Last week, several fraternities and sororities at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo hosted a party with the theme “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos”. As word of the party leaked out afterwards, the campus president, faculty, and many students denounced it.
Other students, however, rejected their criticism and dismissed the controversy as unwarranted. Their defenses included: “I don’t think it was meant to be racist.” “There are a lot more offensive themes out there.” “People are too sensitive.” “I don’t think they were purposefully targeting these groups.” “This makes the Greek community look bad for no reason.” And “The fact that this is even an issue is a joke.”
Obviously, associating any people group with prostitution is insulting. In the case of the Navajo (whose actual name for themselves is the Diné; Navajo is a Spanish nickname), it is akin to rubbing salt in old wounds.
Like all Native American groups, the Diné have a long history of suffering at the hands of US policies and prejudices. In 1863, while the Diné were still living traditional lives, gold was suspected on their homeland. Quickly they became the target of a massive US Army operation. Colonel Kit Carson used a scorched earth policy, burning their homes and maize fields and shooting their livestock, to drive the Diné off their land. Eight-thousand Diné were marched, on foot, 400 miles to Bosque Redondo, their reservation/concentration camp. The US Army ordered its troops to “kill or capture all Navajo men you can find in the old Navajo country without proper passports.” A year later, a defiant Navajo leader, known by the whites as Manuelito, snuck into the squalid camp, which was guarded and overseen by US troops, to investigate the conditions. What he found was shocking. Imprisoned in the bleakest of landscapes and divorced from their traditional ways of living, his people moved listlessly among their hovels. The trees had all been chopped down to build the soldiers’ fort. The Diné walked miles to dig mesquite from the desert for firewood. The acres of corn failed in the poor soil. The water was alkaline and difficult to drink. Dysentery and other illnesses were rampant. The people were dependent upon military rations, which were in short supply and sometimes moldy or infested with rat droppings. The manager of the fort was selling government issued cattle and grain on the side for personal profit. Diné children picked thru manure piles in corrals, looking for undigested kernels of corn. Teen girls prostituted themselves to the soldiers for meal tickets. Some died during botched abortions. Syphilis was detected in fully half of the army soldiers. Nearly one third of the Diné died here in the span of five years.
So for the frats to equate the Diné with prostitution is a bit like a German frat equating Jews with overcrowded train cars or large ovens. It’s probably safe to assume the frat boys have some vague awareness of general oppression and injustice against Indians in the distant past, but they probably had no knowledge of the details and certainly assumed all such persecution was a thing of the past.
Here they would be wrong. Through the 1950s, many (most?) Diné children were removed from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they were stripped of their traditional clothes, hair styles, and names and re-molded into white culture. They were forbidden to speak their language. Thousands died of tuberculosis in the schools. Through the 1970s, a disproportionate number of Diné children were removed from their homes by child welfare authorities, keen to protect them from poverty, and sent to be raised by white families. The US’s nuclear arsenal was built with uranium mined on Navajo land. To this day, un-remediated mine waste spreads cancer among them. If these conditions existed elsewhere, it would require an emergency response. In fact, an emergency response was mounted when it was discovered the uranium-tainted cement was used to build schools in Grand Junction, Colorado. Most Navajo homes have not even been tested. Persistent poverty on the reservation leads to high rates of teen pregnancy and some of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the nation.
The Diné are acutely aware of all this. Native American students, faculty, and those studying their history are likely aware of most of this. The Cal Poly frat boys probably are not.
But does that fully explain their actions? I cannot imagine them having a themed party mocking gays, Jews, Asians, African Americans, or a wide range of other groups. Why do they think they get a free pass with the Diné?
I’m guessing they are not cruel enough, and have little motive, to deliberately make fun of past Diné suffering. They are probably clueless in that regard. I’m also guessing they are not deliberately making fun of promiscuous Navajo women that they know. They probably don’t know any. Furthermore, they probably assume there are none at Cal Poly SLO, and assume that no one will care if they equate their name with prostitution. They might even believe that the Diné no longer exist. Thus, they are deliberately targeting the Diné specifically because they think they can get away with it. For them, the Diné are expendable. As for rubbing salt in old wounds, they don’t know about that and they don’t want to know. As for the student that said, “The fact that this is even an issue is a joke”, the truth is the fact that he thinks this is a joke is an issue. The Diné do exist.