualizes the Native American race. Having learned the theme just hours before the party, it was too late for me to try and stop it. I ultimately decided that if I was going to criticize this party, I had to see it for myself.
It was very disheartening to find my own friends there, dressed in outfits that epitomized an insensitive caricature of Native Americans. Hordes of my peers had faces covered in “war paint” and wore rainbow-colored feathers on their heads. The makeup and costumes I saw were both completely inaccurate and disrespectful. Headdresses and feathers have profound spiritual significance to Native Americans, and mimicking them is extremely offensive. A massive teepee stood outside the party, serving as a photo op for the obnoxiously dressed guests to pose with. Notably, teepees are specific to tribes in the Great Plains and never even existed in Plymouth, Mass. This incorrect and stereotypical dwelling endorsed the misconception that Native Americans have a monolithic culture. It undermined the reality that there are many tribes with diverse and intricate ways of life. If students want to celebrate “giving thanks” and unity, they should not mock and belittle an important part of our community.
This party was bigoted and racist, and such an event would never be tolerated if other races were involved. Would Duke students attend a “master and slave” themed party where guests were invited to wear blackface? How about a party where students dress up like Nazis and Jews? Surely these events would trigger student objection and national media attention, and rightfully so. Yet “Pilgrims and Indians” did not faze Duke University. Students dressed up for fun at the expense of Native Americans, a race that was exploited and exterminated for centuries. The only props missing from the party were smallpox-infected blankets.
Based on the costumes I saw, it seems that Duke students see Native Americans as characters rather than as human beings. Beyond insulting Native Americans, this mentality is problematic because it fuels continued discrimination and hate crimes against Native Americans today. This mindset is especially concerning because there are Native American students at Duke.
Amber Richardson, president of Duke’s Native American Student Alliance, offered this statement: “When I learned about the Pilgrims and Indians party hosted by Pi Kappa Phi, my first reaction was nothing short of pure outrage. It is not only offensive, but deeply saddening that some of my peers have so little respect for Native American culture and identity. Unfortunately, I and many other Native Americans must battle this type of ignorance and disrespect on a daily basis. Because there are very few Natives on Duke’s campus, people may believe that there will be no consequences for these acts of insensitivity. I assure you that those who hold this belief are mistaken. The members of Duke’s chapter of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity should be held accountable for their actions. As president of the Native American Student Alliance, I will enlist the aid and support of the Native community and its allies in addressing this problem and preventing future incidents.”
The president of Pi Kappa Phi did not respond to my email regarding this column. I certainly don’t believe Pi Kapp intended to be malicious with this party, but this kind of ignorance is inexcusable. Everyone who attended this party should feel ashamed. We are students at a prestigious university, and we should know better. As Amber Richardson told me, “[Pi Kappa Phi] is not the first to do something like this, but we will work hard to make them the last.”
Nicole Daniels, Trinity ’14