At Dartmouth, Apology for “Cowboys & Indians” Costume Party

By on November 13, 2006

The Dartmouth reports that last weekend, the Dartmouth crew team’s themed formal party at the “FUEL Dance and ‘Club’ Space” in the Center for Student Life on campus sparked an incident between the team and another student organization, resulting in an apology from the crew team.  
 
The formal’s theme was “Cowboys and Indians,” and members of the crew team dressed accordingly. At the same time as the crew formal, the Lambda Upsilon Lambda (LUL) fraternity, a Latino organization, was also having an event in the student life center. As the night progressed, attendees of Lambda Upsilon Lambda’s event noticed rowers wearing “stereotypical Indian dress,” and decided to walk down the stairs to FUEL to investigate. According to the LUL eventgoers, crew team members heckled LUL attendees attempting to enter the formal, telling them to “Get off [their] pedestal.”
 
Frustrated, the LUL attendees went back upstairs and recruited the help of Associate Dean of Student Life Alexander Hernandez-Siegel, who then checked out the crew formal himself. When Hernandez-Siegel arrived, he called Safety and Security, Dartmouth’s campus police. The dean’s call was reportedly prompted by concerns about underage drinking. However, the team’s response belies that explanation: members of the crew team apologized to the LUL attendees and Hernandez-Siegel and some partygoers changed out of their “Indian” costumes. Both events resumed without further incident, an outcome that would seem unlikely had the underlying issue been underage drinking.   
 
Possibly further undercutting the dean’s assertion that Safety and Security was called because of underage drinking is the fact that the crew team’s captain issued a formal apology last Thursday for “any offense caused by the event,” and announced the team’s attendance at a “dinner discussion on Saturday night regarding the history of the Indian mascot at Dartmouth,” as well as a “meeting with American Indian leaders on campus.” Of course, these apologies are completely unrelated to underage drinking, and indicate that perhaps what was really at issue were the team’s costumes. In any event, despite the apology, members of the campus community have voiced their displeasure with the events of the past week, finding in them evidence of persistent racism at Dartmouth.   
 
To be clear, the LUL attendees certainly have a right to complain about the “Indian” costumes, just as surely as the crew team has a right to wear them. And of course, the team also enjoys the right to apologize for wearing them, if they are so inclined. That said, free speech supporters at Dartmouth should be concerned about the possible role of school administrators in bringing pressure to bear on students wearing costumes found objectionable by others. As the annual resurgence of Halloween costume-related free speech incidents should aptly illustrate, school administrators are often all too eager to punish those students who choose to wear potentially offensive costumes—despite the fact that doing so is a clear exercise of free expression.  
 
In light of last week’s newspaper burning at Dartmouth, where students burned copies of The Dartmouth containing a cartoon they found offensive, members of the Dartmouth community should be advised that despite the school’s “Green” rating on FIRE’s Spotlight, the potential for abuse of free speech rights on campus is always present.    

Schools: Dartmouth College