Earlier this month, the organizers of Claremont McKenna College’s Thursday Night Club parties (TNC) decided to try a new way of choosing a theme for the Nov. 15 event by surveying students and having them vote.
On the ballot were “Thrift Shop,” “Risky Business: CEOs and Office Bros” and “Thanksgiving: Bros, Pilgrims and Navajos.” Some people at the Claremont Colleges and beyond have said that the “Bros, Pilgrims, and Navajos” proposal was insensitive to Native Americans or outright racist.
“Offended doesn’t even begin to really describe it,” Mariah Tso SC ’14 said of her reaction to the theme. Tso is the president of the Indigenous Student Alliance, a 5C student organization, and is herself Diné, or Navajo.
“It’s something that’s like a tool of oppression,” she said. “Those kinds of negative stereotypes work to erase a lot of the actual histories that took place.”
Organizers of the event defended their actions and said they had no intention to offend. They said that attendance at TNC has been lagging, and they wanted to find creative ways to make the party more popular.
The survey, sent out Nov. 9 to the CMC student body, asked students to nominate a theme for the following week’s TNC, instructing students to “Get creative!”
Abby Michaelsen CM ’14, CMC’s Dorm Affairs Chair and the head organizer of TNC events, could not be reached for comment. Michaelson said in her campaign for her elected position that she would make the parties more interesting.
Jessica Barreno CM ’16, one of the organizers of the event, said that the survey got more than 70 responses. After the nominations came in, Barreno said, the organizers “took the top ones and put them out there for the public to vote on.”
A ballot for students to decide on the theme out of the top three nominations was in a CMC Party Inform e-mail that was sent to the student body Nov. 12.
“Thrift Shop,” a reference to a Macklemore song of the same name, won the most votes.
Although the e-mail sent out to the student body used the spelling “Navajo,” Barreno said that the nominations used “Nava-hoe.”
“We really wanted to get away from that connotation, so we phrased it a bit differently,” Barreno said.
“Changing the spelling from Navahoes to Navajos doesn’t change the connotation because phonetically it sounds the same,” said Tso. “If switching the spelling to the j version is supposed to be more ‘accurate’ then I think that this official spelling actually does more damage than the previous one because it strengthens the equivalence of whore with Navajo, an entire Nation of people.”
The idea behind the “Bros, Pilgrims, and Navajos” proposal is not original. The website College Party Guru has a page dedicated to the theme “Colonial Bros and Navahos.”
Tso said that the sexualizing of Native American women is particularly problematic.
“When Native American women are two and a half times more likely than other women to get sexually assaulted in the United States, it’s not acceptable to make that kind of joke,” Tso said.
Tso added that these costumes promote pan-Indianism, or the idea that all American Indians are the same.
“People assume that all Indians live in teepees and wear feather war bonnets,” Tso said. “And when you’re doing that you’re ignoring the vast amount of diversity that’s among American Indian communities.”
Nicholas Romo PZ ’14, a member of the Indigenous Student Alliance, said that people dressing up as American Indians don’t understand the cultural insensitivity of their actions.
“These garments are part of our culture and have a sacred tradition,” Romo said. “Wearing them as a costume is violating our sense of self.”
Tso said the idea that Native Americans are a culture of the past is no excuse for parties like the proposed TNC.
“It eclipses all the contemporary stuff,” she said. “It makes it seem like these things don’t actually matter, because it seems like we’re extinct and hides the fact that these issues are real.”
Eugene Herrod, a former board member of the Southern California Indian Center, said that CMC’s survey indicated a lack of understanding of American Indian issues.
“It’s historically insensitive, and double standards are being used without people realizing it,” Herrod said. “It’s an expression of ignorance.”
“Something needs to change,” he added. “But to effect that change people would roll their eyes and accuse us of trying to be too politically correct.”
Tso attributed what she sees as ignorance to a lack of education about Native American culture.
“If you look at elementary and high school education, it begins with Columbus and ends with Wounded Knee,” she said. “There’s nothing about contemporary issues.”
Barreno said she thought the program and survey idea were harmless.
“Our theme was never meant to insult anyone,” she said. “We were just really set on having a Thanksgiving TNC, and because many of the submissions that had to do with that were worded in that way, we felt it kind of necessary to respond to the student body with what they want.”
“We still kind of framed it in a way to make sure that it didn’t actually insult anyone,” she said. “So far, I haven’t heard any complaints about it.”
Scott Scoggins, Native American Program Coordinator at Pitzer College, said that the proposed theme was hurtful, even if few people spoke out against it.
“We know how powerful imagery has been in history, when people have tried to make another race or culture as less than they are,” Scoggins said. “Imagery is very important in determining what a society as a whole deems normal.”
“We’re fortunate that the faculty here are sensitive to these issues,” he added. “They tend to be more liberal and support causes like this.”
Romo said that he is not surprised that this kind of controversy happened at CMC.
“The average CMC student is not exposed to the same curriculum in racial and cultural issues as students at the other Claremont Colleges,” Romo said. “I would never automatically accuse them of purposefully being malicious to other people, but I urge CMC students to make an effort to address these issues.”