On Friday April 11th, members of the Sigma Kappa Sorority at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte performed a “Disney Dancing with the Princesses,” for an event called "Air Band Dance," part of the campus' Greek Week activities. The presentation included a Pocahontas dance in which sorority members wore in Indian costumes and were painted with "tribal" markings.
Photographs of the event hit social media and drew criticism from the school’s Native students as well as at a National level. In response to the event, Arthur Jackson, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs issued a statement via the UNCC Public Relations website that read, in part:
Regrettably, as part of the Pocahontas dance, the dancers wore Native clothing and displayed tribal-like markings on their faces and arms. The symbolic representations proved offensive to Native Americans in North Carolina and nationally, some of whom have contacted the University or the Sigma Kappa sorority.
We apologize. Although we have every reason to believe that the sorority intended no offense, we consider this a teachable moment for them and for our entire campus community to deepen our sensitivity on issues of race and culture, and to ensure that we maintain a welcoming campus environment for all people.
Though Jackson wrote that the incident is a teachable moment and apologized on behalf of UNCC, members of the Native community and students on campus are not satisfied with the response and claim the sorority has not taken any responsibility. Others have claimed the atmosphere at UNCC and on social media has been hostile and that more needs to be done to avoid such incidents in the future.
According to Evan Mathis, Cherokee, a UNCC Student and Vice President of the UNCC Native American Student Organization (NASO), the Director of Greek Life Michelle Guobadia had originally approved of the costumes and was not aware that the NASO was an active organization. Mathis also says, he is “personally infuriated” at the incident.
“Blackface has already been an issue on this campus, and now we are dealing with redface. There seems to be a cultural double standard in the Charlotte area, as blackface is widely unacceptable, but it felt as though redface was shrugged off with no consequences,” says Mathis.
Rebecca LaClaire, a volunteer at the Metrolina Native American Association (MNAA), which had responded to the incident, also offered her comments to ICTMN.
“The students on campus have been horrible with their responses. They can't understand how this can be offensive to Native Americans. I thought the apology was an insult. When MNAA responded we specifically said the young ladies have learned their lesson, but our main concern was with the administration and the staff.”
Mathis says that though he may be infuriated, other students voiced their stance in support of the sorority on a social media site known as Yik Yak, in which students anonymously posted several comments.
Comments included the following:
"A sorority should not have to apologize for a segment of airband that is Pocahontas themed. America is creating a generation of wimps. Sincerely, a student who is part Cherokee Indian."
"Like if a black frat referenced any Disney movie that had white main characters (pretty much all of them) would that be considered racist? Of course not."
“Who cares if people are offended, someone is ALWAYS offended."
Another comment stated, "Everyone has Sigma Kappa’s back besides the handful of offended Native Americans and some white people who don't even matter…"
Chloe Watson, a UNCC junior and the NASO President says “Some students don't see this as an issue and feel like they were just portraying what they saw in the movie.”
Though Watson says she appreciates the school's efforts to apologize, there are things that can be done to stop such incidents in the future. “I think that all we can do is continue to educate people and teach them about Native American culture. When something is offensive, we should let them know. What they choose to do with the things we teach them is a personal choice.”
Mathis agrees with Watson that efforts to educate should be in place.
“What I would personally like to see is a cultural sensitivity course for the women of Sigma Kappa, and possibly all members of Greek Life. This issue could have been easily avoided, and with adequate education, it would not be an issue in the future. Ignorance is not an excuse, as the members of Sigma Kappa are all adults, and should know how to conduct proper research as they are all enrolled students at UNCC.”
Though ICTMN has reached out for comments, the Sigma Kappa organization has not returned calls or emails at the time of publication.
“I am upset that UNCC Sigma Kappa sorority has not issued an apology on their behalf,” says Mathis.
“It feels as though they are only concerned with the fact that their sorority has received bad publicity. The only apology that was given was by the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. In this apology, it felt as though he dismissed the actions of the girls by saying they meant no offense. However, they did offend people, and they still don't seem to understand why,” he said.
“Our school is directly responsible for this incident by not putting a stop to it when it first came up, and they should also be responsible for adequate education for these women, as our school prides itself on being inclusive and culturally diverse.”
Mathis feels the sorority isn't responding in hopes that the issue will go away. “I was shown an email by a member of Sigma Kappa that warned them not to talk with any publicity that might come their way. Thus, they are trying to ignore the issue altogether.”
After a meeting on Thursday, the NASO has decided to organize an educational program for next week and again when the new fall 2014 semester starts. The program will discuss stereotypes and educate about contemporary Native Americans today and why the Air Band incident was wrong, Members of the UNC Charlotte community are to be invited.