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Alleged ‘Cowboys and Indians’ Party Leads to Diversity Conversations at OU

Rumors of a planned Alpha Tau Omega “Cowboys and Indians” party on the University of Oklahoma campus is prompting new diversity initiatives.

Rumors of a planned Alpha Tau Omega “Cowboys and Indians” party on the University of Oklahoma campus is prompting new diversity initiatives after students submitted a diversity petition to university officials on Friday, January 23.

Although university and fraternity officials investigated the matter and determined there were no plans for such an event, the incident prompted OU Ph.D. student Ashley McCray and several others to submit the petition anyway.

In the document, McCray and others demand OU Student Life create an official policy banning themed parties that encourage cultural appropriation, or acts that exploit another culture’s true history, customs and beliefs. In addition, students wanted a public statement issued to the university community that the policy would be effective immediately.

OU Student Life director Kristen Partridge moved quickly to address the group’s concerns, assuring them that a new policy was not needed, as students are already protected by the university’s broad discrimination policy. However, she did agree that a statement needed to be issued to the OU community reminding students about the policies that address cultural discrimination, which is forthcoming.

“We’re on the same team with this,” Partridge said. “We don’t tolerate it.”

Partridge also confirmed that additional changes would be made.

Not only has OU Student Life agreed to reinforce the discrimination policy on campus, but it will also work to increase diversity education through new initiatives.

These efforts will include new mandatory diversity trainings for incoming freshman and staff, diversity projects at Camp Crimson and the creation of a diversity awareness campaign similar to the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign at Ohio University.

RELATED: We’re a Culture, Not a Costume Campaign Features Native American

For Native American students like McCray, it is a step in the right direction.

“I think tackling it from both ends is crucial because new students come in each year, many who may have had little interaction with other cultures or may be coming to this campus with a previously established racist mentality that causes a lot of harm to non-white students,” McCray said. “On the same token, we have a lot of faculty who are complacent in their secure positions and are unwilling to check their privilege by admitting that they still have a lot to learn.”

McCray’s petition came one day after she was sent a screenshot of a conversation between two unidentified individuals on the social application Yik Yak.

In the conversation, the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity is the location given for a party starting at 10 p.m. One individual then asks the other if they should dress up as either a cowboy or an Indian. McCray indicated she was also told that the party was meant for the night of January 23.

McCray forwarded the screenshot to American Indian Student Life Director Lindy Waters, who then contacted Partridge.

Partridge immediately began an investigation, contacting Alpha Tau Omega and Associate Director of Fraternity and Sorority Student Life Jill Tran to determine the validity of the allegations.

Alpha Tau Omega President Anthony Losole was quick to dispel the allegations as false. “I would never condone any kind of event with a theme that would offend anyone or a certain group of people,” Losole said via email on Saturday, January 24. “We have members of all ethnicities in our chapter, so this theme would have offended them as well as the OU community.”

After talking with Alpha Tau Omega, Partridge also consulted with the presidents of the Interfraternity Council, Multicultural Greek Council, National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Panhellenic Association and determined the allegations were indeed false.

University vice president for Student Affairs Clarke Stroud praised Partridge and OU Student Life for their quick response.

“Kristen and her staff jumped on it immediately, and we weren’t able to substantiate that this party was ever going to take place,” Stroud said.

For McCray, the incident is simply another reason for OU to take greater notice of issues affecting Native Americans on campus, which she indicates has been lacking during her time at the university.

“I am really passionate about racial justice on our campus and I have been working in this vein for the past couple of years,” McCray said. “Since I am Oglala Lakota and Absentee Shawnee, I am particularly invested in issues that affect and touch Native students and the Native community at large.”

This incident takes place during a time of heightened scrutiny and attention to cultural appropriation, particularly in the form of entities that use Native American mascots.

Just down the highway from the university’s Norman campus, Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City voted in December to drop their “Redskins” moniker at the urging of many parents, students and educators. The University of Oklahoma eliminated its own Native American mascot “Little Red” in April 1970.

RELATED: Cheers, Applause Erupt as OK City School Board Votes to Scrap Redskins Mascot

As the Internet and social media continue to grow, so do the number of Native Americans voicing their displeasure.

The Twitter hashtag #NotYourMascot has become a bold statement for Native Americans eager to banish misrepresentations of their culture, particularly portrayals by the Washington Redskins. The hashtag, which tied at number two on Utah State University’s 2014 Digital Trend of the Year list, also appeared on the student petition submitted by McCray.